When I left my first model agency, I was 15 and had made the sum total of £27. This amount – initially queried, later explained via a spreadsheet from the agency breaking down everything they had deducted from my earnings over the past two years, including the cost of producing portfolios, couriering of photographs, and travel expenses – was just enough to buy me a pair of vintage emerald-coloured shoes with gold buckles on the toes. Like a more sorted Dorothy, I clicked my heels and realised I was happier at home.
I have told this story often, using it to illustrate the financial vagaries of a once laughably unregulated industry that I entered at the sapling age of 13. Truthfully though, at the point of leaving that first agency, I didn’t really mind how much I had made. Although money had certainly been a factor in my conception of what modelling offered, that particular aspect still seemed like a reward belonging to my adult future – or at the very least to a 16-year-old self who’d be old enough to do catwalk shows.
My immediate concerns were related to other things the industry had promised. These were harder to articulate, tied up in the sort of power rarely handed to an adolescent girl. Power embodied in the prestige of stepping into a world that my friends and I aspired to be a part of, currently only accessible via the magazines we read. Power that came through proximity to luxury (what’s more exciting at 14 than being zipped up in a black Chanel dress?) and the potential success that, my agency told me, was likely just ahead. Power in being ushered behind the curtain to witness fashion’s inner workings, full of sights such as studio lights and make-up stations and racks of clothes with lines of designer heels beneath them.
Of course, this was not real power – more a kind of temporary status acquired by riding on the coat-tails of an industry where currency came in many forms. The chance to take part in the fantasy seemed reward enough.
It has only been since reading Giulia Mensitieri’s The Most Beautiful Job in the World, translated into English by Natasha Lehrer, that I feel I’ve found the right words for my youthful modelling experiences. Mensitieri’s book, an anthropological study of the fashion industry, contrasts fashion’s shimmering veneer with the hierarchies, financial precarity, and job instability that have helped build and buttress this expensive world. Through interviews with models, stylists, designers, interns, and others in the fashion ecosystem, Mensitieri scrubs away the industry’s “dream sheen” to pinpoint the economic and social forces at play in this sphere, highlighting a rather tense relationship between commerce and creativity in the process.
There are plenty of insights here, but first, some caveats. The book’s main focus is French high fashion, and Mensitieri’s research primarily relies on off-the-record interviews, from which she draws her own (occasionally generalised) conclusions. It is also based on her PhD, which was completed several years ago, thus forming a 2010s snapshot of an ever-changing industry. However, its arguments are compelling. Mensitieri skilfully shows how fashion thrives on its own image of inaccessible glamour: not just selling aspirational fantasy via luxury goods, but also taking advantage of those who produce and help to sell these goods by making them feel “lucky to be here” in this world of dream-making.
The word “dream” recurs regularly. “The dream is the engine of fashion,” Mensitieri writes. This dream suggests both a form of vision and a state of ambition. The dream is what fashion claims distinguishes it from being “just business”. In its extravagancies of imagination and beauty, it aspires to the same elevated status as art. Sometimes, it achieves it – or, at the very least, offers other wonderful qualities such as transformation, or ingenuity, or the pleasure of a perfect garment. But this dream also leads to disappointment and exploitation. For many who work in fashion, their dream – the dream of making it big and attaining some combination of creative freedom, financial success, and impressed attention – always lingers out of reach.
As a teenager, I was delighted to help manufacture the dream. It felt like a natural extension of my love of dressing up, combined with all those added bonuses of being immediately differentiated from my peers and simultaneously initiated into this seemingly glittering sphere. Of course, my initiation only came because I stood at the strange (and by strange, I mean vastly prejudiced) sweet spot between inherited genetics and contemporary beauty ideals. My presence there was one of colluding in an image of unattainability: modelling adult women’s clothes when I was still a hipless teenager.
Later, as a near adult myself, I found that I hadn’t quite escaped the dream’s clutches. I joined another agency and stayed for several years. This time when I left, money was actually an issue, given that I now had rent and bills that couldn’t be paid with a free handbag or a nice-looking editorial fashion shoot. As Mensitieri writes, in fashion, visibility becomes its own type of remuneration. One can feel they are achieving some measure of success because more photos exist of them, or more eyes are on them, regardless of how that translates financially.
Visibility is both fashion’s measure and beating pulse. Mensitieri borrows sociologist and former model Ashley Mears’s notion of the “jackpot”: the idea that fashion is a game with a set of rules. If these rules are followed, say, by being seen at the right parties, maintaining a desirable image, working lots for free, and then being cast in a high-profile catwalk show paying very little, one might be rewarded – if one is very lucky – with a lucrative ad campaign. The luck element is crucial: plenty play by the rules; only a chosen few “win”. But in this pursuit of the prize, fashion finds itself with a hungry workforce willing to participate for scraps – or for the mere accolade of working with a renowned photographer or designer.
When I left that second agency in my early twenties I felt like I’d lost. I hadn’t landed any work with well-known brands or magazines, let alone anything as notable as a campaign. Instead, I’d had one or two well-paid jobs, followed by month upon month of nothing. The “jackpot” theory remains powerful because everyone thinks they are the exception. People buy lottery tickets in the hope of becoming millionaires. I didn’t like fashion’s rules, but naively thought I had a chance at gaming the system. I remained compelled by its whispers – of prestige, of bestowed glamour, of participation in creative greatness – even as I recognised its more unsavoury realities.
That tightrope act of awareness is one I still wobble along. In fact, a decade on from when I bought my bright green shoes, such concerns remain prescient. I now model very sporadically, having had a little more financial and creative success with it this past year or two, but I sometimes feel ambivalent about doing so. I still love the thrill of visual transformation, but what ideals and messages do I reinforce? How do I square my own appreciation of work that is physical and collaborative, that centres me in my body, surrounded by people, rather than hunched alone over a laptop, with these various ethical concerns? Especially when some of those concerns relate directly to the dopamine hit I then get from posting the results on my Instagram, as if to say that I, too, am still the occasional beneficiary of fashion’s glitter?
My own quandaries aside, it seems at least that the fashion industry has seen some welcome change over the 12 years I’ve anxiously zigzagged in and out of it. Such change has been slow and driven by a few key players while others intransigently drag their feet, but one only has to look at the past few seasons of catwalks and campaigns to finally see a number of designers with much more inclusive approaches to casting in their shows and campaigns, not only in terms of body size and skin colour, but also age. There’s a very long way to go, with the stark divide in brands’ approaches to this year’s political and public health crises suggesting that progress is neither guaranteed nor unified. But it’s a start.
Now, too, the relevance of Mensitieri’s book also extends far beyond fashion, to apply to so many of us, in so many ways. It continues to resonate in an increasingly precarious economy in which multiple industries frame access to their world as a rare privilege, and finds new ground, too, in an online world. Social media places both attention and appearance at a premium, with one’s ability to build their image into a brand having exploded. An obvious upside to this, and one which has undoubtedly influenced some of fashion’s better changes, is a wildly overdue widening of beauty’s previously fiercely guarded parameters. But it also means that an even greater value has been attached to visibility – the “dream sheen” extending and transforming rather than dimming, requiring more scrutiny than ever before.
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