Dressmakers of the 19th century displayed their wares on inanimate dolls or mannequins. The early 20th century, however saw the birth of the modelling profession, when so-called ‘living mannequins’ began to show garments to prospective clients in the salons of Parisian couturiers.
These ladies were mechanical in their modelling styles, staring straight ahead as if oblivious of onlookers. If asked for their names, they would cite the style that they were wearing. They were slender and supple but not skinny, as the idealised female shape remained statuesque until the start of World War I.
The war brought social changes, and a growing interest in dance and sport, also for women. It became fashionable to be tall and willowy, and professional models were in the forefront of this trend. Journalists and the public were quick to complain that they ‘did not resemble ordinary women’.
The first fashion models represented a range of body shapes and dimensions, but the increasing standardisation of mass-produced clothing sizes led to a corresponding uniformity among models.
In Paris, Coco Chanel chose models of a similar lean build to herself, and British designer Lucile advertised in an American newspaper for “the thinnest model in the world”. The girl she found, Arjamand, however so disliked her own appearance that she was on a constant diet to try and gain weight. The craze for extremely thin, androgynous models lasted from 1924 until 1928, after which the boyish shape fell out of favour. For the next three decades, feminine curves held sway and the hour glass figure was much admired.
The pendulum swung the other way again in the 1960’s when waif-like fashion models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton caught the limelight. Overnight grown women tried to attain the body shape of young girls (Twiggy was only 15 when she became famous, and retired at age 19!) It is no co-incidence that Weight Watchers was founded in 1963.
From then onwards, thin became the preferred norm in the fashion industry, to which the workout culture of the eighties added ‘toned’; the dangerous result being models ingesting insufficient calories to sustain themselves, let alone the level of exercise they were embarking on, and consequently having to resort to diet pills and other chemical solutions for energy. French fashion model Isabelle Caro went public with her battle against Anorexia Nervosa in 2007 to create public awareness, but sadly succumbed to the disease a year later.
Paradoxically, as the general population was growing larger, to the extent of a ‘fat epidemic’ being predicted, models were becoming thinner. In the 1980’s the Body Mass Index* of the average American woman (age 20-74) was 26.6, while that of supermodel Cindy Crawford was 19. In the next decade, the average woman’s BMI rose to 28.1, compared to Kate Moss’s BMI of 16.
Thankfully the fashion world is coming to its senses. In April this year, France joined Italy, Spain and Israel in passing legislation to prohibit the employment of models measuring below a certain BMI (18 for France, Italy and Spain, and 18.5 for Israel). This is not only to protect the health of models themselves, but also to ensure that the message about body image going out from the fashion industry is a healthy and empowering one. Although some have called this discrimination against naturally thin models, or even restriction of designers’ freedom, there is little doubt that the pressure of public opinion against anorexic models will lead to other fashion capitals following suit.
What this means for us average consumers, is that we will now at least be able to form an idea of how an outfit will look on us as opposed to on a stick figure.
* Body Mass Index is calculated as follows: body mass in kg divided by the square of the body height in m .
A healthy BMI is deemed to fall within the range of 18.5kg/m2 – 25 kg/m2