Elizabeth Wissinger is a Professor at the City University of New York Graduate School and Center, as well as BMCC, where she teaches Fashion Studies and Sociology. Her research focuses on technology, fashion, and embodiment. Professor Wissinger has lectured on topics related to gender and race, media, bodies, labor, and fashion in the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe. She is also the co-author of the edited volume, Fashioning Models: Image, Text, and Industry (Berg, 2012) with Joanne Entwistle. Her research has earned several grants and awards, including Mellon Fellowships in both the Humanities and Science Studies. Her current research takes up the issue of how wearable technology genders bodies.
We discussed her new book This Year's Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (New York University Press, 2015).
What drew you to the study of fashion?
Fashion is a power structure that organizes so many aspects of life in need of analysis: patriarchy, feminist issues, embodiment, labor issues, globalization, and social justice. I had been exposed to the world in my early years in NYC, and during my graduate training I became fascinated by the notion that fashion studies was a field.
As I note in the book, the proliferation of selfie-obsessed, #nofilter culture, the pressure for ordinary people to try to be fashionable has been spreading beyond young girls duckfacing in the bathroom. Fashion has become a lifestyle for so many, I wanted to know more about why.
When people copy Kim K’s selfie for example, they are driving an image economy, but who profits? Facebook and Instagram. The fun of it all lures us into selling ourselves. Tweeting about or posting one’s latest physical accomplishments, posting a selfie of one’s newly enhanced butt, slimmed waist, or latest outfit pulls one’s bodily potential and connectivity into metering and regulation an availability that facilitates capital’s constant expansion. At the same time, the very act of posting, puts one’s glamour quotient on the line, rising and falling by the metrics of likes, hearts, influence scores, and views. Keeping the quotient high becomes a sort of compulsion, the glamour labor to stay visible and relevant – to matter.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was interested in issues surrounding women’s power and came to realize that having lived as part of the New York fashion scene as a young woman gave me a unique perspective on the most iconic figures of this world: fashion models. Whether you hate to love them, or love to hate them, fashion models are a key element of popular culture. Their work is embroiled in debates about controversial bodily ideals.
They are at the center of struggles for social power and acceptance, and they figure prominently in conflicts between men and women. Needless to say, fashion modeling is a hot topic that pushes many buttons.
For all its glamour, modeling’s dark underbelly has been well documented. For instance, you may have seen Girl Model – a documentary about scouting for teen girls in Siberia, and the deplorable conditions they sometimes find themselves in in Japan – or J’Amais Assez Maigre – French model Victoire Dauxerre’s account of her struggle to keep her health and sanity while working as a model. Debates center on whether images of skinny models cause eating disorders or damage young girls’ self esteem. This conflict has been ongoing since the 1970s, which is significant as I discuss in my book.
What is "glamour labor"?
Glamour labor is a phenomenon of the internet age. I hit on the idea of glamour labor when trying to explain modeling work. A key process in modeling is constructing one’s “look.” The model “look” comprises the model’s appearance in person, and all the images in which the model has appeared. The “look” marries the physical body and the virtual self into one and was helpful in understanding the idea of affective labor, which drew me to study models.
Glamour labor also consists of the time and effort invested into editing the body and self to appear as fascinating and polished in person as one does in one’s highly scripted, filtered, and manipulated online life. Thus glamour labor is both the body work to manage appearance in person as well as the online image work to create and maintain one’s “cool” quotient – how hooked up, tuned in, and “in the know” one is. When life, work, and body management bleed together, glamour labor best describes the work to both project a fashionable image and to be that image in the flesh.
To track the evolution of glamour labor within changing imaging technologies, I consulted advice from the top, aimed at those seeking to enter the inner sanctum of bodily perfection represented by the fashion model. The memories of the model managers, agents, and bookers I spoke to, only went back so far, so I went to the archives. Exploring modeling “how to” books, from the 1950s and 60s to the present day, revealed a clear shift: Modeling, presented as a specialized practice, changed to something everyone could and should try to do. In this transition, model experts’ advice marking barriers to entry morphed into instructions on how to do it, with all comers welcome, just so long as they were willing to work hard enough. This opening up is crucial to understanding the fashionable look of today, in order to grasp why so many are fascinated by trying to achieve it, and why the fashionable ideal holds so much cultural and economic power.
What are the roots of the “glamour labor” phenomenon?
Glamour labor grew in part from the social upheaval of the wild and crazy 1960s and 70s. In 1965, fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland proclaimed the rise of the youthquake, a cultural movement in which teenagers came to dominate the fashion and music scene. The new values of the television screen combined with the sexual revolution and other political upheavals created a perfect storm that usurped the soignée, waist cinched, lady in a black silk dress and pearls that had typified the mid-century model ideal of the preceding era.
Social media’s current pull to be ever-ready for one’s close up has its roots in this radical transition. Television permeated culture, displacing cinema as the dominant imaging style. The screen was no longer at a distance in a dark movie hall, but up close and personal in one’s living room. The images on display had changed too. They were lit from within, characterized by immediacy, transparency, the happening, the now. Bodies were coming out of the corset, but they had to be in shape – working for a youthful ideal that came to typify the glamour labor of modeling.
As this story unfolded, my research uncovered how the general public became involved and started feeling pressures to be model perfect in the flesh, which replaced specialized knowledge of corsetry and other forms of artifice used to construct the model “look.” In the process, the “glamour labor” typical of modeling was sold to the general public as something everybody should try to do. Nowadays, one’s look and image are as important to one’s success as one’s skill set.
You also found that now more models are sharing their stories?
Yes, models are speaking out in ways they have never done before. Sara Ziff made a documentary, Picture Me, and formed an organization, The Model Alliance, to agitate for improving working conditions for models (using child labor laws, for instance, to protect teenaged models at work).
I just saw an interview with a model, Charli Howard, whose criticisms of the industry have gone viral, and she has become a spokesperson on behalf of changing the dominant images.
Another former model, Natalie White, became radicalized and is now a social activist and artist dedicating her life to promoting equal rights for women by means of bringing back the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Alexia Palmer has made headlines recently for suing Trump Models for breaking labor laws.
Will the controversy in which they are engaged bring about real change? Is gender inequality solely to blame? Would dialing back rampant consumerism help? What are they up against? Looking at these issues as a sociologist, media and communication scholar, and feminist techno-theorist, I dug deep into roots of the controversies about the fashionable ideal’s social power – and found that what is going on is extremely complex and presents no simple solution.
To unearth these complexities, I embarked on a 150-year study. As I mentioned earlier, I talked to dozens of models, photographers, stylists, casting agents, model booker/agents, and agency heads. I also went to fashion shows, model parties, castings, photo shoots, and fashion weeks. I worked as a casting assistant at a production company. I called on my experience as an amateur model. I followed the news, combed library archives, looked at images, websites, and histories of modeling work. I read novels about models, watched movies and television shows about them, and consulted numerous “how to be a model” books, from the 1950s to the present. This research forms the backbone of the ideas in the book.
I found the fashionable ideal has always been caught up in the economic status of images and the machinery for making them, from celluloid, to snap shots, to screens and pixels. I track in the book how the “gaze” of cinema, the glance of television, and the blink of the internet and social media are eras that roughly parallel broad shifts in economy and industry, shifts that deeply affect the dominant fashionable ideal.
Can you provide a contemporary example?
For instance, in the current moment of the internet and social media, we are witnessing the tinderization of everything from sex to politics. This is a regime that runs on split second gut decisions based on nonverbal reactions to how images strike people. Who has time for reasoned analysis based on time consuming reflection and thoughtfulness? It's swipe right or swipe left and get on with it.
I describe this situation we live in today as the age of the blink, where images and information are moving so fast, wait, don’t blink…you’ll miss it. There is no longer a one to one correspondence between seeing a particular image and having a specific reaction to it. We live awash images that produce a hyper-connected haze where lines between cause and effect are almost impossible to draw.
Anorexia figures into this discussion. How are anorexia and patriarchy connected – or not connected?
In this environment, claiming that modeling causes anorexia misses key reasons why the power of the fashionable image is so pervasive and persistent. As I argue in the book, the fashionable ideal isn't determined solely by patriarchy. It must also be examined in terms of the economics of images and the machinery for making them. When modeling for images became work, then ideas about work got tangled up in the fashionable image.
Patriarchy and consumerism are, of course, involved in making the “model” image, but some of its tenacious power is caught up in its tight links with shifting structures of cultural values supporting ideas about right living, and what it takes to be a good worker.
From Twiggy’s era onward, the pull for regular people to enter the rhythms of fashion amplified, as did the idea that everyone should do their glamour labor, to be ready for their close-up, while marshaling their energy to project the right image at all times.
The mobile phone camera became the paradigmatic example of the everywhere all the time photography that characterizes our moment and newly defines the fashionable ideal, as the worked on, worked over, worked up, and constantly exposed image.
My research was informed by the 1990s new attention to feminized forms of work with the (often sexualized) body. During this time, we witnessed the rise in scholarship on sex work, sexuality, Madonna studies, feminist ideas about what counts as work coupled with new (at the time) ideas stemming from Marxism about what constitutes labor in the post-industrial age. It seemed so many were not working at all, playing at computers and design, riding scooters around the offices of the latest dot com venture.
Here it is important to distinguish between work (a natural condition of human existence) and labor (work to create value for exchange) because through this kind of thinking I came to understand modeling work as glamour labor.
You've faced some "feminist anger." Tell us about that.
When giving talks and presentations, my focus on modeling as "work" drew some controversy, as the assumption up until the early 2000s had been that modeling was a frivolous profession that girls do for fun. Reality TV shows, such as America’s Next Top Model, did some work dispelling that myth. I also found that discussing model’s bodies in an academic setting touched a nerve, aggravating anger about the assumption that the idealized thin body is a result of a need for men to feel strong, dominant, and important. My book is about how the fashionably thin ideal can’t be fully explained by men’s need to dominate or the push to get us to buy stuff.
What are you working on now?
I have become interested in how wearable technology genders bodies. As quantifying the body and self becomes ever more fashionable, how will these new relations between bodies and data affect assumptions about what a gendered body is, and what it is good for? My ethnographic research in the fashion and tech design communities reveals that many of the forays into marrying fashion with tech thus far have resulted in products demonstrating a deep-seated cultural ambivalence about women, in particular, and their needs. This project asks questions regarding the cultural assumptions about gender inherent in design, in hopes of influencing this emerging field to innovate toward more diverse and inclusive ends. It is part of a larger project, in which I am considering how fashion is a Trojan horse for mass surveillance technologies, making them intimate as wearable tech enables the permeation of mass surveillance into everyday life.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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