Today the idea of fashion modeling is a part the general cultural consciousness, with many famous icons and a reality television show. In the early 1900s, however, it was a new concept to preview clothing on a live model. Leading fashion historian, Caroline Evans, explores the development of fashion modeling using significant new archival evidence from the wider context of business, international trade, cinema, and art in her new book The Mechanical Smile. Evans tells the exhaustive story of the first fashion show, answering the question “who were the women who first stepped out onto the runway?”
They were called “mannequins” in the early 1900s and from this first naming, the objectification of the female form that continues to trouble feminists today is apparent. Taking the place of the dolls that once modeled dresses for customers, they were regarded as “living objects” by many, especially the customers they modeled for. Socioeconomic status certainly played a role in this perception. Mannequins were considered nearly prostitutes and had a reputation from promiscuous to sexually depraved. In contemporary fiction, mannequin characters had multiple illicit affairs, with the husbands of customers, and with fellow models. Despite the challenges of their marginalized societal status, these early fashion models made connections through their positions, finding secondary careers and wealthy husbands.
Mannequins, and the designs they modeled, influenced and were influenced by modern conceptions of the ideal female form. Today the fashion industry is criticized for distorting body image and creating unhealthy weight standards for women. In the early days of the fashion show, the body types of the mannequins were more diverse, but the clothing designs were often more restrictive. Sheath-style dresses clung tight to show off the mannequin’s legs, but also highly restricted movement. The mannequins perfected a “sliding, undulating walk” with tiny steps that the average woman was challenged to emulate if she wished to wear the current fashions. These clinging dresses reflect an increased interest in the legs of the female form, which developed in conjunction with a larger cultural fascination with movement. Parallels to the fashion world’s obsession with “new velocities” can be seen in early cubist art, and in the newly developed medium of the cinema.