A Quick History of Fashion Modeling

model in a black dress and a wide-brimmed hat covering one eye
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Until the late 1800s, “modeling” was primarily a term (from the Middle French word modelle) used to describe people posing for a portrait. Upon the invention of the camera, people would pose for more than painted portraits, and soon, ads featuring pictures of men and women were added to newspapers. Since that time, the industry has grown to the point where there are schools that teach the skills a model needs to find the best jobs.

Before this, Charles Frederick Worth, who is considered by most to be the “father of haute couture,” had his wife model his designs in the early 1850s. Until then, mannequins were used to “model” clothing. Worth’s wife, Marie Augustine Vernet, was his “live mannequin,” and is considered the first-ever fashion model. Not only was Worth the first designer to use live models, but he was also the first designer to sew his label onto clothing.

The First Modeling Agencies

After Worth had begun using live models, modeling as a profession was established, and others began to follow suit. With the invention of photography and the rise of fashion magazines such as Vogue and Condé Nast, the industry boomed in the early 20th century. In 1946, Eileen and Gerard Ford created Ford Models. Theirs is one of the first and most prestigious modeling agencies in the world, and it opened many doors for models looking to build a career out of what was once just a hobby.

Modeling success in the 1950s was dependent on being known within the fashion community rather than in pop culture. Some of the big names at the time were Dovima, Carmen Dell’Orefice, and Wilhelmina Cooper. The most successful models would make $25 an hour or more—a lot of money at the time.

In the 1960s, modeling agencies started popping up all over the world. Most models did not travel much for work, so they tended to work within whichever industry was thriving where they lived. London became a fashion hub in the 1960s by producing models such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, and Joanna Lumley, and it remains a fashion and modeling hub to this day.

Modeling as a Legitimate Profession

The 1970s and 1980s brought better wages and working conditions for models, as well as big cosmetic and hair endorsements. The era also marked significant milestones in the fashion and modeling industry. In 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first African-American model to grace the cover of American Vogue. Model Margaux Hemingway signed an astounding million-dollar contract in 1975. Her contract put her on the cover of Time magazine, which further solidified the legitimacy of modeling as a profession.

The Supermodel Era

Modeling competitions soon became popular ways of discovering new talent. In 1980, the first Ford Supermodel of the World Competition was held to discover fresh faces from around the globe.

The 1990s is known as the decade of the supermodel, and their famous faces were everywhere. Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Stephanie Seymour were, and remain, some of the most recognizable supermodels of the time. When Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated rose in popularity, so too did the demand for sexier and curvier models like Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer, and Tyra Banks. 

The Digital Age and Social Media

The 2000s brought a whole new aspect to the modeling world: social media. Now, models are more involved than ever with their fans, sharing parts of their lives no one was able to see before. Models like Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Cara Delevingne have millions of followers on their social media accounts, and this is often a big factor in a brand’s decision to hire them. The 2000s also brought a new and improved market for ​models who look different from “traditional” models.

The modeling world is constantly evolving, and today there is an enormous market for models of all ages, sizes, shapes, and heights. There may never have been a better time to get seen by top model agents and scouts and live your dream of becoming a model. 

Article Sources

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) and the House of Worth." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  2. Worth Paris. "Paris Haute Couture." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  3. The Art Story. "Fashion Photography—History and Concepts." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  4. The Washington Post. "Eileen Ford and Ford Models Helped Define What American Beauty Looked Like." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  5. Elle. "The Evolution Of The Supermodel." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  6. Sympli. "The Evolution of the Fashion Model." Accessed Jan 23, 2020.

  7. Vogue. "How Beverly Johnson Broke Fashion’s Glass Ceiling." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  8. The New York Times. "Eileen Ford, Grande Dame of the Modeling Industry, Dies at 92." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  9. Sylecaster. "Can a Bad Instagram Feed Hurt a Model’s Career? Two Top Agents Break it Down." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  10. The Fashion Spot. "Report: 2018’s Magazine Covers Were More Racially Diverse Than Ever, Size and Gender Representation More Than Doubled." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.