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This Year's Model

Fashion's Coming of Age

 
Cover: September 2009
September 2009Medium length read
 

Those with an appreciation of the firm and youthful female form may be interested to ogle Terry Richardson’s photographs of the latest crop of young ‘supermodels’ in this year’s ‘Pirelli calendar’.

Richardson is best known for creating raunchy ads for the likes of Gucci. Proclaimed “a modern Helmut Newton” by French Vogue’s fashion director, Emmanuelle Alt, Richardson is Manhattan’s pet provocateur, guaranteed to grab a headline with his raw shooting style and passion for the vulgar.

You will have to wait until the calendar’s official November launch to see what you make of Richardson’s complete beachside fantasy, which features strategically placed foliage; a menagerie of zoo and farm animals; and 11 prominent fashion models, including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, naked and cradling a sloth. For now, the leaked ‘backstage preview’ – which made the June cover of Italian Vanity Fair – will suffice, showing as it does the easy appeal of this sort of box-tickingly smooth-skinned perfection teamed with just enough X-rated sexiness to make you blush if your mum catches you looking at it.

Pirelli, the Italian tyre giant, has been associated with arty soft-porn since creative director Derek Forsyth came up with the calendar as a marketing ploy back in 1963. The calendars, which are gifted in limited editions and not for sale, have since attained cult status. In recent years, such revered photographers have snapped Pirelli’s starkers subjects that the whole undertaking has become an extension of the high fashion world, with models who normally pose poshly on the Paris catwalks queuing up to disrobe for the cause.

The Complete Pirelli Calendars, a coffee-table book that runs to 639 pages, was published in 2007. In its introductory essay, the writer Francesco Negri Arnoldi claims that the calendar “is regarded as a cultural phenomenon which traces the changing tastes, fashion and mores of contemporary society”, and compares it, as only an Italian could, to “an epic poem”. In fact, Pirelli’s creations have remained much the same in the face of changing tastes. But then, the particular allure of a pack of perky-breasted beauties cavorting in the surf is unlikely to dwindle anytime soon and the calendar can be relied upon to feature young ‘it girls’ in titillating poses.

What has changed is the context. In the 1950s, the inimitably elegant 40-something Lisa Fonssagrives – wife of American photographer Irving Penn – was one of the better-known international cover girls, regularly featured in her ball gowns and chic suits. If she was a role model to some glossy magazine readers, then that was a side effect of her main job, which was to sell smart clothes to women who could afford them. Fonssagrives would no more have stripped for a calendar than would George Pell.

At the time Forsyth came up with his calendar, youth was just beginning to emerge as a media force to be reckoned with. It would be another three years before London favourite Twiggy turned up; the concept of the supermodel had yet to be invented. In 1963, the sexy pin-up girl was just that; today, whether in the form of Kate Moss, Gisele Bündchen, Huntington-Whitely or Australian contender Miranda Kerr, she is the role model for a generation. No longer just a pretty face in the crowd, she is today accorded star status, ruling over that crowd. She follows us wherever we roam: on giant billboards, on an abundance of live action screens,  on our iPhones and in the lead story on the evening news. Kids who once dreamt of growing up to be schoolteachers or nurses now yearn to be models – pretty, young and nubile enough to draw Richardson’s gaze. Such is the power of the fashion model’s media image that many other ideas of beauty and female worth have been eclipsed.

In July, the blogosphere deemed 21-year-old Rosie Huntington-Whitely as most likely to take over from Moss as fashion’s favourite muse. She had shot a Burberry campaign with a movie star – Sam Riley, so good in that film about Joy Division, Control – and even looked good in a jumpsuit. Unfortunately, though, a picture of her smoking what looked suspiciously like a bong turned up on a fashion website, so people began placing their tips elsewhere on who will be the new Moss.

And a new Moss there must be, for the original is getting on a bit, and today, even a very famous style icon indeed cannot escape the guillotine of impending maturity. It is 16 years now since Corinne Day first photographed Moss for British Vogue: teenaged and topless in lacy knickers. Moss is no longer an ethereal waif; she has a six-year-old daughter and cellulite. In January she turned 35 and, given fashion years are like dog years, heck, she’s practically on the pension.

Today, beauty comes in just one flavour: a vanilla kind of attractiveness, willing and fresh from the tub. If you’re past it, like Kate, you must either hide your hideous face from the glare of the cameras or seek to fake the bright bloom of youth with photo retouching or cosmetic procedures. Surgery, injectable fillers and acid peels are the tools of choice for those yearning, like the prophet Cher, to turn back time. According to an estimate by the Cosmetic Physicians Society of Australasia, Australians spent $345 million on non-invasive and minimally invasive treatments in the year up to March 2009, which is a rise of 15% on the previous year.

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It seems easy to blame these warped conceptions on the fashion industry, which by its very nature must be always on the lookout for the newest and freshest form of everything. But fashion in its pure sense – that is, the art of designing clothes – has little to do with the modern deification of the catwalk spectacle and the model, or, by extension, the worship of youthful good looks.

Half a century ago, high fashion was a rarefied world dominated by the art of the couturier in Paris: fanciful and indulgent, perhaps, but certainly not the far-reaching popular obsession it has become today. It took two young European designers with enormous ambition, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, to start shaking things up. Saint Laurent had been working at Dior in Paris for 10 years before he felt moved to pronounce the old ways dead. In the wake of the 1968 Parisian student riots, he said of fashion, “The Social Ladies are no longer significant!”

It was queen of the old guard Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel who quipped that “youth is something very new: 20 years ago no one mentioned it”. She died in 1971, the same year that Saint Laurent presented his sexed-up take on 1940s dressing that so distressed the conservative fashion press. In response to their criticisms, the designer railed that fashion was “bogged down in a boring tradition of so-called good taste and refinement; it has become a museum, a refuge for people who do not dare to look life in the face.”

A few months after this, Saint Laurent launched his first men’s fragrance, casting himself – naked and godlike – as the model for the campaign. The designer and his clique – muses Loulou de la Falaise, Angelica Houston and Paloma Picasso – as well as his rival, Karl Lagerfeld (then freelancing for the house of Chloé and now head honcho at Chanel), were perhaps the first of their kind to focus so intently on courting fame and the impression of perfection for fashion’s sake. Together, they made superficiality seem super, and I think it’s fair to say that some of the blame for the current mass craze for all things surface-driven can be laid at their doors.

As Alicia Drake writes in her compelling book about these twin fashion forces, The Beautiful Fall: “Image. By 1972 image was both the word and the idea that gripped Paris fashion … ” She also explains that Paris was fashion back then, that other cities simply didn’t figure: “Yves was at the centre of a narcissism that grew and magnified throughout this time.” The experience of the female staff in Saint Laurent’s atelier is described in Drake’s pages:

 

If your hair was not right that day it was advisable not to go at all … [His press assistant Dominique Deroche] had her own solution on the days when she was obliged to see Monsieur Saint Laurent even though she knew her outfit did not measure up. She exited his studio walking backwards, as if leaving the audience of Louis XIV, that way avoiding the risk of a less-than-perfect rear view.

 

You can draw a line directly from Saint Laurent’s control freakishness, through Lagerfeld’s consummate manipulation of the popular media (the designer, film-maker, photographer, artist and enigma has such a contrived image he is dubbed ‘Kaiser Karl’), right up to the bitchy Vogue magazine offices as depicted in The Devil Wears Prada. Fashion doesn’t accept frizzy hair, or the wrong shoes, or spots, or wrinkles, or bags. It doesn’t do ugly and it doesn’t do old. Fashion demands glamour, thinness and fabulous skin. Fashion is nuts. (According to Drake, Saint Laurent existed on a diet of whiskey and heroin for most of the 1980s and was regularly committed to an asylum.) But when did its hold over the rest of us grow so strong?

If television is telling the truth, the most keenly felt popular desire today is not for an end to war; or for the spread of health and happiness; or even for personal fame (although that is high on the common wish list along with being filthy rich); but for glamour and gorgeousness – to be ‘in fashion’. Oh, and for one’s skin to resemble that of a newly picked peach.

This winter, you may have caught the Seven Network’s 10 Years Younger in 10 Days. In it, a salon-tanned team of so-called style experts drags a group of poor sods off suburban streets, bleaching their hair and teeth on camera, and denying them carbs. All in the name of getting younger, ergo better-looking.

Once whipped into more acceptable shape, the preened and polished victims of this vile experiment – now dressed in designer duds – are invited to show off their made-over looks by stepping inside specially built, glass display cabinets parked in the high street. Job done, passing Joe Public is now invited to guess their ages. The excitement peaks, of course, when a 48-year-old woman is pronounced to be fabulously fashionable and to look just 35. Now that’s entertainment! Wish I’d thought of it.

Flip to cable that same winter and there was American show She’s Got the Look, the “model contest for women over 35”. The concept was to permit adults to model fashion – radical, no? Those with fragile psyches should not apply. Sadly, no one told 42-year-old contender Laurie of this clause. Promo material spruiks her thus: “A spunky, unique beauty from Dallas who describes herself as ‘renaissance, maverick, iconoclast, catalyst and revolutionary’.” She is catalyst? Oh dear. “Laurie says she loves every single day, and claims to have an optimistic outlook on life – hence her nicknames: Sunshine, Petunia and Mary Poppins.” In season two, episode two, ‘Sunshine’ staged a live-to-air meltdown-cum-strip down, shrieking, “Do I fit in the box? Can I show you how vulnerable I can be? Look, I took off everything! No make-up! I cut my hair!” Needless to say, she was voted off. The physical glass boxes might be on 10 Years Younger but the metaphorical ones are all around us.

In 1991 Naomi Wolf published her treatise on The Beauty Myth, a popular fallacy, which she defines as:

 

[preaching] that normal, round, healthy women’s bodies are too fat; that cushy, soft women’s flesh is really cellulite; that women with small breasts aren’t sexy; that women lacking the ‘perfect’ face aren’t attractive; that a woman over 30 who shows signs of life on her face is ugly. No wonder women are either not asking, or disregarding the dangers of cosmetic surgery in their quest for this holy grail of ‘beauty’.

 

In Sydney for the writers’ festival 15 years later, Wolf told Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report that, while some things have improved – women are wiser and more likely to question this sort of drivel before they consume it – “what has gotten worse is the images have gotten more extreme and they are being targeted younger and younger”. Youth equals beauty as never before.

The message is there on MTV, where airbrushed teen singers look like powder-coated robots, with not a frown-line or freckle in site. It is hammered home by Hollywood, where Helen Mirren is worshipped as some sort of commendable oddity – Old and still sexy! Who’d a thunk it? – while everyone else either stops working or starts seeing the surgeons after they hit 30. And it is ever-present on our commercial news channels, where the facial expressions of our lady anchors have been frozen for all prime time with that miracle poison, Botox. Try watching 60 Minutes and counting how many times you see a female forehead move.

In the media, as on the catwalks and in the fashion magazines, old is unacceptable. And while both sexes are given the ‘make-over’ treatment on shows like 10 Years Younger the twisted messages contained therein – that looks mean everything and that the youthful variety is always preferable to the lived-in alternative – are most keenly targeted towards women. You don’t need Germaine Greer to tell you that a haggard, middle-aged bloke can still command sexual, social and political power in the modern age.

What the Perth-based author of ‘Getting Noticed: Images of Older Women in Popular Culture’, Liz Byrski, terms “age-ophobia” or “popular culture’s distaste for older women” results in women’s invisibility after their supposed sexual prime (35, in case you’re wondering). Byrski argues that while powerful older men retain their platforms in public life, women all but disappear in middle-age and beyond. Generally speaking, she says, older women aren’t cast as the main characters in films or on television, they don’t turn up in advertisements for luxury goods and they sure as eggs aren’t in fashion.

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But I think I see a tipping point ahead. Until last year I worked at a fashion magazine for which I occasionally had to interview the malnourished kids, just out of school, who walk the runways. They would share with me their insights: on diets, Lettuce – negative calories!; and downtime, What’s on your iPod? The resulting profile pieces were undeniably dull.

One day an email came through from a reader asking why she should care about stylish children. She reckoned her mother, Dagmar, was more interesting. There was a picture attached. The silver-haired character raising an eyebrow at the camera looked gorgeous and self-possessed, a little haughty in her narrow jacket and costume pearls the size of golf balls. She was 98 years old.

Eventually, my editor allowed me to fly to Melbourne to pen a style profile on Dagmar. She was bursting with vitality, despite having held a dinner party for six the previous evening – to which she wore vintage Pucci. While her young husband (Herb, 91) played tennis, I interviewed her about her style history, which was in essence the history of her life – lived in New York, Cuba, Tahiti and Melbourne – and always seen through the lens of fashion, which had long defined her. When the piece was published, we got more letters than ever before. People were thrilled by Dagmar; they wanted to be her. Here was a role model worth listening to, as well as looking at.

Young girls can be appealing to gaze upon, but it is possible to gorge on too much of a good thing. Youth is not a virtue, it’s an accident, and in obsessing over those who possess it we risk short-changing ourselves, even as, to quote the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “We are in mass denial that, eventually, gravity and French fries will have their way.”

Despite all this, older women have been turning up in the most unlikely situations lately. The newest face of the Louis Vuitton womenswear campaign is Madonna, aged 50. At Prada last season, it was Linda Evangelista at 42. Sheila Scotter, the 83-year-old former fashion editor, stars in the current campaign of local label Saba, and the architect Penelope Seidler, who is in her seventies, was the subject of a glamorous profile piece in the June–July issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The photograph showed Seidler in a sleek, short pencil skirt with lace-clad legs, looking rather like Fonassagrives did all those years ago.

It helps that many of those who rode the crest of the first ‘image is everything’ wave can no longer rely on their youthful beauty to get ahead. Saint Laurent is dead. Lagerfeld lives on Diet Coke and has rarely taken his dark glasses off in public since the mid-’90s. Twiggy, still modelling at 60, was moved last year to publish a kind of self-help book on style, entitled Twiggy: A Guide to Looking and Feeling Fabulous over Forty, remarking in it that “Fashion is easier said than done in a society where youth is the ultimate obsession.”

You don’t have to be vapid to want to look gorgeous; style can walk out with maturity and intelligence. Take the fabulous Phyllis Spooner, 94, who made the point that “When you are young you can wear a hessian sack with a belt and get away with it, but that’s not true style. It takes a while to cook the real stuff. And it gets better with age.” There is a need to call time on the current fascination with this inflexible idea of beauty, one that decrees that only the youngest and smoothest skinned are allowed to claim possession of it. Fashion needs to broaden its worldview. And I, for one, am looking forward to the next phase.

About the author Clare Press