Tag Archives: women

Midcentury Modelling Techniques

Matthew Dessner, 'So You Want To Be A Model' (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training
Matthew Dessner, ‘So You Want To Be A Model’ (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

The model agent Matthew Dessner wrote that modelling had ‘something of the spirit of the dance’ because models could express ‘their personalities in its graceful accentuated steps, its swirling turns and pivots, its musical timing.’ Dessner here attempted to imbue the relatively new and commercial profession of clothes modelling with the artistry of a more historic discipline, the dance. Indeed, an accompanying photograph to Dessner’s 1943 manual, titled So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living shows a procession of girls walking ‘rhythmically and femininely’ in satin slips as they balance books on top of their pin-curled heads and are surveyed by the eagle-eyed gaze of Barbizon School of Modelling’s Director, Rosilyn Williams. In the vignette above, trainee models in mid-thigh-length skirts were further required to demonstrate a dancer’s sense of rhythm and spatial awareness, when they practiced walking and turning to foxtrot music. With the exception of sportswear, where skating and tennis skirts were cut above the knee, American mid 1940s skirts worn for more formal occasions were uniformly below knee-level.  The shorter skirts worn by modelling students evoked the brief garments worn in both ballet and contemporary dance studios, and enabled model instructors to view and correct their pupils’ natural bodies.

The trainee model was also expected to condition her figure through diet, exercise and in some cases, a little bust padding, until it approximated the preferred standard size 12  (34 inch bust and hips; 24 inch waist). Ideally, she should measure between 5’4 and 5’7 inches tall, however, smaller girls were selected to model Junior (teenage) clothes, while the more statuesque specialised in coats and eveningwear.  This sense of varied body types within a specification of uniformity was also common in classical ballet, where dancers were generally expected to have petite, toned figures, but were cast in line with their physicality. For example, smaller dancers often played ingénues, while taller dancers who towered over their male partners created femme fatale roles.

After she improved her figure, posture and walk, a trainee model had to develop a repertoire of professionalised gestures, which included subtly showcasing the ‘smart lines of a frock’, or causing ‘all eyes to focus on you when you make an entrance into a room.’ Olga Malcova, another model agent, professed that over time, a model’s quotidian movements would ‘naturally’ merge with the ‘gestures and mannerisms which are part of the profession…’and called ‘business’ by the industry insiders. Interestingly, while Malcova advised that the ‘business’ should be acquired ‘naturally’, rather than being copied from another model, Dessner stipulated that aspiring models should copy the poses they saw in magazines before a full-length mirror and ‘originate others they never thought about’. Striving for a balance between imitation and improvisation was common to dancers and models alike, as a young woman’s success in either discipline depended upon her ability to execute the required gestures seamlessly and differentiate herself from her peers.

However, unlike contemporary dancers, who wrote about their experiences in memoirs and left personal archives, models’ voices have been obscured over time. This discrepancy between the model and dancer’s trace suggests that although modelling techniques had much in common with dance, the former profession was associated with contemporary commerce above the posterity of art.

Sources

Matthew Dessner, So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living (Chicago: Morgan-Dillon & Co, 1943), 12.

Olga Malcova, Wanted: Girl With Glamor, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 25.

The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips

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“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”

Source:

Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.