Elizabeth A. Wissinger
New York University Press, New York, 2015, 353 pages, ISBN 978-1-47986477-5
Using the figure of the model, Elizabeth A. Wissinger successfully ‘draw[s] back the curtain to reveal the magical workings of the glamour machine’ (2015: 2) examining the intersection of consumerism, conduct, desire and femininity in Western popular culture.
In her introduction she introduces the notions of ‘glamour labor’, examining the model’s ability to embody and convey ‘affect’ and begins to explore the current value of these two skills across a number of historical moments including the current age, which she argues is notable for its preoccupation with the image and instantaneousness and she terms, borrowing from journalist Malcolm Gladwell, the ‘regime of the blink’.
Chapter one develops this argument, discussing the cultural moment of the ‘supermodel’ and exploring broader contextual factors, particularly the ‘regime of the blink’ as well as the evolution of media outlets such as cable TV and the internet that transformed a small coterie of models who embodied specific modes of affective energy and ‘glamour labor’ into valuable, iconic ‘brands’.
In chapter two she effectively discusses the catwalk and its development from sedate, discrete fashion parades in closeted couturiers’ salons to frenetic, rock n’ roll, media-driven fashion ‘events’ with fashion houses and designers ‘going for impact rather than information’ (2015: 77). Concurrently she considers the shift in fashions for models themselves, from the tabula rasa of the living mannequin, to the lively, gamine models of the 1960s, to more recent celebrity supermodels, considering some of the industrial and social factors that prompted these moves and the role of the broader media and other leisure industries in these developments.
Chapter three revisits the notion of affect, considering the importance of a model’s ‘look’ and examining how, prompted by shifts in technology and morés, fashion photography developed an increasing preoccupation not only with youthfulness, but also with the close-up, and the face and its ‘ability to transmit or amplify affect’ (2015:104)
Chapter four develops threads established in chapter three regarding the increasing professionalization of the modelling industry by focusing upon the Powers modelling agency and its glamorous, carefully packaged models who became an iconic source of fascination in their own right.
Chapter five effectively unpacks the body politics and the rigors to which models subject their bodies from dieting to exercise to surgery, highlighting the models’ vulnerability both in terms of their health but also in a shifting industry whereby that vision of perfection was increasingly being expected around the clock, even in the models’ day-to-day life. Chapter six develops this shift towards modelling as lifestyle further still.
From here chapter seven considers the prolific growth of ‘scouting’ and the resultant increase in competition between models. Chapter eight moves on to introduce issues of race and ethnicity, exploring the ways in which stereotypes and cultural assumptions operating within broader western culture continue to affect black model’s glamour labor and in the final chapter Wissinger examines the malleability of the model’s body and its implications in terms of ‘affect’ in the era of photoshop and of reduced attention spans.
Overall This Year’s Model is a readable study of broader contexts that surround and inform the fashion industry and the iconic images it creates. Like the fashion industry itself, the book moves at a fast pace, covering a lot of ground. I had anticipated a stronger focus upon glamour/glamour theory itself, and I would have liked to have seen more engagement with scholarship on the cosmetics industry, or with film studies scholarship work linked to Hollywood, fashion, physicality and consumerism such as Heather Addison’s Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture or Martin Rubin’s work on femininity as spectacle in the Busby Berkeley musical but the book does acknowledge a number of other pertinent academic examples to demonstrate its point.
As a film and photography scholar whose work very occasionally covers issues of costuming I found this work to offer a number of valuable insights into the fashion studies discipline. The example of the Powers’ agency and the marketing of ‘Power’s girls’ offered brought to mind other fascinating, theatrical incarnations of femininity such as the American ‘Ziegfeld girls’ or the British ‘Windmill girls’
The strength of this book though is its use of ‘affect’ which Wissinger herself acknowledges is a potentially troublesome/dated term but she situates this notion of affect in relation to Bourdieuian social economics. That said this could have been exploited further still through direct engagement with Bourdieu’s theories of social and cultural capital themselves.
The decision to not include a bibliography in the book made searching for particular authors a more laborious task than it needed to be but otherwise this was a very enjoyable and informative read.