Why must models be so tall?

The Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at a century-old question: Why Do Models Have to Be So Tall? Excerpt:

The modern modeling industry as we know it goes back just about 100 years. One of the first fashion designers to recognize the power of the model was the great French innovator, Paul Poiret, inventor of the “sheath dress.” In 1913, when he was at the height of his fame, Poiret toured America to showcase his designs. He brought with him five models, each of whom was strikingly tall and very slender. Most Americans had never seen anything like these women.

Poiret preferred tall models because they were easier to see from the back of the room at a fashion show. He also preferred them because their longer bodies allowed him to showcase his work more effectively – there was simply more material to display. Poiret liked his models with broad shoulders, narrow hips and small busts for the same reason; he was the first designer to want the “hanger effect” where the buyer’s eye wouldn’t be distracted by the model’s curves.

While many of us complain that the standard model body is unrealistic and nearly impossible to attain, it’s worth remembering that Poiret had another, surprising motivation for his preference for tall models. Late 19th-century European fashion had been very concealing, but it had also emphasized the bust and the hips. For Poiret, that meant focusing on women as mother figures. Poiret wanted his models to symbolize independence and freedom. And what could be more liberating than a body type that seemed almost masculine: tall, a nearly flat chest, broad shoulders, and narrow hips?

Read the whole thing.

I also ought to recommend a really wonderful source on early 20th century fashion and its relationship to feminism and body image, Nancy Troy’s magisterial Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion, now regrettably out of print.

One thought on “Why must models be so tall?

  1. I did read it, and it was a nice fill-in-the-gaps about how today’s weird beuaty standards got started. But although I could not at home pull up all the pictures mentioned (I’m dial-up), I thought back to the ones I have seen, and I don’t recall any that looked particularly masculine, or even broad-shouldered for that matter. The designers could have gotten just as much display area on a big fat person as a tall skinny one, but big and fat was already taken, and a desire for novelty would suffice to get them to make gracility popular. They moved, not from mother figures to fake men, but from mother figures to something new–and that something new became the new oppressive norm to shoehorn everyone into.
    These designers want a tall thing that can move around to act as a display rack for their creations, and they have gotten used to the idea of using human beings for that purpose, because human beings can be made to want to do it, to spend their money on it. In an alternate history, the designers could have sold them the racks as well and the various creations could have been used as banners–it would still be a budget-burner for everyone but their bodies would at least be not judged so much.
    I don’t want to let industries, and their advertisers, off the hook for one minute, for the way they create artificial needs that drain us dry and mess up our minds into the bargain–but we are all complicit to a degree. What I don’t spend on clothes, I do spend on chocolate. If somebody really, really wants this or that silly thing, who am I to object–but I can’t help wondering how free any of us really is to choose, and what the long-term effect of it all is. How many polyesters died to make that outfit, for instance.
    You’ve excavated another facet of the hidden forces that make puppets of us, or try to. If anyone ever saw the whole structure, it would probably blast their brain with its grotesquerie–but if we can start dismantling it now, we might have a chance.

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