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.