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22 August 2012

Mannequin – le corps de la mode, Musée Galliera

The model is one of the vital cogs in the couture house and ready-to-wear machines, reproduced ad infinitum from the earliest 19th century fashion illustrations through today’s magazines, advertising slots and videos. Shaped by and for fashion, she embodies all the contradictions of an industry torn between business and creativity and chronically committed to producing images.

Models were once called “mannequins”, a borrowing from French and initially a reference to the wickerwork dummies used to display garments in the dressmaker’s workshop. When applied to living models the term kept its implication of an “inanimate object” existing to call potential buyers’ attention to the garment. The model, to use today’s word, has been tirelessly promoted as a feminine ideal of youth and beauty, an artificial embodiment of perfection intended to win over the clientele. In response to the fashion economy’s need for profitability, she has been reduced to a specific format, forced into repetitive, mechanical poses and moulded with makeup and retouching. A pure product of her era, the model as model body must meet physical and aesthetic requirements which, as part of a specific commercial context, leave little or no room for individuality or realism.

Beginning in the early 20th century, society women and actresses were long fashion’s ongoing icons, endowing brands and magazines with the benefits of their fame. It was only later that the faces and names of professional models became generally known, revealed by the couturiers and photographers whose creations and muses they were. As stars and celebrities they were instruments for selling the glossies. Recognisable but malleable, they capitalised on image and personality, adopting fictional roles under the stage-management of photographers whose fantasies they embodied and promoted beyond the world of fashion.

From the anonymous model to the cover girl, from the clothes horse to the sex symbol, from the supermodel to the girl next door: ambivalence is all in the sheer mass of photographs devoted to the model’s commercial, aesthetic and human worth, and the stereotypes she represents. In this choice of images mostly from the Musée Galliera collection, the exhibition offers a history of fashion photography from the point of view not only of the photographer, but of the model as well.

Sylvie Lécallier, exhibition curator and coordinator of the Musée Galliera photography collection. 

Exhibition organised in collaboration with the Musée Galliera, the City of Paris Museum of Fashion.

Exhibition venue: espace Van Gogh, Rencontres d’Arles 2012.