Model: Fashion Advertising As Orchestrated Theatre


I have a weakness for movies and television shows about the fashion industry, even if most of them are trashtastic ANTM-style dramas. Occasionally, one really blows my mind.

Frederick Wiseman‘s 1980 documentary, Model, is one such film.

Wiseman — who tends to study American institutions like the criminal justice system, or education, or public housing, and whose films were recently made available, and affordable, on DVD for home viewingturned his attention to the modeling industry as it was on the cusp of great change. The agency he follows, Zoli, doesn’t even exist anymore; today’s powerhouses, like IMG, hadn’t been founded. Oscar de la Renta, whose show is featured in the final scenes of the film, wasn’t exactly an up-and-coming name at that point, but the backstage preparations, and the proceedings on the runway itself, not to mention the other editorial and presentation jobs featured in the film, seem marked by a kind of enthusiastic near-amateurism that the industry has by now almost completely shed. At Oscar, there are dressers and models dancing as they put on the garments, and the girls do their own makeup — unheard of today. One of them is a young Jerry Hall.

There’s also plenty of things that don’t change. The nervous girls lining up at agencies with test photos, grasping for the brass ring of representation, for instance. One Zoli booker says that, of the people he sees at open calls, maybe 5% will be offered the chance to work as models, and that in six months’ time, as good as half of them will have dropped out for lack of client interest. Wiseman’s camera follows young women at open calls, working models at castings and on the sets of editorials, runway shows, and catalogues, and, like all of his other documentaries, never does he intercede with any voice-over narration or staged interviews with the key players — it’s as if the whole thing unfolds before your eyes as it happened in real life. Of course, that’s an artistic choice, since the whole film is obviously the highly edited creation of an author, but the natural-seeming meandering narrative form has the added element of mimicking the way your career, and your life, goes when you’re a working model — never sure of its direction, prone to sudden changes of scene and strange new situations that become clearer only as they are directly experienced.

In this clip, a model a director keeps calling “Apples” (although her name is, I think, Apollonia) poses for a clip at the end of a pantyhose ad. The finished segment is all of three seconds long and is supposed to show a leg kicking up through the still frame, against a white studio background, only it’s as though the leg stops in mid-kick at eight different positions, fanning out like a peacock’s tail, and of course clad in eight kinds of tights. This simple idea that would now be done with some simple computer post-production tools entails a full day in the studio and unknown hours of video splicing afterwards; the model, who seems to be Eastern European, works like a trooper as the client rep and the director argue over how fishnet will read on camera, and how the lighting should look. The sound guy, the assistant director, the dressers are all on set — there are easily a half-dozen people working long hours to get this tiny blip of an ad-part just right. This scene is one of the best representations I’ve ever seen of the curious distillation that is the essence of this line of work, the weird collapse of countless hours and untold labor into a few photos in some magazine, or a quick, jaunty, television spot. At the end of this clip, the director finds some reason to start giving a little speech about “the proscenium of the the 30-second commercial” and the split-second discipline it demands of its performers and directors; he’s kind of right, but also kind of being an ass, and you can tell the girl is just thinking, Let me change now, so we can get this take over with.

Some things truly never change.

Related: Frederick Wiseman Homepage [Zipporah Films]
Model [Zipporah Films]

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