Let’s begin with a little bit of history here.
In the early 20th century, the first professional fashion models were called “living mannequins”. They took their name from their 19th-century predecessors, the display mannequins used by dressmakers. The term suggested that these early models were no more than animated dolls, and this was born out in reality. Uniform in their mechanical modelling styles and standardised body shapes, they stared glassily ahead, paying no attention to onlookers. One critic in 1910 described their “industrial smiles”. Forbidden to speak unless spoken to, when asked by the client, “What is your name?” the living mannequin would answer not with her own name but that of the so-called model dress she wore: Pleasures of Love, or The First Yes, perhaps. Resembling both a talking dress and the inanimate mannequin she mimicked, the fashion model cut a disturbing and uncanny figure in the luxurious couture salons of Paris.
Among the first women to go uncorseted in the early 1900s, fashion models were slender and supple, but nowhere near as thin as today’s models. The fashionable ideal remained statuesque until 1910-14 when it became tall and willowy, in tandem with the burgeoning craze for dance and sport. The new, slimmer silhouette was spearheaded by professional models whose narrow skirts and flimsy fabrics put the body on display in novel ways. Then as now, both journalists and the public complained that models bore no relation to ordinary women. The British designer Lucile advertised in an American newspaper for “the thinnest model in the world” to drape in heavy fabrics. She found “Arjamand”, described by Lucile’s assistant as “a slender, swaying reed, so thin, I often feared, as I watched her pace the long rooms in the divinely draped brocaded gowns, she would bend, then break, and dissolve into a graceful, luxurious heap upon the floor”. Far from it: Arjamand so hated being thin that she was on a constant diet to gain weight.
In 1920s, New York, the uptown retail stores employed svelte models while the downtown wholesalers used fuller-figured ones, especially to model fashions for “stouts”. As with display dummies, the first fashion models represented a range of body shapes and sizes, but these were standardised to correspond with the increasing standardisation of mass-produced clothing sizes. In Paris, Coco Chanel chose models in her own, slender, image, even fitting the fuller-figured ones with a whale-boned brassiere to flatten their bosoms. The fashion for extremely thin and androgynous models lasted from 1924–8, peaking in 1926. After that, the press announced that “boyish form is passé”, spurning the stick-thin flapper. One Paris newspaper contained an apocryphal account of 200 mannequins who had lost their jobs because they were too thin. But, in reality, the slender ideal was well established by the late 1920s and has varied only slightly in the intervening decades. (In fact, the first calls for a slenderised body came not from fashion designers but from doctors who attempted to make a medical case for dieting from before the first world war.)
By the 1920s fashion writers were generally advocating a slimmer figure. Presaging today’s fashion for a lean and youthful physique, the Countess de Noailles wrote in 1926, “our epoch favours the appearance of permanent youth”.
Clearly, the debates about models’ bodies and their influence on the rest of the population have been raging for more than a hundred years. In all this time, while it has often been asserted that skinny models are the cause of extreme dieting and exercise in pursuit of a slim, toned, and youthful-looking body – and in recent decades whether models’ bodies inspire eating disorders – there is little hard data to support the claim, and we still await a definitive, scientific study. There is unarguably a relationship, but whether it is causal is moot. As the fashion sociologist Agnès Rocamora says, “While images of thin women may well influence us to desire certain clothes, and even thin bodies, whether that translates into actual eating disorders is another issue. I don’t know if it’s ever possible to substantiate.”