Tweens on the Runway
When did high fashion models get so young?
Critics of the latest extreme youthquake often point to sample sizes—clothes that are made for runway shows and magazine shoots and that usually range from size 0 to 2. Ben Barry, whose Toronto agency has made its name representing a more diverse collection of models than typically found on catwalks, says that 20 years ago, during the era of the supermodel, runway clothes ranged from 6 to 8, sizes that some agencies now consider “plus.”
Barry says designers claim that making smaller sizes allows them to save money by cutting back on the fabric and labor involved in creating expensive couture items. But this argument falls short, he points out, when you consider the hundreds of thousands of dollars fashion houses spend on runway shows. In any case, while casting directors and magazine editors blame the designers for making such small sample sizes, designers blame the agents, Barry says. If only the girls being supplied weren’t so thin, they could make bigger clothes!
Supply and demand also feed on each other in more toxic ways. Big fashion houses want “a girl no one has used before,” British modeling agent Carole White told the Guardian earlier this year. And it can’t hurt that the younger they are, the less they ask for and the easier they are to control. “You have more power, you have more influence, to guide and direct,” says a female scout in Girl Model, the disturbing documentary on model scouting that comes out in September.
The girls not only start young; they end young. Elizabeth Wissinger, a CUNY Sociology professor, says there are so many girls being scouted and so much desire for that new face that models progress from next-thing to no-thing in no time. An agent she interviewed remarked that “a good career now is three to five years.”
Girl Model shows scouts and agents in Siberia seizing triumphantly on the most promising girls, relieved to have snagged them before anyone else. In one scene, they admire photos of a 12-year-old in panties and thigh-highs, pronouncing her “extraordinary.” In another, a scout praises a skeletal 13-year-old named Nadya, whose youthful look she predicts will be perfect for the Japanese market. “She looks young, almost like a prepubescent girl,” the scout says.
Fashion sociologist Ashley Mears has written that over time, the fashion world’s notion of ideal womanhood has been reconceptualized as something less, well, womanly. If high fashion is created by the elite for the elite, everything about it must be unattainable. And “there’s something kind of average, a little too attainable and too cheap about curves,” Mears writes.
With womanhood suspect, it makes sense to put girls on the runway. They possess a quality most grown women don’t: They haven’t yet been polluted. Marc Jacobs—whose recent use of under-16 runway models, and of a sultry and incredibly young-looking Dakota Fanning in a perfume ad, ignited controversy—once remarked that youth was sexier than anything else. “I'm by no means a pedophile,” Jacobs said (a bad way to start a sentence), “but there's a purity to youth.” In Girl Model, an agent named Tigran puts it another way. He suggests that the pretty girls he finds in the shacks of Siberia have just two ways of escaping poverty: modeling or prostitution. Young girls have “dignity,” he says. They haven’t yet spread their legs.
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.