Fifty Years Of Models As Muses "The Model As Muse" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York chronicles 50 years of models from the fashion industry.

Fifty Years Of Models As Muses

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The Model As Muse show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been a crowd pleaser since it opened in May. Why not? It's a chronological tour of 50 years of stunning gowns and classic photographs of many, many gorgeous models. As we toured the show with Harold Koda, the curator-in-charge of the Met's Costume Institute, and guest curator cultural historian Kohl Yohannon, we learned the show was far more than a 3D magazine.

(Soundbite of song, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) A pretty girl is like a melody…

STEWART: What did you need to accomplish to make this exhibit more than just beautiful pictures of beautiful people?

Mr. HAROLD KODA (Curator-In-Charge): If this was a question of full context and it was to challenge the idea of what fashion is, fashion is more than a dress. When you come out of this exhibition, you begin to conceive of the women who wore the clothes as being part of that very look, shaping it, contributing to it, not just reflecting it.

STEWART: The show begins in 1947. It was the year that a famous photo was published, a major modeling agency was founded, and a French designer created a new style. Harold Koda showed us the picture taken by fashion photographer Irvin Penn.

Mr. KODA: An iconic photograph of the 12 most photographed women in the world, which is a moment when the photographic model establishes a place, has an identity in the fashion world. There is the establishment of the Eileen Ford Agency. She established the fashion model as a respectable profession. And finally there was an extraordinary thing that was happening in Paris, which is Christian Dior was establishing his house and in 1947 launched the New Look.

STEWART: Yohannon and Koda enthusiastically pointed out the emblematic style of each decade. In the '40s it was the portraits of models who make themselves nearly concave, hips thrust forward, back arched and painted face staring into the camera. It was the signature pose of Christian Dior's New Look.

Mr. KODA: The New Look was reiteration of a turn of the 20th century corseted body. And so you had women who had a constricted waist, bras that pushed up the bust, and girdles that actually suppressed the buttocks.

The great model, if you look at the photographs, is able to animate despite all of this armor-like carapace that's hidden under the soft cloth, the great model was able to animate that by a modulation of her arms, the stretch of her neck, the positioning of her legs.

(Soundbite of movie, "Funny Face")

Ms. AUDREY HEPBURN (Actor): (As Jo Stockton) I don't want my hair cut. I don't want my eyebrows up or down. I want them right where they are.

STEWART: A clip of the '50s classic "Funny Face," with Audrey Hepburn as a reluctant fashionista, is projected behind some of the real couture gowns of the same era. The gowns are part of the Met's archives and have been taken out of storage for the show. There are display cases with old magazines featuring some of the best known models of the time. Some were surprising back stories, like Dorian Leigh, one of the 12 beauties photographed by Irvin Penn in 1947. The surprise here: her height.

Mr. KODA: Five-four.

STEWART: Five-four, Dorian Leigh?

Mr. KODA: Good things come in small packages.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KODA: Yes, this fantasy that all models were six feet tall amazons from day one, it's just not true. They ranged in size more so in the past, in fact. Dorian Leigh was extraordinary, not just for exquisite beauty, but at five-four her proportions read exquisitely on (unintelligible) she looked tall when she needed to look tall, she looked petite when she needed to look petite.

STEWART: Is it a chicken - as our cultural historian, is it a chicken and the egg sort of scenario, the way the models' bodies changed from someone who was petite and super-feminine like Dorian Leigh to Twiggy who - boyish, no hips, small breasts, to the all-American glamazons of the '70s?

Mr. KODA: I think to a large extent body types can be reactionary to a past period. So we could look at Twiggy certainly as a denunciation and renouncement of the lady-like more curvy, more status-driven looks of the 1950s.

(Soundbite of song, "My Generation")

THE WHO (Rock Group): Why don't you all fade away, talking about my generation, don't try to dig what we all say…

STEWART: I think this is the loudest exhibit at the Met. We're entering the '60s.

Mr. KODA: Again, the type has changed and you're seeing a body change. The leg is completely elongated and there's a sensuality showing up in the photography. This is new. There were no sexy photographs, particularly in the 1940s and '50s. It was more about a look but don't touch, rarified body sophistication that gives way to the youth generation and the sexual liberation of the 1960s, as seen in as much of a gaze as an alluring come-hither look in the photography.

STEWART: In the '60s gallery, there's an assortment of body-revealing dresses, some short, some with suggestive cut-outs. The gallery is dominated by three rotating silver medal dresses reflecting light off the walls. And in the photos there's a nod to the changing politics of the time.

Mr. KODA: And our view of beauty essentially expands in the 1960s with the inclusion of varying forms of minority models. So we have Danielle Luna(ph) in the early 1960s, the first truly celebrated great black model, who puts a real focus on style, personal style and presentation on the runway. In 1964 she gains the cover of British Vogue.

(Soundbite of song, "Beast of Burden")

THE ROLLING STONES (Rock Band): …pretty, pretty girl…

Mr. KODA: In the 1970s, the fashion story was the female body.

STEWART: Female sexuality was essentially unleashed during this decade. Nudity, body-hugging fabric that left little to the imagination, with models posing in sexually aggressive ways. One picture from Vogue caused quite a controversy.

Mr. KODA: Here you see Lisa Taylor(ph) in 1975 shot by Helmut Newton, essentially inverting the male gaze. Here she is looking on to a man, a headless man in tight fitting clothing with a sense of entitlement. She can if she wishes…

STEWART: Sitting like a guy.

Mr. KODA: Exactly…

STEWART: She is sitting like a guy, I will say it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KODA: Sitting like a guy. And this outraged people, strangely enough, post-feminism. There were cancellations to Vogue because of this photograph.

(Soundbite of song, "Freedom")

Mr. GEORGE MICHAEL (Singer):(Singing): Freedom, freedom, you've gotta give for what you take.

STEWART: And the '80s was the era of maybe three or four women particularly who everyone knew their names, like I'm not sure that the average trucker in the '50s maybe knew Suzy Parker. But I'm pretty sure they knew Cindy Crawford and they knew Christy Turlington.

Mr. KODA: And if you look back, interestingly…

Unidentified Man #1: And (unintelligible) knew Noami.

Mr. KODA: …supermodels were huge in the 1980s because the idea of fashion was huge and the women that were perhaps the core of this, the trinity - Linda, Naomi and Christy - became the ultimate hood ornament of 1980s excess, spent money and huge fashion statements. They were news in and of themselves.

STEWART: Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington. It was a time of big hair, bigger paychecks, faces that sold us everything. The pictures are more commercial, the models sometimes more important than the clothing.

Mr. KODA: And what happens as in any great movement, if we reach the high renaissance from those late 1980s with the perfection and apotheosis of the supermodel, what's around the corner is a mannerist period. It's grunge.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. KODA: In 1992, you're looking at a complete breakdown of the normative ideals of fashion and beauty with the grunge collections of Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs. Models like Kate Moss, Christine McMenamin(ph), Alec Wec Ledo(ph). These are extraordinary, unusual, unconventional-looking women who really expand the ideal of what it meant to be beautiful.

STEWART: A series of well-considered rags worn by waifish sad-eyed beauties finishes the exhibit in a room filled with graffiti and the melancholy music of the time. The exhibit stops here, in 1997, 50 years over which the ideal of beauty has transformed from the impenetrable, tightly-bound, primly made-up models of the 1950s to the casual, almost sloppy elegance of grunge, each epitomizing and projecting the ideals of their decades, the model as muse.

STEWART: I have been struggling a little bit with the title of the exhibit, not struggling in a bad way, but trying to figure out - for whom is the model the muse? Is it for the photographer or is it for the designer?

Mr. KODA: Well, actually it's neither, and both, because the truth is the model is a muse for a generation.

STEWART: The Model as Muse exhibit runs through August 9th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. To see pictures from the exhibit, you can always go to our Web site, npr.org.

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