The Model as Muse : Embodying Fashion at The Met

IMG_2162Supported and sponsored by Condé Nast and Marc Jacobs, The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion is a tribute to iconic models who have worked at the forefront of the industry in the 20th century. This exhibition started months ago from May 6th- August 9th, 2009, concurrently with the famous Costume Institute Gala at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in May 2009. Alas, not until its final week that I finally managed to pay a visit!

When I walked into this exhibition, I expected only to find compilation photos of models and supermodels throughout the years taken from high profile magazines and catalogs. Oh dear, I was wrong, this exhibition had a lot more to offer than that. Organized by historical period spanning 30 years from 1947 to 1997, this exhibition featured haute couture and ready-to-wear masterworks accompanied by fashion photography and video footage of models who became muses and icons to their generations. As I was complentating the photos, videos and installations, I also discovered and learnt the timeline of models when they first became a crucial part in defining designers’ collections, the birth of modeling agencies, the evolution of body type standard through the years, reminiscing the early start of the supermodel era, and so many more, which I wish I would be able to share them ALL here. (Believe me, it would be as thick as a thesis book! LOL). To cut it short, below is what I have managed to compile from various sources.

Yves Saint Laurent once said, “A good model can advance fashion by 10 years”, we can’t never deny how models have become sources of inspirations to fashion designers. Marie Vernet is considered by many as the first professional fashion model. In the late 1850s, Charles Frederick Worth, a Paris-based couturier, employed Mlle. Vernet to appear at social gatherings dressed in his confections. Later during the second quarter of the 20th century, it was a common practice to employ full-time in-house fit models whom designers would drap and construct a garment.

IMG_2187In the 30s and 40s, models in France were put on payrolls as house models of maisons de haute couture and broke down into these following categories;
Mannequins de cabine (house models), were expected to be hands-on during the boutique’s hours for design and construction fittings, also client showings.
Mannequins vedettes (star models) were the prized women of the boutique whose airs, movements and postures perfectly suited the look of the collection. They would be called in for seasonal showings, to model for extremely important clients, and to pose for press photos.
Mannequins volantes (flying models) were dispatched to travel as ambassadors of the house to present the collections abroad.
Mannequins mondaines (real-life models) was an elite group of women selected by fashion designers to circulate in la crème de la crème of the society dressed in the designer’s collections (often given for free or drastically reduced prices). These models were usually consisted of actresses, socialites, fashion editors, royal aristocrats, or even unknown women who possessed attention grabber quality.

In the golden age of haute couture, notably with Dior‘s legendary “New Look” spring collection in 1947, Dovima, Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, Sunny Harnett were few of the high fashion models in that era.
The “youthquake” in the  60s displayed Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Veruschka, Penelope Tree, Peggy Moffitt, Donyale Luna (the first African American model to grace the cover of Bazaar in 1965), Naomi Sims (another African American model who gained success in the late 60s).
The 70s marked the rise of all-American models like Jerry Hall, Lisa Taylor, Patti Hansen, Lauren Hutton, Renee Russo, and also “non-traditional beauties”, like Iman, Beverly Johnson, Janice Dickinson, Gia Garangi.
While the late 80s and early nineties chronicled the rise of supermodels (Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer, etc). Then came the unconventional beauties at the height of the grunge era, with Kristen Mcmenamy, Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta, Nadja Auermann, Karen Elson, etc. 

Later, an army of a new generation of models have arisen, representing different physical features. From the invasion of Amazonian models (Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Alexandra Ambrosio, and the gang), the very much in demand “pale and innocent” Eastern European beauties like Natalia Vodionova, Sasha Pivarova, etc), to quirky beauties beyond race and ethnicity, with a more “international look” (Irina Lazareanu, Coco Rocha, Behati Prinsloo, Agyness Deyn, Ai Tominaga, Du Juan etc.)

There would always be a regeneration of new models replacing those names above in the future. It was also mentioned that there are more and more designers today who prefer to use “unnamed faces” so they won’t interfere with the focus of the collection they’re presenting. But, it is impeccably hard to neglect the presence of these “muses” in the fashion industry.

Learn more of this exhibition here.  And watch the video below to experience the exhibition, courtesy of


The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion, May 6, 2009 – August 9, 2009. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, at 82nd St, New York.

Sources and images courtesy of:,,,

Below are the photos taken from different parts of the exhibition, courtesy of ZA *sorry for the distorted angles and blurry photos, we had to play hide and seek with the security guards. View more photos here.