A recent issue of Vogue—arguably the world's most influential fashion magazine—included only eight nonwhite models in its advertising pages and just three in its editorial fashion spreads. A look at Vogue competitor Elle yields similar tallies: seven models of color in advertisements and one in the editorial spreads. Why the imbalance? And why are nonwhite models such a rarity in fashion on the whole?


hese are among the many questions Assistant Professor of Sociology Ashley Mears aims to answer in her forthcoming book examining the business of modeling, tentatively titled Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Mears describes herself as an ethnographer (someone who studies and records human culture) with interests in popular culture and markets. She became interested in studying the fashion model market as an undergraduate, when she learned in a sociology course that her seemingly glamorous part-time editorial modeling work could be classified as "precarious labor"—unpredictable and unstable employment prospects on par with that of day laborers. The business of modeling later became the subject of her doctoral dissertation, which she researched by continuing to model while attending graduate school, giving her a unique insider's view of the fashion world.

The first step in understanding the sparse distribution of ethnic models in the pages of Vogue and Elle, as well as many other peculiarities of fashion, says Mears, is to realize that the modeling industry is divided into two distinct categories—commercial and editorial—that are shaped by different market forces.

Commercial models appear in catalogs and advertisements and earn competitive, steady money, making them the "bread and butter" of modeling agencies, says Mears. A commercial model posing for a JCPenney catalog can earn $2,500 for a day's photo shoot, she says, with a percentage going back to her agency as a commission. These models rarely make a name for themselves, but they do make a living.

By contrast, editorial models—who walk the Fashion Week catwalks and appear in the editorial spreads of high-end and avant-garde fashion magazines—work for exposure and prestige rather than money. A day of shooting for a Vogue spread can pay as little as $150. What keeps these models going, and what keeps their agencies paying their bills, says Mears, is the hope that they'll gain enough status and name recognition to land contracts for high-end marketing campaigns, such as the advertisements for Versace handbags and Calzedonia swimwear that helped supermodel Gisele Bündchen earn an estimated $25 million last year.

Such superstardom is rare, but the chance at a grand payoff often lures modeling agencies into spending thousands of dollars on a young hopeful's plane tickets, photographs, and New York living expenses while they wait for her to make it big. "The agents are seduced by the gamble," says Mears. "It's like playing the lottery. You keep buying your tickets because the possibilities are so big, so seductive—and yet the probability is quite slight."

While the divide between commercial and editorial modeling is well understood in fashion circles, what Mears set out to explore in her research is how modeling agents (known in the industry as bookers) and their clients choose models—or pass models over—for particular commercial or editorial jobs.

The choice of commercial models turns out to be relatively easy to explain, especially for catalogs. The decisions are more about profits than aesthetics. The goal of casting directors in selecting models to appear in clothing catalogs is to sell clothes to consumers, so directors choose models they believe will appeal to those consumers. The "look" of most commercial models, then, says Mears, is "the standard, classic, heterosexual 'pretty,'"—what one booker described to her as "a better-looking version of the girl next door." And because most catalogs are trying to appeal to a broad demographic, commercial casting directors usually choose at least some nonwhite models for their projects. Measuring a casting director's success in choosing catalog models is a simple matter of tracking which clothes sell and which ones don't—and in the Internet age, a matter of tracking which models' photos get the most clicks.

"The agents are seduced by the gamble. It's like playing the lottery. You keep buying your tickets because the possibilities are so big, so seductive—and yet the probability is quite slight."

—Ashley Mears

The choice of editorial models is more complicated. "It's a very peculiar realm," says Mears, "because it's a place where consumers almost don't matter. The people who are making the latest fashion spread for some avant-garde magazine aren't concerned with what the average consumer wants to see. They don't really care." What they care about, Mears argues, are the opinions of other fashion tastemakers—the elite photographers, magazine editors, and fashion designers of New York, Paris, London, and Milan. "They're concerned with what other high-end producers want to see."

When editorial bookers and casting agents talk about the look of editorial models, says Mears, the word they always use is "edgy." Editorial models are often not conventionally pretty, but instead push the boundaries—the edges—of convention in some new and different way. Modeling agents are constantly trying to discover the next edgy look, she says, a task that's fraught with uncertainty and economic risk. With no catalog sales or corporate specifications to guide them, they're left to anxiously guess at what fashion editors like Vogue's Anna Wintour will want to see next. As the pages of Vogue and the Fashion Week runways reveal, their guess is almost always an ultra-tall, ultra-thin, white model.

Mears interviewed bookers and other fashion producers in an attempt to understand these guesses. When asked directly about their preference for white models, they insisted racism plays no part in their decisions. "They tried really hard to say, 'We're not racist. This isn't anything about race. It's just an aesthetic,'" says Mears. It just so happens, they told her, that ethnic models don't fit the image they're trying to project. When they're searching for a face and a body for the sophisticated, high-class aesthetic they're trying to create, they say they just don't find minority women who fit the bill.

Editorial models are often not conventionally pretty, but instead push the boundaries—the edges—of convention in some new and different way.

They don't realize, says Mears, it's a white bill to begin with. "So it comes down to race," she says, "but it's a more subtle way of thinking about how race matters." The market for editorial fashion models, she argues, follows an invisible hand of racism, a subconscious association of whiteness with status that's deeply rooted in Western cultural history. With time—and with the Obamas in the White House and on the covers of GQ and People—this perception may change, says Mears, but she hasn't yet seen evidence of that on the fashion runways.

Studying high fashion is fascinating, she says, because aesthetics are an embodiment of culture—studying the things we consider to be beautiful reveals much about the society in which we live. The scarcity of models of color in editorial fashion spreads, for example, is strong evidence that America hasn't yet become the post-racial society many would like it to be. ■


  • Trade Secrets

    Egyptologist Kathryn Bard unearths nautical artifacts from the ancient Red Sea trade.

  • Cool Place, Not Much Atmosphere

    Astronomy Professor John Clarke and his team of researchers have won a NASA bid to send a spacecraft to Mars.

  • Stories Under Glass

    Curator Clara Drummond (GRS'02, '04) sparks visitors' curiosity by taking a fresh approach in her Jane Austen show at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan.

  • A Physics Curveball

    Passionate baseball fan and physics doctoral student Alexander Petersen (GRS'11) and his colleagues "detrend" baseball stats to reveal who really are the best players of all time.

Arts & Sciences Magazine home