Pricing Beauty

The Seductions of Glamour

Admittedly, my familiarity with the world of high fashion is scant.  It consists almost entirely of an unabating teenage crush on supermodel Niki Taylor and delighted bemusement at watching Tyra Banks feebly attempt to turn modeling into a science in the formerly ubiquitous America’s Next Top Model.  So really, based on pre-existing interests and background knowledge alone, I have no business raving about Ashley Mears’ sociological study of the fashion world.  But I can’t help myself.

Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, spent years both observing – and working as a model in – two modeling agencies in New York and London.  In embodying this unique combination of participant and observer, Mears leads the reader through the curious world of fashion, and in the process, de-airbrushes the industry. The end result is a nuanced, and deliciously complicated depiction of an industry in which the most high status jobs are compensated with paltry wages (if any at all), where an international pool of willing “girls” compromise their self-confidence in the name of glamour, and where bookers and clients perpetually search for that elusive next “look,” that mysterious entity that no one can define but all claim to know when they see it.

From the inside, the world Mears reveals looks much different than its depictions in glossy photos and magazine spreads. The fashion world is really two worlds with two different logics.  In the world of commercial modeling, models with conventional “pretty” looks manage to carve out stable employment and consistent compensation by appearing in catalogues.  The work isn’t glamorous but its good work for those who can get it.  In the world of editorial fashion, models worked to cultivate an “edgy” look that will become the next big thing.  Glamorous jobs, such as Fashion Week catwalks or photo spreads in Vogue, are meagerly compensated (often only with ill-fitting clothes), but are vigorously pursued as they are the only ways to achieve that elusive supermodel status.  In the uncertain and competitive worlds of high fashion, most models inevitably fail, often leaving modeling in debt.  For those who can eke out a living in high fashion, it is a lifestyle of racing against the clock of aging, of constant bodily monitoring, and of insecure labor to meet ever elusive goals.  Only a handful ever sniff the status of a star.

It is toward the world of editorial fashion that Mears directs her most critical gaze.  The book’s analysis is at its best when following how various actors within this world – bookers, clients, and models themselves – work to construct a look.  There are some measurable aspects to the look.  For females you should be at least 5’9” with a 34” bust, a 24” waist, and 34” hips.  But ultimately these “hard” standards belie what is really a nebulous thing that emerges only from various taste making practices. For this reason, the bookers, the intrepid seekers of the look, constantly fail to articulate what it is.  And models are left vigilantly adhering to the hard measurements, their body ostensibly being the one thing under their control in this idiosyncratic world of taste with its floating norms.

Beauty is “neither in the model nor in the beholder” but has a specific logic that emerges in the relationship and cultural meanings of the fashion world. And as a good sociologist, Mears reveals how this uncertainty of finding the next “look” draws on racial and ethnic tropes, reproducing a problematic aesthetic that champions whiteness, no matter how professedly liberal the bookers and clients. She also delves into the odd world of male modeling, and the ways in which traditional gender inequalities (i.e. men earning more than women) are flipped in the world of modeling.

Though critical, Pricing Beauty is therefore no feminist diatribe. That would be too easy.  Instead, Mears conveys both the horrible labor practices and the sexiness of the industry, both the cruel insecurities of trying to narrow one’s waist and the power in feeling yourself being watched as an embodiment of beauty.   The ambivalence at the heart of the analysis comes across most clearly in those moments in which Mears reveals her own experiences and feelings as a model/researcher.  Trained in critical social science, having read the requisite literature of women’s studies, Mears would seem to be the ideal candidate to be able to resist the seductions of glamour.  And yet Mears herself gets caught up in it.  She gets star struck in the presence of major industry players, derives personal satisfaction from successful cat walks, and in the end, gets caught up in the anxiety of her agency dropping her, trying to meet the very impossible standards that she is criticizing. The social sciences have long held to standards of objectivity that admonish the researcher to take a view from nowhere, to exclude themselves from the analysis.  These norms are born, in part, from a justifiable argument that research should not devolve into navel gazing.  But part of their impetus originates in the realization that to explore your own feelings while maintaining perspective is incredibly hard to pull off.  Mears manages to avoid such pitfalls, and even more so, to draw on her own experiences to poignantly convey the motivations and ambivalence of the people she is studying.  Maintaining this balance is a feat, and because of her uncanny ability to pull it off, Mears has provided what will most likely prove to be the seminal sociological text on fashion.

Despite Mears’ own ambivalence, Pricing Beauty gives a sympathetic voice to the models, who typically are seen but not heard.  As they strive to make it in a world with opaque standards of beauty, as they struggle to maintain their self-confidence in the face of brutal criticism, as they cultivate a personality amenable to the fickle tastes of clients, and as they try not to laugh at the absurdity of being made to dance in their underwear under the watchful gaze of clients, we begin to identify with these indentured servants in a winner-take-all market.  In the arbitrariness of their successes and failures, we learn not only about the vagaries of the fashion market, but about striving in the savage economic climate of today, one where uncertainty, artifice, and deception reign.

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