You can tell a lot about an era by its fashion models. In the 60s, the spirit of the youthquake was personified by the wide-eyed, Bambi-limbed Twiggy. In the early 90s, nothing said “sod the recession” like a glamazon who wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. In the ensuing two decades, Kate Moss represented not just a waifish appearance but a sphinx-like attitude, espousing the motto: “Never complain, never explain.”
But in the social media era, something new is happening. In the age of protest and fourth-wave feminism, it is no longer enough for models to slink down a catwalk anonymously: silence is starting to look seriously déclassé. The hot thing in modelling is not a look, but a viewpoint. It is having a voice and not being afraid to use it. It is TED talks and open letters. It is Instagramming pictures from protest marches and hosting debates about intersectionality. It is campaigning for charities and founding NGOs. It is outspoken. It is woke.
Socially conscious models are popping up everywhere. On the current covers of i-D and Love magazines is Adwoa Aboah, a woman whose relatively small stature (5ft 8in) has done nothing to thwart her towering success. As well as appearing on catwalks and campaigns for Dior and Versus Versace, Aboah runs an initiative called Gurlstalk; her Instagram page intersperses backstage fashion show photographs with moving posts on her struggle with depression.
Many of Aboah’s contemporaries equally refuse to conform to the archetype of the taciturn model. In both Love and i-D, Aboah appears with Slick Woods, a spliff-smoking 20-year-old based in New York who said in a recent interview: “I’m definitely an out-of-pocket pick for a model. I say what I want and do what I want.”
British model Leomie Anderson runs a website that publishes articles by women (a recent one was titled: What does Brexit mean for women and marginalised communities?) and sells clothing with empowering slogans. One of her hoodies, with “This p***y grabs back” on it, was worn by Rihanna on the New York Women’s March in January. Last month, during a Q&A at a Mayfair-based pop-up women’s space to mark International Women’s Day, Anderson argued that outspoken models are helping change the fashion industry from the inside out: “When I was younger I was told, ‘Modelling is going to be harder for you because you’re black’, and I just accepted it,” she said. “Now, with social media, we all have voices and opinions. Before, if it wasn’t on the news, who was talking about it?”
Of course, this is not the first time that models have taken a stance – in the 90s, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford said they would rather go naked than wear fur – but back then only a handful of models spoke out, and only once they were famous. Now, speaking out can bolster your career.
Many pinpoint the genesis of this trend to a 2013 TED talk by Cameron Russell, in which the Prada and Victoria’s Secret model skewered the fashion industry for its lack of diversity and argued that her success was part of a “legacy of gender and racial oppression”. If Russell had made a similar comment backstage at a fashion show – where a model’s traditional job is to quietly bend to the will of designers and stylists – you wonder if she would have worked again. Instead, she has flourished: the TED talk has been viewed more than 17m times, and Russell has become a Vogue cover star and a campaigner for sustainability in fashion. Her website has a page devoted to recruiting other models to become activists.
It could be argued that the rise of the socially conscious model reflects a very 2017 archetype: the “woke” young woman, who looks set to define femininity this decade in the same way that the lager-swilling ladette did in the 90s. It is also symptomatic of a broader cultural “awokening” that has reached the stuffiest institutions; even the royal family has recently relaxed its upper lip.
If models represent a fantasised ideal of women, it is telling that until recently most have been seen and not heard. In the mid-19th century, when they first appeared, they were known as “mannequins” and were “professionally silent”, according to Caroline Evans, professor of fashion history at Central Saint Martins. “They were haughty and glassy-eyed right from the beginning,” she says, recalling a 1920 anecdote where the designer Paul Poiret told an interviewer, while surrounded by models: “Do not talk to the girls, madame, they do not exist.”
Since then, dozens of models have found fame, but few for their opinions. Beverly Johnson, the first African American woman to appear on the cover of US Vogue in 1974, was a proto-model activist. “Not by choice but by circumstance,” she says. “I was 22 years old and I wasn’t looking for such a serious responsibility, but it was placed on me and I had to respect and honour it. I was interviewed by the New York Times and Time magazine and I had a platform,” she says. “I’ve seen both sides of the industry. When I look back on it, there were horrible times. Times when guys were hitting on you, you would go to the agency for protection and realise you were alone, as well as the race thing.”
However, Johnson feels that the representation of women in fashion has not seen a linear improvement, and that in some ways modelling was more progressive in her day than now. The late 80s and early 90s saw peak model power, when a supermodel’s fee was as central to her brand as her waist-hip ratio and the most famous quote to be attributed to a model – Linda Evangelista’s “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000” – was coined.
What followed in the mid-90s can be seen as the industry’s reaction to the power the supermodels held over it: Prada ushered in a trend for very thin, white models (the influential Italian megabrand famously did not have a single model of colour on its catwalks for 15 years), often scouting very young women from the previously untapped eastern Europe. Few became famous and rates fell drastically. The dearth of models of colour has been described as a “visual neo-colonialism”, part of a shift inside the industry that veteran casting agent James Scully attributes to a cabal of stylists and casting directors who, he says, don’t like women “and go out of their way to prove it on a daily basis”.
According to Scully, the rise of the fashion industry’s most damaging impulses can be causally related to the lack of models’ power. Models have got thinner, for example, he says, partially because “in the 1980s and 1990s, girls were bigger, and designers would remake the dress if they gained a few pounds. Now, they would just get rid of her.”
Social media has given models a voice just when they need it most. “On set, I’ve spoken up for myself, when a hair stylist has not been equipped to work with my texture of hair,” says Calvin Klein model Ebonee Davis, “and got a backlash. There’s an assumption that I’m a diva, an angry black woman.” Davis is one of many models who has taken the conversation online. Last summer, she wrote the industry an open letter. “Fashion, the gatekeeper of cool, decides and dictates what is beautiful and acceptable,” she wrote. “And let me tell you, it is no longer acceptable for us to revel in black culture with no regard for the struggles facing the black community.” She later delivered a passionate TED talk arguing that the “lack of value for black lives in the fashion industry is the same lack of value that leads to black people being gunned down in the street”.
The fear of losing work “did cross my mind”, she says, but “I felt that it was my duty, my responsibility, to tell the truth. That far overshadowed any doubts, because what I have to say is valuable. There are so many young black women who have experienced lack of self-esteem and feeling inadequate. As someone with a platform and with a voice, I have to stand up and use it.”
Davis’s Instagram feed combines shots of her bathing in waterfalls in a bikini with videos of her interviewing homeless war veterans; she is comfortable with the idea that being “outspoken” is part of her personal brand. The same is true of many of today’s burgeoning models, who have come of age in a climate in which the most successful celebrities – Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian – are multi-faceted one-woman businesses. Scully says that some models have shifted “from muse to marketing machine”. The models at the top of the tree – such as Gigi Hadid, who has 31.7 million Instagram followers – don’t simply model; brands fall over themselves to find novel ways to reach her followers, commissioning her to design clothes and photograph campaigns.
It makes sense that being “outspoken” would be aspirational in 2017, when writing a thinky Instagram post can be a route to free media coverage. Hadid is frequently celebrated as a truth-teller, even though a clear-eyed appraisal of her interviews and Instagram posts would suggest that she plays it pretty safe. She did march against Trump’s Muslim ban, and she has briefly alluded to her Palestinian heritage, but most of the activity that helped propel her to fame has not been genuinely contentious. She was much praised for writing open letters in response to online “body shaming” on social media, a topic that positions her as the underdog while enabling the media to run many pictures of her much-discussed “imperfections”, which, it must be said, are incredibly difficult to see with the naked eye.
There is nothing simple about being a successful “outspoken” model; the road to enlightenment is paved with discarded cans of Pepsi, as Kendall Jenner knows. Jenner is one of the few Insta-models who has retained an almost Moss-like silence for most of her career, despite growing up in front of the cameras as one of the stars of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Her recent debacle of a Pepsi advert – an attempt to sell fizzy pop by aping a symbolic moment from the Black Lives Matter movement – is a clear example of the pitfalls of a brand trying, and failing, to be woke. Jenner has so far kept shtum about the damaging media storm that followed, as well as further controversy after she appeared on a recent cover of Indian Vogue. The jury is out on whether her reticence on the matter has done her brand more harm than good.
Just weeks before the Pepsi furore, Karlie Kloss – a top model whose Instagram feed is peppered with concern about coral reefs – came similarly unstuck after dressing as a geisha for a photoshoot that ran, ironically enough, in US Vogue’s diversity issue. Anderson’s defence of Kloss suggests that a model’s influence can only go so far: “People attack Karlie Kloss, but as a model she had no say in what the editorial would be,” she says. “That’s the wrong person. You don’t always see a moodboard beforehand. You need to find out who the editor was, who commissioned it. Attacking the wrong people is never going to affect change.”
Still, Scully believes the power balance is shifting and that social media has helped to “extend the careers of some models that the industry was ready to toss away”. Models have campaigned for better treatment in the industry, and have won media coverage that could convince brands to take more care of them; Donald Trump’s modelling agency closed after model Maggie Rizer and others publicly denounced the boss. Models speaking out about racism and ageism and body fascism has piled pressure on the industry to become more inclusive. From Halima Aden appearing at Milan fashion week as the first hijab-wearing top model to the use of septuagenarian stars in underwear campaigns, society’s interpretation of what constitutes beauty is starting to look just a little more inclusive.
Beyond these small victories, however, you have to wonder if model-activism has a purpose beyond personal brand-building, and if the glut of photographs of models reading Simone de Beauvoir in the bath currently clogging the internet is doing much to further the feminist cause. Clearly, it is dispiriting that while young people contribute to an atmosphere in which protest and activism are fashionable, it was the over-65s who put Trump in the White House and won the Brexit vote. Still, for those of us who lived through the ladette years, and the time of Female Chauvinist Pigs, there is a little jolt of joy to be found in the fact that, right now, most models wouldn’t get out of bed for less than the empowerment of marginalised groups.
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