A model wearing sunglasses and a floral dress walks on a fashion show runway in an undated black and white image

A Brief History of Modeling — Breaking Conventions From Day One

Modeling is a well-known and highly coveted occupation in the 21st century. It is not uncommon to see children and even teens dress up in fashionable clothes and strut their stuff on a catwalk. Indeed, many of them look up to the models of their generation, including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Gisele Bündchen, and Tyra Banks, hoping to one day be just like them. With modeling being such an integral part of our society, it is hard to think of a time without it. Yet, modeling is more of a new concept, with the first official model only entering the scene in the mid 19th century. And in the early days, models were not as sophisticated and worldly as they are now.
Let’s explore the history of modeling. Learn about some of the important events that shaped the modeling industry and how models broke society’s conventions.

The 19th Century — The World’s First Introduction to Modeling

In Paris, France, arguably the current epicenter of the modeling industry, the first model was born. This model was none other than couture designer Charles Frederick Worth’s wife, Marie Vernet Worth, who modeled his clothing designs for his interested customers. For the first time, people could see a designer’s clothes in motion and get an idea of how the clothing would fit on their bodies.
However, the first “models” were not as glamorous as the models of the 21st century. In fact, the first models were not models at all, and that carried on into the early 20th century. Before Worth used his wife to model his clothes, mannequins were primarily used to display clothing. So, when living “mannequins,” as the first models were called, started to display clothing, they were thought of as inanimate objects, ways for designers to showcase their clothing in fashion salons. But that would soon change with the inventions of the 35mm Leica camera and modeling agencies.

The Early 20th Century — From to Mannequin to Supermodel

By the 1920s, these living “mannequins” were starting to be seen as people. The word “model” became synonymous with “mannequin,” and soon, it was the dominant term for someone in the modeling profession. Across the United States, department stores and retailers started staging fashion shows, and by 1923, John Powers opened the very first modeling agency in New York City.
In the 1930s, the 35mm Leica camera transformed photography forever, making it easier to take more shots and at different angles. For the first time, photojournalists were able to truly capture the models, putting both the clothing and the women wearing the clothing center stage. High-status women, and those who aspired to be them, flipped through pages and pages of models, allowing models to become central figures of culture in their own right.
Soon, modeling schools started to pop up all over the world, training young women how to perfect their posture and movement while establishing particular standards and expectations. Women who modeled just a decade or two ago eventually found out their bodies did not fit the new standards. In essence, more notoriety and money meant even narrower expectations.
However, the women who met those standards and excelled beyond them could have lucrative careers by the 1940s. Those who were favored by photographers were thought of as “in demand” models and could earn more than double the pay of other models. Some of the names that started to gain notoriety during early 20th century include:
  • Lisa Fonssagrives
  • Dorian Leigh
  • Fiona Campbell-Walter
  • Bettina

The Mid to Late 20th Century — The Emergence of the Supermodel and Industry Firsts

By the 1950s, models were changing the fashion industry and the way that the world looked at women. The 1950s also gave birth to the first British supermodel: Barbara Goalen. What makes her “super” or anyone a supermodel for that matter? When Goalen was married in 1954, the ceremony was mobbed by everyday people interested in her life. When the general public, not just the modeling and fashion industry, starts to become interested in your life, you know you have officially become “super.”
Models and supermodels started to grace magazines and other media outlets throughout the rest of the 20th century. And, like never before, they were breaking modeling and societal conventions, performing many firsts. Here’s simply a few:
  • Suzy Parker was one of the first to model a bikini, as well as the first to make $100,000 in a year.
  • Anne Marie Wooldridge helped to break the way too narrow conventions of beauty, becoming one of the first African American models, while Donyale Luna became the world’s first Black supermodeland Naomi Sims became the first Black woman to cover Ladies Home Journal.
  • While photographers used to help make models famous, by the 1960s, models were also helping budding photographers make names for themselves.
  • Fashion model Twiggy launched “Twiggy Tights,” becoming one of the first fashion models to launch their own fashion line.
  • Margaux Hemingway signed the first $1 million contract in 1975.
  • Christie Brinkley held the longest cosmetics contract in model history, becoming the face of CoverGirl for 25 years.
  • Carol Alt was the first model to produce her own posters and calendar.

The 21st Century and Beyond

Each decade produced firsts for the modeling industry and had its own flair. For example, the 1990s was known as the period of the “edgy” model. And Gisele Bündchen ushered in the age of the 2000s “bombshell.” Bündchen also helped further define that, in the modeling industry, anything is possible, especially in the 21st century. Australian model Miranda Kerr was able to cross over from modeling lingerie to high fashion. Natalia Vodianova was able to literally go from rags to riches. And Karlie Kloss, not only modeled high-end designer products and starred in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, but she also continued to teach young girls about software engineering and programming.

Model Extraordinaire Hope Smith

It was during the 2000s that former model Hope Smith rose to prominence. After winning a beauty contest in her home state of Texas as a teenager, Hope was signed by Wilhelmina Models and began modeling high-end fashion brands like Balenciaga, Patek Philippe, and Versace all over the world. Like many models of her decade, Hope aspired to do more than model. She worked to earn her esthetician license in 2003 and later opened her own spa in Houston, Texas in 2005. She eventually trained as a doula and is writing a book on the pregnancy and the childbirth process. In 2019, Hope went above and beyond and started her own luxury skincare company, MUTHA™. Furthermore, a percentage of the profits of MUTHA™ are donated to charitable organizations, and Hope herself makes personal donations to a variety of causes.
To learn more about broken conventions and firsts in the modeling industry, check out this Elle article. And you can learn more about Hope Smith’s rise to fame on her About page.