Fashion industry gets an insider's look in 'Pricing Beauty'

"Pricing Beauty: the Making of a Fashion Model" by Ashley Mears. University of California. 305 pages. $27.

By Adera Causey

We are bombarded with images of perfection from those shilling the clothes, food, dwelling and lifestyle accessories we covet. But we all know this is a mirage and what goes on behind the camera is much less charmed. This very calculated fraction of our economy is what Ashley Mears sets out to explore in "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model."

Mears is well positioned to write this book. A part-time model in high school, she left the industry for a life of academic sociology. A Columbia doctoral student, she is interrupted from her studies at a coffeehouse by a modeling scout who recruits her to join his agency. What some might see as a fantasy discovery, Mears sees as a dissertation opportunity, a chance to return to modeling both as a participant and as an academic observer.

With full disclosure to all involved, she enters the field with a mind filled with feminist theory, economic constructs and a toolbox of deconstruction theories. This is a deconstruction, not a destruction. She does not approach this as a takedown of the industry nor does she set forth a platform for scandal mongering. She writes with the stance of a relatively dispassionate observer exploring the mechanics behind the industry.

To do this, she signs up with agencies in New York and London that offer opportunities in editorial and catalog modeling. Through this she interviews models, clients, bookers, stylists and photographers in a diverse sampling that reflects the industry as a whole.

Her overriding, and at times over-emphasized, theory is that a reverse economy rules the modeling industry in several ways. The coveted editorial sector, with fashion-week runway shows and Vogue magazine shoots, has the greatest prestige but offers little to no financial reward. By contrast, the catalog portion of modeling, which ranges from television ads for Target to small-town advertising-circular modeling, is disparaged by those in the industry but offers primary financing for both agency and model.

Models for the more prestigious sector tend to be more unusual looking, thinner, taller, less diverse and deemed "ugly" by many consumers. Models for the catalog portion tend to convey more conventional beauty, can be slightly older and are significantly more diverse. Mears explores this reverse economy at length, presenting quantitative analysis and charts, anecdotal stories and more to bolster her theory.

This reverse model also applies to gender pay inequity. Modeling is one of the few fields in which women are paid exponentially more than men. She incorporates a great deal of gender theory and the politics of display to dissect this differentiation, ultimately relegating it to a complex form of gender discrimination. Due to these reversals, she places fashion both within, and as an exception to, the aesthetic industry as a whole.

While those in the industry perpetually blame the elusive "market" for these reverse forces, she calls industry players to task, with strong justification, as she places them as the primary operators in creating and supporting the very market forces they scapegoat.

Similarly she blames the industry for two well-documented ills: the unhealthy thin standards set for models (and for young women who emulate them) and the dearth of opportunities offered to models of color.

She feels the sting personally as she is asked to mask the Korean portion of her heritage to get jobs, a circumstance in which many other "ethnic" models are placed.

This book is, in essence, an academic study. The financial and statistical analyses and excessive use of critical theory may not be of interest to many lay readers. However, these are relatively well balanced with the stories and quotes from those in the industry and her accounts of balancing graduate seminars with catalog shoots.

Some of her academic theories are a bit too far-reaching, and her samples seem small to support such global theories. Yet her points are, by and large, well argued and her exploration relatively thorough.

Many may view the fashion industry as a slave to trends and a sector built on window dressing. But Mears' book proves the industry to be anything but thin on material as it offers a premium on pricing beauty.

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.