One of the most uncomfortable truths about the fashion industry is that most models begin working when they are in their early teens or even tweens; they are children. In this editorial, Vogue Paris cuts right to the chase.
These pictures have been pretty roundly criticized for sexualizing children. And the intended message clearly has a lot to do with that very uncomfortable topic: The subjects are obviously children, but they're covered in makeup and styled in sexy dresses and too-big high heels. The girls' very adult poses preclude any reading of this editorial as a light-hearted riff on little girls playing dress-up.
But it's also obvious from the over-the-top styling and the overall lurid quality that this story is a parody and a critique of the fashion industry's unhealthy interest in young girls, not an endorsement or a glamourization of it.
Here are just a few of the models who began working extensively at the ages of 12, 13, and 14: Tanya Dziahileva. Chanel Iman. Karlie Kloss. Lindsay Wixson. Monika Jagaciak. Current Vogue Paris covergirl Daphne Groeneveld. Going back further: Kate Moss. Brooke Shields. Patti Hansen. Niki Taylor. Kimora Lee Simmons. Bridget Hall. Gisele Bündchen. Karolina Kurkova. Linda Evangelista. Christy Turlington. I could go on.
Girls who get scouted are thrust into a very adult working environment. Suddenly, they become girls who are signed as independent contractors to agencies that may screw them over. Girls who may be asked to do nude work. Girls who in any case have to change clothes at jobs in full view of perhaps dozens of photographers. (Someone went to the trouble to extract, from a documentary about Marc Jacobs, ten seconds' worth of footage of Dziahileva changing her clothes. The YouTube clip is dated October 21, 2007; Dziahileva was 16 when the segment was uploaded, although who knows how old she was when it was shot. It's been viewed nearly 400,000 times.) Many models are just girls — girls whose jobs are often in direct conflict with their attempts to complete a high school education, girls for whom an ordinary day at work is to be directed by their employer to wear a see-through shirt without a bra. Like the Romanian model Diana Dondoe says in Picture Me, "How could you put a 14-year-old in a sexy dress and tell her to be sexy, when she's probably never had sex?"
The industry's preference for young models is aptly explained by Toronto agent Elmer Olsen, who has discovered and/or managed such stars as Daria Werbowy, Alana Zimmer, Tara Gill, and Amanda Laine. Olsen told Canada's Fashion magazine in 2005:
"Once a girl has had her 20th or 21st birthday, she's usually very set in her ways. She has a style already, she has a boyfriend, she doesn't want to get braces on her teeth, she knows best. It's much, much easier to groom a younger girl. Sixteen is the perfect age to get a girl started, because she's more confident than a 14-year-old; she's just turning into a young woman. But 14 is great, too, because if I don't sign a 14-year-old one of my competitors is going to."
For the most part, the whole conceit works, because after all, they look the part; These children are hand-picked by the industry for their age-exceptional height and physical development. So fashion fills its magazine editorials, runway shows, and ad campaigns with teenagers whom it styles to impersonate adults — with the right makeup, and the right photography, the illusion isn't hard to pull off. Consumers largely take these images at face value, because in our post-supermodel age, one model is very much like another. The fact that some models are richly rewarded for their time is also seen as sufficient excuse for the industry's SOP — and the fact that most models aren't, well, that goes unmentioned. Besides, models are the messengers for many of fashion's most pernicious ideas about how adult women should look and weigh and be — their participation in that system alone is enough for most women to feel no special warmth or affinity for these children.
But when an editorial like this comes out? When a stylist — Melanie Huynh — and a photographer — Sharif Hamza — somehow get it in their minds to viciously satirize an industry that so fetishizes youth that it pretends adolescents are preferable substitutes for grown women? And when a respected fashion magazine — Vogue Paris — has the balls to publish their horrifying Toddlers in Tiaras-on-speed work? When that happens, cue the outrage! Won't someone think of the children. Maybe not of these children in particular — identified only as Lea, Prune, and Thylane — or of the children who fill magazine pages everywhere, but, you know, of the children in general.
It's reminiscent of the outrage that greeted the release of Brooke Shields' and Kate Moss' infamous Calvin Klein ads. Although accused of sexualizing the girls they depicted, the thing is that the pictures in question actually showed Moss and Shields as their real — and really young — ages. Ironically, what mostly escaped scrutiny were all the other ads and editorials Moss and Shields had been doing while made up to look like the adults they weren't.
I'm not going to pretend Carine Roitfeld's motives for publishing this shoot are to "raise awareness" or some shit: She's made her magazine famous for seeking "edgy" content, and boosting her circulation significantly. Roitfeld is not particularly given to fashion shoots where models jump in front of greige backgrounds; She prefers to run editorials lampooning health advice for pregnant women and exploring satanism. She's also published pictures of very young models styled in ways that are, to put it mildly, questionable — a particular shot from February, 2005, of a 16-year-old Gemma Ward in a polka-dotted dress, playing with dolls, comes to mind.
Roitfeld clearly knew this story would be controversial, and Roitfeld has always courted controversy. But this spread is a not-so-subtle fuck you to our culture's unhealthy obsession with youth (in general) and the fashion industry's (in particular), and to the commodification of childhood that comes with both. Is this story "tasteful"? Hell no. Does it "sell" the clothes? Not really. Is it pleasant to look at? Of course not. But that doesn't mean it isn't good for us to see.
Vogue Paris 'Cadeaux' [Sharif Hamza Studio]