“Work!:A Queer History of Modeling” by Elspeth Brown— “Modeling is Queer Business”

Brown, Elspeth. “Work!:A Queer History of Modeling”,  Duke University Press, 2019.

“Modeling is Queer Business”

Amos Lassen

Be prepared for several surprises about the modeling industry in Elspeth Brown’s “Work!”. We go from the haute couture runways of Paris and New York and editorial photo shoots for fashion magazines to reality television and see that models have been a  staple of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American consumer culture. Brown takes us through the history of modeling from the beginning of photographic modeling in the early twentieth century to the rise of the supermodel in the 1980s. We see how the modeling industry has been sanitized and commercialized regarding a models’ sex appeal in order to turn desire into commerce. Brown shows how this new form of sexuality has become a central element in consumer capitalism and a practice that has always been shaped by queer sensibilities. The paradox is that queerness is at the center of capitalist heteronormativity and telling the largely unknown story of queer models and photographers, Brown offers us a truly out of the ordinary history of twentieth-century American culture and capitalism.

We go back to the 1920s and see the showgirls and then move forward to fashion photographer George Platt Lynes leading ‘queer glamour’ in the 1930s and then to the  Black models of the 1950s and ’60s as Brown’s book changes and reshapes our understanding of the modeling industry.

 Brown’s exploration of modeling is intelligent and unexpected and totally original. Brown has done extensive research to reach her conclusions and she is able to bring theory, method, and empirical historical work together to give us a new understanding of capitalism, sexuality, and the image. Through anecdotes that surprise and educate us, I doubt we will ever be able to look at fashion again in the same way. Brown approaches her subject  historically and analytically and she is skilled in both. Below is the table of contents:

Table of Contents 

Acknowledgments  ix
Illustrations  xiii
Introduction  1
1. From the Artist’s Model to the Photographic Model: Containing Sexuality in the Early Twentieth Century  25
2. Race, Sexuality, and the 1920s Stage Model  69
3. Queering Interwar Fashion: Photographers, Models, and the Queer Production of the “Look”  103
4. Black Models and the Invention of the US: “Negro Market,” 1945-1960  163
5. “You’ve Got to Be Real”: Constructing Femininity in the Long 1970s  211
Epilogue  271
Notes  277
Bibliography  313

Leave a Reply