A Queer History of Modeling

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 79 illustrations, incl. 71 in color Published: May 2019

American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Fashion, Gender and Sexuality > Sex and Sexuality

From the haute couture runways of Paris and New York and editorial photo shoots for glossy fashion magazines to reality television, models have been a ubiquitous staple of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American consumer culture. In Work! Elspeth H. Brown traces the history of modeling from the advent of photographic modeling in the early twentieth century to the rise of the supermodel in the 1980s. Brown outlines how the modeling industry sanitized and commercialized models' sex appeal in order to elicit and channel desire into buying goods. She shows how this new form of sexuality—whether exhibited in the Ziegfeld Follies girls' performance of Anglo-Saxon femininity or in African American models' portrayal of black glamour in the 1960s—became a central element in consumer capitalism and a practice that has always been shaped by queer sensibilities. By outlining the paradox that queerness lies at the center of capitalist heteronormativity and telling the largely unknown story of queer models and photographers, Brown offers an out of the ordinary history of twentieth-century American culture and capitalism.


"Whether it’s the showgirls of the 1920s, fashion photographer George Platt Lynes spearheading 'queer glamour' in the 1930s, or the groundbreaking Black models of the 1950s and ’60s, Brown’s book will reshape our understanding of the modeling industry." — Evette Dionne, Bitch

"Modelling is a queer business in every sense of that word. Brown’s exploration of it is fascinating: intelligent and unexpected in the turns that its analysis takes. This is no glib foray into celebrity culture, no superficial survey of supermodels. . . . A strikingly original, non-normative telling of 20th-century culture." — Shahidha Bari, Times Higher Education

"Everyone from armchair fashionistas to modeling industry executives will find something to ponder in this original, creative, and beautifully queer examination of the international fashion machine and the role of the human model." — Jim Piechota, Bay Area Reporter

"Work! is a deep dive into the history of a profession that is often regarded by many with surface-level thought. Modeling is often tasked to help create an image worth a thousand words, but Brown successfully uses more than that to show how the vocation and its inherent queerness pervades multiple aspects of America’s culture." — Alex Tunney, Lambda Literary Review

"Exploring both fashion stills and the history of live modelling that eventually shaped black drag, Brown’s Work! is revelatory because it is intersectional and, arguably, the first comprehensive historical treatment of this lucrative industry, where various forms of influential queerness have been hiding in plain sight." — Nathalie Atkinson, Globe and Mail

"A necessary addition to the fields of LGBTQ and fashion scholarship. . . . Brown’s book is a study in strength and courage inside a system predicated upon inequality, injustice, and harm—a beacon of light in a time of darkness and a reminder that there is far more to an image than meets the eye." — Miss Rosen, Feature Shoot

"The book is a pleasure to read, full of interesting anecdotes about celebrated photographers like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Adolph de Meyer, Horst P. Horst, George Platt Lynes, and Edward Steichen. It is also illustrated with color photographs from the world of fine art and the pages of magazines like Vogue, Ebony, and Jet. This is a book for scholars and enthusiasts of fashion. . . . Recommended. All readers." — T. Nygard, Choice

"In studying the evolution of modeling from so many points of view—in terms of queer theory, affect theory, and the history of capitalism—Brown’s research enlarges the background of both fashion studies and business history." — Simona Segre Reinach, Business History Review

"Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Elspeth Brown’s Work! offers an intersectional framework through which the reader is able to consider the history of capitalism, queerness, and studies of affect and emotion through the lens of fashion, advertising, and the model. … Brown’s work is unique in that it offers a narrative that sits uncomfortably between celebratory firsts for black models and gay photographers and the stereotyped messages inherently and, at times, unintentionally embedded within the fashion and advertising images." — Jennie Woodard, History

"Across the book’s five chapters—each vividly illustrated—Brown looks at the proliferation of ways that female bodies could be displayed: in couture houses, on stage, in print advertisements, as part of Hollywood’s creation of glamour and in high-end fashion publications. At each juncture she explores the shifting relationship between desire and commerce, observing the 'de-eroticised, public sexuality embodied by those selling clothes, goods and ideals. Describing those models who performed a kind of 'material seduction'—one existing at a distance, alluring in its intangibility—Brown traces the subversive potential in the business of visual fantasy." — Rosalind Jana, TLS

“Rigorously researched and eloquently argued, Work! is a brilliant and unique book that merges theory, method, and empirical historical work to create a new understanding of capitalism, sexuality, and the image. Elspeth H. Brown changes our approach to the history of sexuality and sets a new standard for studies of capitalism and culture.” — Nan Enstad, author of Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism

“Elspeth H. Brown queers fashion modeling in a much-needed, highly readable way, with anecdotes that will surprise and educate even the most seasoned of fashion studies scholars. Her skill as a historian and nuanced analyst are on clear display through quality scholarship that brings the disparate fields of queer theory, affect studies, and the history of capitalism into fruitful conversation. A must-read for scholars of media and the body!” — Elizabeth Wissinger, author of This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elspeth H. Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, coeditor of Feeling Photography, also published by Duke University Press, and author of The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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
Index  337
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Finalist, Mary Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women's and/or Gender History, presented by the Organization of American Historians

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0033-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0026-6
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