A Queer History of Modeling

Forthcoming from Duke University Press

1. Lily Yuen with fellow performers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 2. Ruth Ford portrait by George Platt Lynes, c. 1930. 3. Sara Lou Harris on the cover of Jet magazine, June 18, 1953. 4. Teri Toye wearing Stephen Sprouse, Fall 1984, portrait by Paul Palmero, photo courtesy of Teri Toye.

Work! A Queer History of Modeling, forthcoming from Duke University Press, is the first historical analysis of the commercial modeling industry, exploring the complex relationship between visuality, the body, and the market in modern American history and culture.  The book dates, 1909-1983, and traces a history from the beginning of commercial modeling (as distinct from modeling for artists) to 1983, when black models—following the lead of 1960s models such as Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims—succeeded in breaking the modeling industry’s color line (however tenuously, given the current state of affairs). The book demonstrates the central role that models have played in produding sales through the affective labor of posing for the lens, or appearing with commodities in a real-time setting.

The narrative arc of Work! concerns the relationship between sexuality and the market. Through six chapters, I show how the work of modeling moved from a perceived zone of illicit sexuality in the early 20th century, predicated on working class practices of “treating” and sexual barter, to a thorough imbrication of sexuality and market appeal in the late 20th century. Specific chapters explore the 1920s stage models, both black and white (also the first ‘showgirls’); the birth of the modern modeling agency in interwar New York City and the rise of the photographic model; the transatlantic circulation of "queer glamour" in the work of Vogue fashion photographers like George Platt Lynes and his queer networks; the rise of black modeling in relationship to changing race relations in the 1950s and 1960s; and the reluctant integration of fashion model agencies in the 1960s and 1970s. Major themes for the project overall include the sexual and gender politics of modeling work; the role of the body and of representation in the production of commercialized public feeling; and the relationship between sexuality and the market in historical perspective. 

This research project has been supported by: the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Library of Congress’ Kluge Center; Duke University Special Collections; and the American Council of Learned Societies.  

Published research from this project includes:

Elspeth H. Brown, "Queering Glamour in Interwar Fashion Photography: The "Amorous Regard" of George Platt Lynes." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 23 no. 3, 2017, pp. 289-326. 

Elspeth H. Brown, "The Commodification of Aesthetic Feeling: Race, Sexuality, and the 1920s Stage Model." Feminist Studies40, no. 1 (2014): 65-97.

Elspeth H. Brown, “From Artist’s Model to the ‘Natural Girl’: Containing Sexuality in Early Twentieth Century Modelling” in Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger, eds., Fashion Models: Modeling as Image, Text, and Industry (Bloomsberg, 2012).

Elspeth H. Brown, “Black Models and the Invention of the U.S. ‘Negro Market,’ 1945-1960” in Detlev Zwick and Julien Cayla, eds., Inside MarketingPractices, Ideologies, Devices (Oxford University Press, 2011), 185-211.

Elspeth H. Brown, “De Meyer at Vogue: Commercializing Queer Affect in First World War-era Fashion Photography Photography and Culture, November 2009 vol. 2, no. 3, 253-275.

Elspeth H. Brown, “Marlboro Men, Modeling, and Outsider Masculinities in Postwar America,” in Regina Lee Blaszczyk, ed., Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2007), 187-207.