Book Review: Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, by Ashley Mears

Pricing Beauty: The Making of A Fashion Model, by Ashley Mears

I meant to recommend this book when I first read it, in 2013. A few of the numbers on charts Mears supplies have changed in the intervening years since it was published [University of California Press, 2011.] But I enjoyed reading it a second time.

When I checked it out of the library again this month, I started by putting a sticky note on every page that had something worth quoting. This is what it looked like by page 78, when I switched to jotting down page numbers in a notebook: pricing beauty with post its

In other words, as an industry outsider, I found it fascinating, surprising, and informative; it’s an insider’s account, and because she was a working model before and while doing her research, Mears was able to interview a great many people who might not have been so frank with a university academic they didn’t know. But Mears is a sociologist, so she’s very aware of the necessity for interviewing a reasonably large sample of bookers, models, fashion editors, stylists, photographers and designers in New York and London, and thoroughly documenting her research.

Is It Too Academic for the People Who Really Need to Read It?

The drawback is that the 14 year-old would-be model who really needs to know this stuff is probably not going to be able to read the book. It’s a college level sociology book. If you’re an adult who knows an aspiring model, you might want to read it and drop a few facts from Pricing Beauty into conversation. Frequently. (Incidentally, you can read Chapter One at her publisher’s website. Just click here.)

Money Matters for Models: Some Basics

For example, in 2009, when Mears did most of her research, a few — very few — of the catwalk models were paid $20,000 per show. But the average pay was $1000, and some catwalk models were paid . . . zero.  (Figure 2.1, page 47.)  Sometimes models are “paid” in clothes — not the clothes they wore on the catwalk, but unsold samples from previous years’ collections — which might or might not fit.

At the time of writing, “Vogue magazine [paid] about $150 for a day’s work of eight hours, plus an extra $300 for appearing on the cover. . . . Many magazines in New York and London pay nothing at all, [my italics] though lunch and snacks are often provided.” (p. 46) (The Vogue payments have risen. On the other hand, 11 out of 12 Vogue covers featured celebrities, not models.)

Of course, to work as a model, you have to live in some of the world’s most expensive cities; in addition to housing, you need to pay for transportation to casting calls, for test shoots, photos for your portfolio and composite cards, travel and visas, messenger and FedEx fees, etc. At the modeling agency that represented Mears in New York (she was also represented by a British agency in London), just 5% of the models earned over $100,000 a year. Another 20% had to borrow money from their agencies to cover their expenses, and ended up as much as $15,000 in debt. (Figure 2.4, page 61.)

Models also have to buy fashion magazines — the most expensive ones — to get their own photos (“tear sheets”) when they appear in them, and the smart model studies the names of the most influential designers, photographers, clothing lines, etc. You don’t want to show up for a casting call at Armani dressed in ragged jeans.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

One male model Mears interviewed would have had a different career if he had understood some of the things covered in this book. Because he had earned 10,000 English pounds [over $15,000] for a major campaign early on, he repeatedly turned down magazine jobs that paid nothing, and eventually was blacklisted. Only later did he understand that the most prestigious magazines pay nothing — in money — because the prestige of appearing in them enhances a model’s value for future jobs. Models are often expected to do “editorial” work for free — while actually losing money because of transportation and other expenses — on the chance that they will eventually hit the jackpot with an exclusive contract or major campaign. And agencies are willing to lose money on “editorial” models, hoping that he or she will turn out to be that rare and exotic creature who makes millions.

This paradoxical dichotomy between “commercial” work and “editorial” work is a central theme of Pricing Beauty — Mears calls it a “reverse economy.”

Commercial versus Editorial Modeling

Commercial models, who pose for clothing catalogs in print and online, who model designer samples in showrooms for store buyers, appear in advertisements, and occasionally cross over into catwalk or “editorial” jobs, tend to be conventionally pretty, at least 5’9,” “size 2 to size 6,” and “typically at least eighteen years old.” One model, “the highest consecutive earner year after year at [her agency],” didn’t meet most of these criteria; she was a designers’ and manufacturers’ fitting model, a perfect size 8; she earned $500 an hour and worked every day, week in, week out. That’s $10,000 to $20,000 a week — most weeks, not just “Fashion Week.” But you’ll never see her photo in a fashion magazine. She gets paid in money, not prestige. It’s commissions on low-prestige models like her that keep the agencies running. But “a model who becomes ‘known’ for commercial work is essentially out of the running for the jackpot.” (p.39)

Prestige is for “editorial models,” variously described as “edgy,” “strong,” “unusual,” “strange-looking,” and “absolute freaks.” Editorial models are more likely to be age 13 to 22, size zero to size 6. They are the ones who can end up owing thousands to their agencies, because they work for next-to-nothing (or nothing — see above) except prestige, and a slim chance — no pun intended — at winning the gold ring:  supermodel status, being the one with “the look.”.

The difficulty is that no one really knows what the winning “look” will be. “The fact that Tyra Banks fails season after season to really launch America’s next top model is further evidence,” writes Mears, wryly.

A Few Drawbacks to the Job

Models are “independent contractors” — hired for day labor (like the men you see outside a paint store or contracting-supply house, hoping for a day’s work.) Models don’t get health coverage or a pension plan unless they arrange them for themselves. Foreign models have money withheld for taxes, but most models have to remember put it aside themselves.

Also, their extreme youth — many female models “age out” at 23 — means their prime working years are the same years when they would otherwise be finishing high school and training for a career they could still be doing in their fifties.

Male models are paid much less than female models, but can start later (after high school or college) and can continue working when they are mature, or even graying. As one agency man said, “Men toughen up over time, but no one wants a tough woman.” (p.97)

All models have to get used to “the gaze,” which objectifies them, and to humiliating comments about their appearance, and to constant rejection (usually without learning why they were rejected.) Mears was instructed to lie about her age — even when she was just nineteen. When measured by her agency, Mears saw the measurements that were written down (31″- 25″- 35.5.”) Two days later she saw the composite card that her agency would supply to clients: it said she was 32″- 24.5″- 35.” (She was also rehearsed to remember that she was “18 years old” when she was 23.) When a client gave her a pair of pants to model, and they were too tight, the humiliation was hers. This “erroneous inch” can also get a model fired for “non-compliance” — not being the size it says on your card.

“Entry into and success in the field is beyond workers’ control.” (p.78)

“Of the 40 models in this study, only 6 actively sought out a career by approaching agents, while the majority [85%] entered the field” after being approached by an agent. (p. 78.)  In fact, the book begins with a model scout telling Mears, “You’ve got a great look.”

The author, who modeled professionally in New York and London, Milan, Tokyo and Hong Kong while attending college, quit to attend graduate school full time. But agents kept approaching her, in spite of her age, and she realized that she would have more access to her field of research as a working model.  While writing the book, she worked in five Fashion Weeks, attended hundreds of castings, posed for magazine shoots and catalog shoots, walked the catwalks, and worked showrooms on Seventh Avenue. She modeled in New York and London. She also discovered that her net income for her first year– after expenses and the commission paid to her agencies, was $11,318 — less than she had been earning as a graduate assistant.

And Yet . . .

Mears concedes that whenever she wanted to quit, in spite of all the stresses and rejections and occasional humiliations, the excitement of being chosen for a job — or praised by a client — kept her going.

Valuable Tips for Aspiring Models

I don’t mean to suggest that this book would only be useful for discouraging would-be models. Mears interviewed over 100 people who hire models. One insight is that “Fashion runs on gossip. Clients ubiquitously swap stories as a way to gather information about models’ on-the-job performances.” (p. 145) The “buzz” about a model — who has hired her, how many shows she has booked — can enhance both her prestige and her fees. A model who is reliable and pleasant to work with, even after trying on 40 outfits in one day, gets talked about. So does the model who is chronically late or hung over. What happens on the job will be shared with other people who hire models.

The Tastemakers

In the chapter called “The Tastemakers,” Mears interviews photographers, agency personnel, magazine editors, designers, and advertising agencies, and concludes that fashion is a closed loop with a herd mentality, where everyone watches everyone else, trying to find the next “look” that will change our standards of beauty and possibly influence fashion itself. She says editorial fashion is aimed at other  “tastemakers,” not consumers in mass markets. At the top level, tastemakers are not motivated by the need sell merchandise, but by acquiring prestige within their own group — and the hope of shaping fashion history.

This is complicated by the fact that beauty standards are completely arbitrary.

As the Hollywood saying goes, “Nobody Knows Anything.” When Mears asked a modeling agency booker about a model’s chances, she was told,

“It’s the luck of the draw. It’s either you have it or you don’t.”

“And what is it?” Mears asked.

“Whatever it is at the moment,” she promptly replied. (p. 124)

Nevertheless, a consensus does form among designers; her study of Spring Fashion Week, 2007, in New York, London, Milan and Paris found that 172 clients showed collections, but from the thousands of models available, those 172 shows used only 677 models. Most models worked fewer than five shows. But 60 of those 677 models were chosen for more than 20 shows, and the three most popular models walked in 59 or more shows each. That year, that season, there was a consensus about “the look.”

Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Model contains a wealth of practical information about the modeling profession, how agencies operate, what it’s really like to appear on the catwalk  or live the daily life of the average model. There are also insights into the hiring process that the average model would never get.

Chapter titles include “Economics of the Catwalk,” “Becoming a Look,” and “The Tastemakers;”  the two final chapters discuss racial and gender discrimination in the fashion world.

Obviously, I found a lot of surprising information in this book — and kept reading passages aloud to my husband.


Oddly,  there isn’t a photo of Ashley Mears, model and sociologist, on the cover! You can read or listen to an NPR interview with Ashley Mears by clicking here.





1 Comment

Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf

One response to “Book Review: Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, by Ashley Mears

  1. This is so interesting, and downright scary. Mears ought to rewrite the book in comic form for all the young teen wannabe models.

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