The Maids of Honor
Hilton Als

   
   

In the late ’70s, Columbus Avenue in the West Seventies was not Manhattan. In the way that New York is not America, Columbus Avenue, north of the Papaya King, was more an amalgamation of points around which other neighborhoods converged: banks, movie theaters, cuchifrito stands, rock ‘n’ roll theaters, trash.

Such urban gathering spaces are communal. And the impression of society they encourage is generally based on the way people look. The guilt and compulsion one might feel elsewhere at judging achievement and class through dress is a complicated but relaxed issue in New York: everyone does it but it is never publicly discussed.

And it is this verbal avoidance of class issues that has generated some of the curious forms of language surrounding models. Models are ruined regal personages, paid to make appearances on the royal runway of “fashion”—during which they may trip and fall. They are fodder for the press because they become attached to narratives that are as public as their beauty: Kate Moss’s or Naomi Campbell’s love travails, Linda Evangelista’s hair-color changes and so on.

In the fashion world, a model is a “girl,” not a woman, and, as such, she is subject to the fickle language of the sorority—her university the street (New York, whenever she’s in town). As a girl, she is also subject to the standard adolescent complaints which others voice for her: she is too thin, too tired, perhaps too swayed by power in too many different ways. She is the object who complains as well as the object of complaint (a “difficult” person). And she is viewed against a backdrop of obsolescence, especially as she approaches, as she inevitably does, her first real death: no longer an object worth any speculation at all, old, “over.”

Which is what one saw on Columbus Avenue: women who were not objects of speculation commenting on women who were. The women who watched other women walk the runway, heels tottering under the double weight of aiming to please and avoiding plea-sure, had been exhausted by the process; their community spirit was also exhausted, their faces washed out by the neon of the bar windows they sat in.

I tried to separate myself from their resignation in the gay bars along Columbus. The men there were not seen in relation to other bodies, they played off one another in different ways: through the subtlety of meaning in their dress, the exchange of information in looks or gestures.

For a time my eldest sister was a model. She was tall and not sensationally beautiful but spirited, something of a liar, full of reproach. As I stood in those bars, her long, thin, flat body appeared in memory (I was fifteen; she lived far away by then) and stood between me and the men. As a model, my sister had worked in a social space inhabited and built primarily by women. She had often related the way those women—editors and stylists—referred to her: the girl with “the legs” or “the eyes,” elements of a person.

I sometimes joined her on “go-sees,” sometimes on actual shoots. I remember the riot of legs moving above me, the excite-ment generated by the (usually male) photographer’s presence, the words he directed toward my sister, and how he saw her in pieces: legs, eyes. On one occasion I was asked—perhaps because of my legs or eyes—to pose for an advertisement with her. I refused, not because I distrusted the process but because of what it generated in me: excitement mixed with fear at the thought of being seen. The process meant that I would be validated as a woman (as I had wanted to be all along) and would therefore be thrust into the moral universe of women, a universe that would force me to compete with girls like my sister for the prize of being seen.

Instead of becoming a woman, I looked at women. I looked at postcards of old Vogue covers, girls in cloche hats with their faces turned away. I looked at any woman “created” (in photography or pastels) in order to distance myself from the desire, stronger than any other, to be what I looked at.

I came across two great works about the anxiety inherent in being seen, which helped me question the awful sexual excitement of wanting to be something other than myself: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Comtesse D’Haussonville (1843) and Portrait of the Princesse de Broglie (1853). Ingres paints these women as elements like my sister—arms, shoulders, eyes—and what we notice more than the blue of their dresses, the furnishings and backdrops chok-ing the frames, are the Comtesse’s crooked finger, the Princesse’s arm as it disappears into her lace sleeve: the gestures of anxiety at being seen at all. What Ingres’s aesthetic descendant, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, has called “this process of boys looking at girls.”

While the fashion world revolves around “real” truth—gossip—fashion, by nature, is fantasy, whether “high” (Geoffrey Beene) or “low” (Daryl K.). A model’s body is often taken apart and put back together in a new construct, as a different story, “fresh,” “done,” or “genius.” Rarely does it come with its own fantasy structure since one of the model’s responsibilities is to have none. She is a collection of elements waiting for an idea—pleasure, degradation, whatever—just as I was, in those all-male bars on Columbus Avenue, pinning myself to the wall.

As an empty construct, the model must not be too tall, too fleshy, or too ethnic. Ethnicity does not lend itself to fantasy be-cause the “ethnic” model (Peggy Dillon in the ’70s and ’80s, Naomi Campbell now) does not lend herself to fantasy: she is replete with meaning before the seamless has been set. The current demand for greater model “realness” (the raw, gritty, and serviceable) has everything to do with fashion’s downward arc, wherein the clothes themselves convey nothing. They are not so much nonexistent as resistant to the female form: shifts that hide or dismiss breasts, hips, and so forth.

The ethnic model’s “different” body type (larger hips and breasts, if she is colored; smaller hips and breasts, if she is Asian) sets off the literal narrowness of the clothes. She fills the photograph with her own personal meaning. In fashion circles, she is “interesting” but not important, in the end, because she is not a viable commodity—i.e. she sells an idea of herself instead of selling clothes. The function of modeling is to call attention not to the girl but to the objects (clothes, furnishings, men) she has accumulated or been given; it is these things, not her race, that are vital to who and what she is.

The fact that my sister was considered, in the ’70s, a “specialty” model, which is to say a Negress, contributed no doubt to her giving it up. Other than Peggy Dillon, girls like that at the time (like the Pointer Sisters) were restricted to creating nostalgia, the retro style of the ’40s, a humorous distancing measure but a distancing measure nevertheless, necessary to the models’ implied promise: as you desire me. Or maybe not.