Elspeth Brown,

Historian: markets, visual culture, gender, sexuality

Sexual Capital: A Queer History of Modeling, 1909-1983

Sexual Capital: A Queer History of Modeling, 1909-1983, under contract with 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. Consumer desire is the engine of modern capitalism, and models are key players in the corporate effort to produce—and manage—subjective longings on behalf of sales. Models, whether performing live or through representational distance, produce sales through the immaterial labor of posing for the lens, or appearing with commodities in a real-time setting. My project dates, 1909-1983, trace 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 narrative arc of my book 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 use of models as avatars of Americanism during State Department ‘goodwill tours’ during the 1940s and 1950s; 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. To date, I’ve done a fair amount of research in archives and in periodicals; I am currently undertaking the oral history aspects of the project.

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 Brown, “The Emergence of the Model in the Early Twentieth Century United States,” in Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger, eds., Fashion Models: Modeling as Image, Text, and Industry (Berg, 2012).

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

Elspeth Brown, “De Meyer at Vogue: Commercializing Quee,r Affect in WWI-era Fashion Photography,” Photography and Culture, November 2009 vol. 2, issue 3, 253-275.

Elspeth 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. [April 2009: came out in paperback.]