Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models Course

This course explores written and visual biographies and autobiographies of American, African, and Asian women in the fashion industry as a launching point for thinking about race, gender, and class in media. How do ethnicity and femininity intersect? How are authenticity and difference commodified? How do women construct identities through narrative or craft selves through body modification? How do women negotiate their relationships to their bodies, families, and nations? In what way is fashion being democratized by consumers? Course will include guest lectures by fashion models, authors, filmmakers and/or editors; discussions of contemporary television programs, global fashion, and cultural studies; and student self-narratives about their relationships with cultural standards of beauty, whether vexed or not.

We live in an ever more virtual world, a world designed to persuade us to believe in certain values and act accordingly. At the same time, the relentless stream of messages means that consumers are forced to scan, to absorb meaning without evaluating what is being communicated. An essential task of the humanities and literature courses such as this one is to aid students in analyzing and interpreting this virtual world and its rhetoric, as well as formulating arguments about it. Students will study the "natural" and how what appears "natural" to those in certain cultures is constructed by those cultures and their industries. We will study how we all participate in the construction of ideals of the female body and how models' bodies are cultural forms made for certain purposes and serving certain interests and therefore must always be interpreted not just accepted. Students will learn that the pleasures of fashion, while real, play a role in global processes of incorporation and therefore pose ethical questions about how we treat the stranger, the other, and what responsibility we have to those others.

Required Books

  • Hungry: A Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves by Crystal Renn with Margorie Ingall (2009, US, 256 pages) About her battle with eating disorders and then her career as a plus-size model.
  • Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel by Alek Wek (2007, Sudan, 224 pages) The title says it all.
  • Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller (1998, Somalia, 228 pages) An African nomad becomes a model.
  • Siberian Dream by Irina Pantaeva (1998, Siberia, 309 pages) "An Eskimo girl for whom fashion became an underground railroad to freedom."
  • Veronica Mary Gaitskill (2005, US, 240 pages) A novel about a friendship between a young fashion model and a former fashion model with HIV.
  • I Am Iman by Iman, Peter H. Beard, and David Bowie (2001, Somalia, 160 pages) An art book with essays from models, hotographers, and critics on the intersection of race and fashion.

Possible Films and Videos

  • Picture Me directed by Sara Ziff and Ole Schell (2009, US, documentary) Follows model Sara Ziff for several years, documenting her rise and chronicling the world of high fashion modeling.
  • Killing Us Softly 3 by Jean Kilbourne (2000, US, documentary) Analysis of images of women in advertising.
  • Gia by Michael Cristofer (with Angelina Jolie as Gia) (2004, US, film) Life story of supermodel who died at 26 of AIDS.
  • Cover Girl Culture: Awakening the Media Generation by Nicole Clark (2009, US, documentary) About effect of fashion industry on girls' body image.
  • Desert Flower by Sherry Hormann (2009, Germany) Liya Kebede stars in a film about Warie, from her book of the same name.
  • Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn (1957, US, film) Magazine editor wants to create a trend of intellectual fashion models and tries to do so with with Hepburn's characters, who just wants to go to Paris to study with a famous philosopher.
  • Prêt-à-Porter (1994, US, film) Satire shot during fashion week in Paris.
  • Fantacoca by Agnes Ndibi (2001, Cameroon, documentary) About skin whitening in Cameroon.
  • Real Women Have Curves by Patricia Cardoso (2002, US) About a Latino family and the clothing factory they manage.
  • Model by Frederick Wiseman (1980, US. documentary) Documentary about modeling industry, including methods of photography.
  • Unzipped with Isaac Mizrahi (1995, US film, documentary) A season with a designer fashioning a new collection.
  • The September Issue: Anna Wintour and the Making of Vogue (2009, US, film, documentary) Includes interviews with Grace Coddington, former model and creative director.
  • Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingstone (1990, US, documentary) Documentary on African American and Latino male and transgender Ball culture.
  • The Color of Beauty by Elizabeth St. Philip (2010, Canada, doc) Renee Thompson is a black model in a world where , white women represent the standard of beauty.
  • Good Hair by Chris Rock (2010, US documentary) Documentary on African American women and hair.
  • Catwalk by Robert Leacock (Australia, 1996, documentary) Follows Christy Turlington through the spring fashion shows in early 1990s.
  • A Nomad in New York: The Day That Changed My Life ( BBC documentary) Following Waris Dirie in New York.
  • Phat Girlz by Nnegest Likké (2006, US, film) Plus-sized African American designer struggles to accept herself while falling in love with an African man.

Article-length Memoirs and Biographies

Trend Watch

Possible Secondary Source Readings

  • Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv.
  • Frances Negrón-Muntaner "Jennifer's Butt" Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 22, No. 2 (Fall 1997): 181-194.
  • Saskia Sassen, "Global Cites and Survival Circuits." In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. New York: Metropolitan. Arlie Hochschild and Barbara Ehrenreich (2003)
  • M. Kim, "Consuming Orientalism: Images of Asian/American Women in Multicultural Advertising." Qualitative Sociology 28, no. 1 (March, 2005).
  • Kristyne Loughran, "The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion: Global Dialogues." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 13, No. 2 (June 2009)
  • Cheryl Chase, . "'Cultural Practice' or 'Reconstructive Surgery'? U.S. Genital Cutting, the Intersex Movement, and Medical Double Standards." In Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics, ed. Stanlie Myrise James and Claire C. Robertson, pp. 126-151. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Lisa See, "Of Seeing and Otherness: Leni Riefenstahl's Photographs of the Nuba African Photographs." The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy, ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer, Sara Lennox, Susanne Zantop (University of Michigan Press, 1998).
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 1996. "Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection," in The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, and Sexual Orientation, ed. Karen E. Rosenblum and Toni-Michelle C. Travis, 213-23. NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Mears, Ashley. 2011 "Entry." Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, 1-26. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • —. "Discipline of the Catwalk: Gender, Power and Uncertainty in Fashion Modeling." Ethnography 9 (December 2008): 429-456.
  • —.2010. "Size Zero High-End Ethnic: Cultural Production and the Reproduction of Culture in Fashion Modeling." Poetics 38: 21-46.
  • —.with Frèderic C. Godart. 2009. "How Do Cultural Producers Make Creative Decisions: Lessons from the Catwalk."Social Forces 88(2): 671-692.
  • —. with William Finlay. 2005. "Not Just a Paper Doll: How Models Manage Bodily Capital and Why They Perform Emotional Labor." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 34 (3):317-343.
  • Pedersen, Sarah. 2010. "Female Form in the Media: Body Image and Obesity." Fat Matters: From Sociology to Science, ed. Gina Tsichlia and Alexandra Johnstone, 5-12. Cumbria, UK: M&K Update.
  • Thomsen; Steven R., J. Kelly McCoy; Robert Gustafson; H Marlene Williams. 2002. "Motivations for Reading Beauty and Fashion Magazines and Anorexic Risk in College-Age Women." Media Psychology 4, no. 2 (May): 113 – 135.
  • Tiggemann, Marika, and Janet Polivy and Duane Hargreaves. 2009. "Processing Thin Ideals: The processing of thin ideals in fashion magazines: A source of social comparison or fantasy?" Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 28, no. 1: 73-93.
  • Mulvey, Laura. 1975. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
  • Douglas, Susan. 2010. "Introduction." The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild, 1-26. New York: Macmillan.
  • Czerniawski, Amanda M. 2011. "Disciplining Corpulence: The Case of Plus-Size Fashion Models." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 20: 1-27.
  • Wissinger, Elizabeth. 2012. "Managing the Semiotics of Skin Tone: Race and Aesthetic Labor in the Fashion Modeling Industry." Economic and Industrial Democracy 33, no. 1: 125-143.
  • Barnard, Rita. "Contesting Beauty." In Sense of Culture: South African Cultural Studies, edited by Sarah Nuttall & Cheryl-Ann Michael. New York: Oxford, 2000. 344-362.
  • Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (University of Chicago Press, 1993) Examines issues of race and gender through an analysis of how National Geographic uses color, pose, framing, and vantage point to represent non-Western peoples.
  • Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (10 vols) by Joanne B. Eicher (2010) 760 articles on the dressed and adorned body across cultures and throughout history; individual entries on countries, themes, cultural groups, and dress types; includes sources and evidence for each major geographical area. Vol. 1 about Africa; vol. 10 about Global Perspectives.
  • Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time by Joanne B. Eicher (1999) "From African-American women's headwraps to beauty pageants in Swaziland, this book explores ethnicity through the frequently noticed but less often analyzed human phenomenon of dress. The authors — ethnographers, folklorists, and textile scholars — present case studies from around the world to illustrate their different theoretical frameworks and assumptions."
  • Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity by Brenda R. Weber "Brenda R. Weber's treatment of makeover television as a crafting of the self within the broader scope of neoliberalism, postfeminism, and a kind of savvy consumerism is convincing and provocative."
  • The Fashion Reader Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun (Berg 2007) Fashion is produced and consumed globally, referencing cultures from around the world, both past and present. This book brings together key readings on the subject, covering the history, culture, and business of fashion.

Alternate Memoirs

  • Kiki's Memoirs by Kiki (1929, France) A 1920s French model in the Latin Quarter (first published in French).
  • Jean Shrimpton: An Autobiography by Jean Shrimpton and Unity Hall (1992, Britain) A 1960s & 1970s British model.
  • B Model: An Embellished Memoir (2006, US) by Miranda Darling The story of a 16-year-old model trying to make it during the 1980s
  • Not Without Love: Memoirs by Constance Webb (2003, US) A model who befriends intellectual black activists and writers in the 1960s.
  • No Lifeguard: The Accidental Life of the World's First Supermodel by Janice Dickinson (2003, US)
  • A 1970s supermodel with addictions.
  • Sex, Love, and Fashion: A Memoir of a Male Model by Bruce Hulse and Wendy Holden (2008, Canada)
  • Fashion Babylon by Imogen Edwards-Jones (2008, UK, 336 pages) Follows an "anonymous British fashion designer looking to break out across the pond."
  • A.L.T.: A Memoir by Andre Leon Talley The story of Top Model's consultant.
  • They Still Shoot Models My Age by Susan Moncur (1993, US,114 pages) Memoir by former model after the birth of her son.
  • Model: A Memoir by Cheryl Diamond (2008, US, 368 pages) The experience of a 14-year-old girl from small-town North Carolina thrust into the Manhattan fashion industry. Young adult.
  • Model: Life Behind the Makeup by Jillian Shanebrook (2003, US, 176 pages) A Phi Beta Kappa Princeton student becomes a well-known model in Asia. Short observations on travelling to various countries, not a sustained narrative.
  • Sight: Adventures in the Big City by Veronica Webb (1998, 282 pages) Essays on fashion by African American model from Detroit with working class roots.
  • The Abandoned Baobab: A Senegalese Woman's Autobiography by Ken Bugul (1984, 1991) The story of an African woman from Senegal who works as a model and prostitute.
  • Infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2008) The story of an African woman from Somalia who protests cultural practices.
  • With faith, hope, and love: the story of a survivor of Camp Tjideng, Dutch East Indies by Hiske Forsyth Strong (AuthorHouse, 2009). Modeling in New York.


  • Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966, France, film) Satire of the fashion industry.
  • Zoolander (2001, US, film) Spoof of modeling industry featuring mornic male models.


When this course was announced, it caused some controversy. Follow the discussions at Jezebel, Huffington Post, Modelinia, The Ink, CocoPerez, Essence, Fashin, The Frisky, EqualWrites, Fashion Students Online, Daily Princetonian, The Prox, etc. I am grateful to these discussion for many excellent suggestions for additional readings, especially by the fashion critic and former model Jenna Sauers of Jezebel.