Classic, vintage or glamour? The limits of labeling...

Caroline McWilliams, former Fashion Editor, opens her new column with thoughts on the limitations imposed by simple classifications in the fashion world. Whilst recently modelling for a bridal shoot, Caroline came face to face with the labels: 'classic, vinatge and glamour.' What place do these labels have in the fashion world, and are there more creative ways to model?


Writing a column for Label Press automatically causes one to think of the idea of ‘labels’ and what they can mean in different contexts. While on a bridal location photo shoot this past week I was confronted with three labels to describe modelling and makeup styles: classic, vintage and glamour. There were three models on the shoot and we were each supposed to represent one of these ideals. I immediately made a face to myself, laughing at the idiocy of describing my look as ‘classic’ and nothing else. What does that even mean…

My agent has always stressed the idea of being adaptable, presenting a blank canvas that the stylist and makeup artists can transform into something else. That is then when my part comes in, where I inhabit this new and exciting being and present it to the best of its potential. Every time I shoot, I take on a new character and create a back-story so that is ends up being more like acting. These characters have included a wealthy heiress who has run away from her boring life to one of hardship, a blushing debutante bride who is a pure innocent and an Edwardian artist’s muse, painted among flowers on a sunny day.

Editorial shoots require a great deal of imagination, one cannot always be oneself or the images are not varied enough. However, a flicker of the true me remains and I never forget who I truly am, never becoming completely lost in the moment. I believe that this compulsion to create stories for characters is why I have been able to do relatively well with modelling. For me it is a game I play with myself and the other creatives. They do not know my story and so that adds to the fun. Therefore, being marked as ‘the classic model’ shocked me a little, as much as I found it funny. I didn’t ask to be labelled, nor did I want to be.

Therefore, as a soon to be student of fashion history, I did a little research and turned first to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary. These were the definitions of the three supposed categories:

Classic – judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality, (of a garment) of a simple, elegant style not so greatly subject to changes in fashion

Glamour – an attractive and exciting quality, especially sexual allure, [as modifier] denoting erotic or mildly pornographic photography or publications

Vintage – denoting something from the past of high quality

The particularly entertaining thing was that the majority of definitions pertaining to the word ‘vintage’ refer to wine. None specifically mention fashion and, as such, I feel perfectly justified in arguing that the word ‘vintage’ is especially difficult to define. What is the past? How far back are we going? And who judges if this thing is of high quality? Vintage has become a general term in the context of fashion to describe anything that is old whether or not it is of high quality.

The term ‘classic’ is a little easier to break down with simplicity and elegance somehow being abstract ideas that are more definable. ‘Classic elegance’ is a phrase that has come to describe the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, with block colours, flattering feminine silhouettes and matching accessories completing the look. While Hepburn and Kelly are my fashion inspirations I feel like I create my own style to a greater degree, venturing into flashy patterns and wearing items such as jeans that I doubt they wore on a regular basis.

I have the most trouble with the term ‘glamour’, with its negative, sexist connotations. If someone described me as a ‘glamour model’ I would be incredibly offended and feel as if I was being pressured to be an object of prey for men. The fact that some models will self-identify as glamour models baffles me. The ‘glamour model’ on this shoot baffled me even more. She did not like most of the dresses, dictated how she wanted her makeup done and had a very determined set of restricted poses. As a model used to simply saying “no false eyelashes please” and then sitting back, this struck me as very odd. Much to my delight the third model agreed and we had a lovely chat about the fact that modelling can be highly intellectual and knowledge of history is often essential.

Indeed, how can one truly understand fashion if one does not understand where it comes from? I may not like the punk style but I have written essays on it and the silhouettes of the 1980s are not my personal style but I can identify them. With such a wealth of different eras and the styles born from them, it is of the utmost importance to understand their historical and cultural significance and not simply to put every single look into one of three boxes: classic, vintage or glamour.

Therefore, if one does not understand the basic concepts surrounding the clothes and looks one is modelling, then it would seem difficult to do them justice. Indeed, I would find creating my character stories very difficult. To further argue my point that fitting all looks into these three categories is ludicrous, I managed to put together a list of thirteen types of model. These categories range from editorial to parts (hands, feet etc.) to fitness. Each model is an individual and may have their own preferences but at the end of the day the best ones are adaptable and fit into several of these thirteen categories. Personally I do not feel comfortable modelling swimwear but I do editorial, commercial, fit, parts and I would love to do fitness.

Most importantly, as a model I do not want to be pushed into any particular category, nor do I define myself with a set label. The terms classic, vintage and glamour are so incredibly indefinable and so if we are to use them, we all use them in a slightly different way. What I find glamorous; you might find elegant. What you think is vintage; I may call ‘1950s style.’ Within the world of fashion and modelling, we all set our own definitions. I am smiling thinking that the world is really rather like an essay. ‘Define your terms,’ my tutor’s voice says in my head. It seems that no matter how far we may run from academia, we will never stop defining what we really mean by a certain word or phrase.