Stepping out of the world of #intothedarkroom, Alessia Scacchi uses her analytical eye to discuss the genesis of the ‘model’. In the discussion she considers the figure of Virginia Oldoini. In her piece, Alessia argues that the Italian socialite by default be recognized as the first ‘model’ within the current concept of what defines a model.
While that assertion is evidently from a Western historical perspective, (since the exploration does not look at a more global perspective) it is interesting how Western ideas of beauty have morphed and changed but the fundamentals of achieving fame have not.
We are used to thinking of statuesque, slim women, with perfectly symmetrical features as models. But it wasn’t always like that. As painters have taught us, ideas of what constitutes a ‘model’ have changed. Even in the last two years we have seen a change and now the model world are pros the fuller figure model. The fashion industry now even includes (perhaps cynically) trans models as it vies for a more positive image by being more inclusive.
In my piece however, I want to take things right back to Virginia Oldoini (1837-1899) the countess of Castiglione who it can be argued was the first model. In 1856, French photographer Adolphe Braun (1812-1877) made a photographic book of 288 photographs of Virginia Oldoini. In this collection, the countess is captured posing in her official clothes. At the time it was normal for those photographed to pose with static rather rigid poses. In this series of images Oldoini is aware, conscious and evidently seeks to ensure that Braun captures the ‘best’ shot. She was in many respects a status symbol and she was aware of the fascination dictated by her fame.
“I am me, and I am proud; I do not want anything from the others and for the others. I’m worth more than them. I recognize that I cannot seem good, given my proud, frank and free character, which makes me sometimes raw and tough. So, someone hates me; but this does not matter to me, I do not care to please everyone “ – she said.
In true form, it was her life that courted just as much fame as her beauty. She was a changeable character and for the time fiercely independent. Her fame/notoriety sealed when she became the mistress to Napoleon III. Far from negative publicity it only helped to catapult her fame despite the negative views that being a mistress would create. Napoleon would in turn be the first of a few well publicized flirtations with other men. Indeed, she took note of each liaison in a diary, written as a self-celebration: everything in it marks how fantastic she was. In addition, she disseminated her images everywhere. During the photo shoots she liked impersonating characters. Once she showed up dressed as a nun. Sometimes the images were of her feet and the images assumed a certain fetishist streak.
With her colourful personal life and her beauty it is hard to resist the idea that Virginia Oldoini was not only a model but, in many respects, a super model of her time. What is the difference between the mere model and a supermodel? Claudio Marra, a docent graduate in aesthetics, explains it in Nelle ombre di un sogno: storia e idee della fotografia di moda (2004).* The model is a pure material body, representative of a shape, that of the dress-container. The figure of supermodel is related to the hypertext body, a body with a specific identity. In the case of Virginia Oldoini, her strong personality is the real content of the pictures. People didn’t care about the clothes anymore, because during the time she became a star. When this happens, the audience is interested in you, just because it is you. A transformation of meaning occurs.
Photography becomes the vehicle of a desire, and indeed contributes to its formation
If we think of Kate Moss, the photography confers identity to her body, transforming it in a media phenomenon. The transformation of meaning is operated by photography. This medium has the power of sealing a value in a material object. Through photography, the spectator lives, imagines, desires a certain model of behavior. A lifestyle. The Countess Virginia succeeded because of her expensive dresses and her audacity. Everyone followed her because they wanted to be like her. They wanted to be her. The photographs consecrated her as an icon. Without photography, this ascension to super model status as it were would not have been possible. The mechanism is the same in today’s fashion photographic world where. Photography becomes the vehicle of a desire, and indeed contributes to its formation. The pictures shot by Adolphe Braun are a human catalog.
“Although virtual, fashion already lives inside photography”, writes Claudio Marra.
This is the origin of the first model in history. Unfortunately, like many people who have become icons, the end is not always as bright as the beginning. Virginia Oldoini died alone, in her Parisian apartment, after a long period of melancholy. During this period, she wanted all mirrors to be covered with a black cloth. With the inevitable process of aging where beauty fades, Virginia Oldoini found life without the constant adulation too difficult. Without her coveted beauty which was of course central to her concept of Virginia Oldoini she evidently fell into a deep depression which she never recovered from.
*(Translated) In the shadows of a dream: history and ideas of fashion photography 2004