Men Were Fashion's First Models

Cristen Conger

Brad Kroenig. Courtesy: The Fashionisto

In an over-the-top New York Times magazine profile, top male model Brad Kroening likens the world of male modeling to the W.N.B.A.: the lower-profile and lesser-paid segment of a similarly gender-segregated elite profession. As Karl Lagerfeld's most-cherished male coathanger (to the point that the Chanel designer gifts one of Kroening's toddler sons "books, clothes, pint-size Fendi purses;" the other son apparently doesn't make the Lagerfeld cut), Kroening pulls in a handsome six figures and jet sets to international runways and photo shoots.

But he's no supermodel. Only Giselles, Naomis and Kates can achieve multimillion-dollar supermodel status. As V Magazine's "History of the Male Supermodel" claims, "modeling has always been a woman's world."

And yet it hasn't. It's Kroening, in fact, who carries the torch (or the artfully draped blazer) of fashion history's original models. OK, actually, the very first fashion models were 18th-century life-sized dolls dressed in Parisian designers' finest and sent out to wealthy women whose gender precluded them from traveling too far from home. But! The when it comes to the very first human fashion models, as fashion historian Caroline Evans explains in her riveting paper, The Ontology of the Fashion Model, men were the "it" boys.

Evans writes:

Anticipating by a good 80 years a number of early twentieth-century stage plays depicting fashion modelling in couture houses, David describes in particular an 1826 vaudeville performance that featured a former artist's model, Hector, named after a Greek hero, who had become a 'mannequin, model for fashions', and who entered the stage singing - 'Brilliant model, faithful mirror, I sparkle with light and fire! I wander everywhere, setting the vogue for the new looks in the catalogue.' According to David, 'beginning in the 1820s, certain tailors hired handsome men known as "mannequins'', the ancestors of the fashion model, to display their latest creations in modish spots around Paris. The practice seems to have been current until the late1840s.

These mannequins -- emphasis on man -- weren't exactly Brad Kroenings of their day, attracting the breathless attention of soccer moms with smartphones. Evans describes them as "pitiable" since they got to dress up and rub elbows with wealthy dandies of the day, but everyone knew they had to give their fine outfits back to the tailor before clocking out. This renting out of one's body would later cause Paris' first female fashion models to be relentlessly compared to prostitutes. For those early male mannequins though, it was simply considered a trifle unfortunate.

All of which is fun to consider when taking in Brad Kroening's self-reflection to The New York Times magazine. "There's no other male model in the history of the world doing these kinds of things," he said. "I'm not bragging or anything, it just is what it is."

Spoken like a true mannequin.