Model Status

Lana Del Rey, National Anthem, 2012.

In the early 1960s, American social historian Daniel Boorstin wrote with striking prescience that a ‘thicket of unreality’ stands between us and the facts of life. The unreality is the image, proliferating, shallow, dazzling; the thicket, the sheer, defeating number of them, surrounding us and mediating our lives. As the mass media grew and consolidated, and advertising and PR industries reshaped human concepts of the noteworthy, Boorstin observed that we became more entranced by irreality: real occurrences were replaced by staged events, the mediated replacing unmediated in vitality, and heroes were replaced with celebrities, or ‘a person who is well-known for [their] well-knownness.’1 He called this person a ‘human pseudo-event,’ someone famous for their image rather than their achievements. Pseudo-events are planned to look spontaneous, they promote and make money, they are dramatic (and therefore more exciting than ‘real news’), and they are planned to engage an audience, to provoke conversation. A human pseudo-event is the embodiment of these qualities, a person living their life with apparent spontaneity, each small errand becoming tiresome because of the clustering cameras that capture the carefully planned gym outfit, the nonchalant face turned to the paparazzi masking triumph at being important enough to warrant their lenses.

Celebrities who are famous for being famous often try to distance themselves from the shallowness of their fame by emphatically articulating what they want to be: an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a DJ. They turn their hobbies into passions, to add depth to their persona and legitimise the attention trained on them. But they do not originate their own fascination: while they benefit from it, we too are implicated. Boorstin writes that we desire ‘heroes into which we pour our own purposelessness,’ looking to apparently notable people to divert us and amplify the events of our own lives, celebrities thereby functioning as ‘ourselves seen with a magnifying mirror.’2

Being images stripped of the complexity of human life, celebrities stand as shallow markers whose personae absorb our projections and who often, in the digital age, actively manipulate our expectations to serve their public image. Who they ‘really are’ is as unknowable as it is irrelevant: what they represent is sufficient in this economy.

Yet despite the futility of trying to divine through images what people are really like, we feel that authenticity is a quality that can be divined through media. A nebulous quality, authenticity; it is leaky and unreliable. Something can seem authentic if it is made of unpolished wood, or if it is heavy in the hand, or if it has the appearance of the handmade. A person can seem authentic if they write from the heart in an Instagram post, momentarily pulling back the curtain to reveal an unphotogenic experience, or an appearance that might impinge on the distanced, capable performance that social media seems to require.

Yet authenticity has the authority of an instinct: we feel we can divine it, and determine when it is absent. Certain celebrities are felt to be authentic, those who display characteristics or habits that humanise them, and return them to the realm in which the rest of us live, or who, seeming flawless, stand apart as a standard to which to aspire. Others are deemed inauthentic, suspect because of the means by which they achieved fame and cling to it with a deathly grip. All of these impressions are unreliable, being developed in response to the image, which themselves create a hyperreality that supersedes reality, and renders it obsolete. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, himself preoccupied with the real and the fake, declared as much when he wrote that the image ‘cannot imagine the real any longer, because it has become the real.’3 So too does the image of the celebrity become the celebrity, what they wear contributing to this myth-making, not just adorning their public appearances but by signifying the who and what they are.

In late 2016, two stories were told through a range of fashion and lifestyle websites that illustrate the shiftiness of authenticity in relation to the material. These two stories involve four women, all of them celebrities: Kendall Jenner and Paris Hilton, Jackie Kennedy and Natalie Portman. To explore the possibilities of these stories, and attempt to trace the complexities of authentic and inauthentic, is to start to map the ways that the real and the fake are two sides of the same coin.

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She appears in a silver dress, more sparkle than cloth, hanging in a deep cowl from spaghetti straps. Thigh-skimming, it is accessorised with a matching skinny silver rope that encircles her neck and the hands of guards steadying her as she steps out in vertiginous heels. She is Kendall Jenner, and she debuted this look to the public by posting two images on Instagram: one, a split-screen mirror image of two Kendall’s, gaze demurely lowered, captioned with the phrase ‘vintage Paris Hilton vibes;’ the other, a close-crop of her torso, the glittering dress rendering her body intelligible in the dark interior of the shot, her hand teasing her hem. The Internet recognised this dress: Kendall Jenner Totally Stole Paris Hilton’s 21st Look! Kendall Jenner Channels Paris Hilton for 21st Birthday Look, but Why?!

The images that these celebrity news sites ran side-by-side prompted the quick back and forth that close imitations invite: where are the similarities and where the differences? The same swooping neckline teasing the curve of breasts, two necks wrapped in silver; one woman with loose dark hair, one with cropped blonde pulled up in tufts by butterfly clips. The front of Kendall’s dress is shorter than the back; Paris’s is the reverse. Kendall Jenner’s 21st birthday dress recalls Paris Hilton’s birthday dress most deliberately: she had it made to order by Lebanese couture label LaBourjoisie, after providing them with images of Paris. To answer Yahoo! Celebrity’s interrogative ‘But Why?!,’4 Kendall here assumes the role of fashion in the post-modern era, which Efrat Tsëelon argues (after Baudrillard) is ‘ruled by artifice for the sake of artifice,’ a pastiche of seasons, styles and historical periods that produces ‘theatrical sociality [which] delights in itself, [… a] signification without a message.’5

Which is the more authentic dress, which the original? Is it Hilton’s, for being made and worn first, and providing the model for Jenner’s? Jenner’s is also an original: it is one-of-a-kind, handmade out of thousands of Swarovski crystals, and itself proliferated a sequence of imitations, some of which Jenner promoted on her blog. These are pale imitations, bearing only a few markers of the original(s): being silver in colour, say, or having a cowl neck feature.

Baudrillard writes that the unique object is simply that which is the emblem of all the others that follow it, the model for the series. ‘Every object claims model status,’ he writes, becoming special to the consumer through their choice of buying it.6 For the girl who buys Miss Selfridge’s $61 version of Kendall’s dress, hers is an original: it is material, it has weight, it might make her feel Kendall Jenner-esque, living her very own Instagram story. Are these feelings inauthentic?

We should not perceive series and model as two ends of a binary, with the ‘model being viewed as a sort of essence which – once divided and multiplied […] by virtue of the concept of ‘mass’ – gives birth to the series.’7 Rather, there is continual movement between series and model: ‘the model is everywhere discernible in the series.’8 The differences between the series object (the Miss Selfridge dress, or Kendall in the dress) and the model (Paris’ dress) distinguish them from each other, calling the model to mind and establishing a relationship between all three objects as signs. Each object in the series carries the germ of the model, its likeness. This understanding complicates the idea of imitation, simultaneously imbuing all of these dresses with connotations of the first – Paris’ – and the second – Kendall’s – and the proliferating third’s – the Miss Selfridge version. They symbolically invoke one another, just as Kendall’s imitation of Paris symbolically casts her in the echo of Hilton’s celebrity.

2002, the year when Paris wore her silver, was also the year before ‘The Simple Life’ began, the reality TV series on Fox that transformed the notorious socialite into a household name (this series followed quick on the heels of the sex tape leaked without her consent). The sequence of events is difficult to remember in looking back, as Hilton, the quintessential ‘It Girl’ of the ‘Noughties’, came to symbolise the whole era’s shallow glamour and the domestification of celebrity that opened the way to the utter saturation of the contemporary moment. At her 21st birthday party, by donning this dress, Kendall symbolically placed herself in the lineage of Paris’ influence, another wealthy socialite who passed through reality TV notoriety to carve a career. Here, it is not only the dresses that are series and model: Kendall positions herself in relation to Paris, conjuring the atmosphere of her celebrity to consolidate her own.

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In early December, shortly after Kendall Jenner’s party, a series of interviews with Madeleine Fontaine, the costume designer for the film Jackie (2016), were published across a range of media sites, presumably an extension of the film’s promotional push towards the Oscars. In depicting the First Lady in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, the film not only portrays her grief, but also her attempts to control how JFK should be memorialised. Author Wayne Koestenbaum has called Jackie Kennedy ‘an entrepreneur of appearances,’9 closely controlling her image and that of her family throughout her life. Indeed, in reflecting on the research she conducted for the film, Fontaine herself observed that in every photograph the family were ‘never surprised, always perfect-looking, young and beautiful – [producing] the strong idealised images imprinted in our memories.’10

In designing the wardrobe for the film, Fontaine contributed to the extension of this image of perfection, recreating key looks from Jackie Kennedy’s life including what is arguably her most famous outfit, the pink suit worn on the day of JFK’s assassination.

The original pink suit is widely believed to be an authorised replica of a Chanel design, made to order in America by dressmaking business Chez Ninon who used materials ordered from Paris. Kennedy had a proclivity for Parisian couture, and during JFK’s presidential campaign she and her mother-in-law were revealed to be private customers of couturiers such as Dior, Chanel, Lanvin, Givenchy, and Balenciaga. Lest this preference be turned into political ammunition to undermine her husband’s commitment to the country (such is the symbolic power of consumption), after the election Jackie Kennedy worked with U.S. designer Oleg Cassini and establishments like Chez Ninon to formulate what fashion theorist Stella Bruzzi has called ‘her armoury of gleaming formal clothes.’11

To aid the recreation of the iconic pink suit for Jackie, Chanel sent Fontaine buttons, the chain customarily stitched into the hem of Chanel suits, and a label ‘in case the jacket should be seen on a chair or on the floor.’12 These details, like the relics placed inside the walls of a church to consecrate it, confer authenticity on the costume suit, anointing it with the legitimising touch of Chanel.

There is an echo here of what Baudrillard writes of antiques, that they are imbued with power and status because of their claim to authenticity, ‘beating a path back to the origins’ (of Kennedy, of Chanel) and a lost time.13 Though indirect, the link between Chanel and Kennedy that is invoked by this collaboration on the costume suit is charged with the iconic quality of both. The original pink suit, enclosed from view until 2103 in the National Archives, is charged with the power and status Baudrillard describes. In its absence, the costume suit stands in, authenticated by Chanel’s contribution and its close resemblance to Kennedy’s suit, remembered through endlessly reproduced photographs of a bereaved Jackie standing by her husband’s coffin, her skirt still stained with his viscera.

The pink suit, which Bruzzi has called ‘the defining signifier of the assassination,’ has been endlessly reproduced and represented in films like Jackie and JFK (1991), televised miniseries, and music videos, such as Lana Del Rey’s ‘National Anthem’ (2012).14 Bruzzi writes that re-enacting a person or past events ‘entails both acknowledging that the gap between past and present is unbridgeable, while simultaneously bringing the dead past “back to life.”’15 These recreations ‘approximate’ the original event, never becoming synonymous with it, but calling attention to it and to the gap between what occurred and what is portrayed. As with Kendall Jenner’s dress, our eyes oscillate between original and replica, seeking proof of authenticity in the original and the trace of inspiration in what has followed. Differences in detail become important, reinforcing the distinction between original and re-enactment, reifying the one whilst holding the other in relation to it, a system of signs assuming their proper places.

But what do we make of a replica of a replica that bears the touch of authenticity that the original may never have had? Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit was made in New York, imitating Chanel; the replica of this suit bore finishing touches that an original Chanel suit sold in the 1960s would have borne. In fact, Fontaine told New York magazine’s The Cut that the costume so closely imitated the original that Chanel requested one for their archives. Which suit, then, is more authentic? Both speak of fame, both claim a connection to Chanel, both image their wearer in the glamorous armour of the First Lady. The second invokes the first, yes, but also so perfectly replicates it that it functions as a mirror twin, missing only the value conferred by having been the actual suit worn by the actual Jackie. Instead, the costume suit has now absorbed Natalie Portman’s own fame, an object perhaps destined for an afterlife on display as an original, handmade costume worn in her Oscar-nominated performance, in addition to joining another archive, that of Chanel in Paris.

Here we see the fantasy of authenticity writ large: as Baudrillard writes, it is ‘sublime, and […] always located somewhere short of reality.’16 In trying to trace the authentic in relationship to celebrity, dress and the image, we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors. Elements of real and replica loop back on one another, call to each other, their significance magnified by a multitude of signs. The proliferation of these signs, and the meanings with which they clad celebrities and contribute to the myth of their public image are intrinsic to the material garments that symbolically ‘speak.’ How useful, then, it is to invoke authenticity at all when we speak of celebrity, the image, and dress is questionable. Eluding any efforts to pin it down, the real retreats, disappearing behind a multitude of images, materialities, and signs into the flash of a vanishing point.


Rosie Findlay is a writer living in London. She is also Course Leader for MA Fashion Cultures at London College of Fashion.

  1. D J Boorstin, The Image (or what happened to the American Dream), Penguin, 1961, p.15 

  2. Ibid, p. 70 

  3. J Baudrillard, ‘Objects, Images and the Possibilities of Aesthetic Illusion’, in Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact, edited by N Zurbrugg, Sage, 1997, p. 12 

  4. O Fleming, ‘Who is the real Paris Hilton?’, Harpers Bazaar website, December 13, 2016. Accessed 10 July, 2017 

  5. E Tsëelon, ‘Jean Baudrillard: Post-Modern Fashion as the End of Meaning’, in Thinking Through Fashion: a guide to key theorists, edited by A Rocamora and A Smelik, I. B. Tauris, 2016, p. 224 

  6. J Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Verso, 1996, p.141 

  7. Ibid, p. 143 

  8. Ibid, p. 144 

  9. R La Ferla, ‘Jackie Kennedy: The First Instagram Lady’, The New York Times website, November 30, 2016. Accessed 10 July, 2017 

  10. S Chan, ‘”Jackie” Costume Designer on Dressing Natalie Portman as the Former First Lady’, Hollywood Reporter website, 28 November, 2016. Accessed 10 July, 2017 

  11. S Bruzzi, ‘The Pink Suit’, in Fashion Cultures Revisited, edited by P Church Gibson and S Bruzzi, Routledge, 2013, p. 236 

  12. R La Ferla, ‘Jackie Kennedy: The First Instagram Lady’, The New York Times website, November 30, 2016. Accessed 10 July, 2017 

  13. J Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Verso, 1996, p.76 

  14. S Bruzzi, ‘The Pink Suit’, in Fashion Cultures Revisited, edited by P Church Gibson and S Bruzzi, Routledge, 2013, p. 247 

  15. Ibid, p. 240 

  16. J Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Verso, 1996, p. 79