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Fashionably Informed: Underage Models on the Runway and in Editorials


Welcome to College Fashion’s biweekly column, Fashionably Informed. As a CF reader, it’s clear that you love fashion. But have you ever wondered about the drama that goes on behind the scenes? To keep you up to speed, this column aims to inform you about important issues and controversies in the fashion industry.

In case you missed them, see past posts on Retouching & Photoshopping, Tanning Promotion in the Media, Hypocrisy in Beauty Marketing, Racism in the Modeling Industry, “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening, Homosexuality in the Fashion Industry, and Cultural Appropriation & Stereotyping in Retail Fashion.

Marc Jacobs Fall 2012 Runway Show featuring 14 year old Model
Marc Jacobs Fall 2012 runway show featuring 14-year-old model | Photo Credit

The life of a high-fashion model sounds glamorous and attractive: You get to wear designer clothing, travel the world, and – if you’re lucky – have your face seen by millions. However, it’s not all glitz and glam: You also have to work long hours, face intense criticism about your appearance, and cope with constant rejection. Most of the mega-popular models facing these challenges are about our age, between 17-21 years old.

However, over the past few years, it has become a widespread practice to use models even younger than this norm. Numerous designers, magazines, and modeling agencies are scouting and hiring girls who are under the age of 16, and as young as 14. While some designers and editors are casting these young models, others are worried about the use of such young girls in this industry.

A major concern regarding the use of underage models is their maturity level and ability to handle everything modeling entails. The modeling industry is filled with rejection and criticism, often relating to a model’s weight and appearance. Many in the fashion industry have questioned whether a 14-year-old girl is ready for or should be subjected to that pressure.

Another concern regards the sexualization of these underage girls. In the high-fashion world, models are depicted wearing clothing designed for and sold to a much older customer. Oftentimes, these clothes – and their corresponding ads – can be very provocative.

These concerns, among others, have been used as arguments against hiring underage models. Some major designers and magazines have banned models under the age of 16 from their shows and editorials, while others maintain that models of all ages should be allowed. Below, we’ll take a look at the events and history surrounding this fashion controversy.

First, Background Info on Child Labor Laws and Fashion Industry Initiatives

1. Child Labor Laws

Since we are talking about models who are under the age of 16, let’s start with some background on federal child labor laws. The United States Department of Labor says the following about employment of minors:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets 14 as the minimum age for most non-agricultural work. However, at any age, youth may deliver newspapers; perform in radio, television, movie, or theatrical productions; work in businesses owned by their parents (except in mining, manufacturing or hazardous jobs); and perform babysitting or perform minor chores around a private home. Also, at any age, youth may be employed as homeworkers to gather evergreens and make evergreen wreaths.

Along with this regulation, there are also laws about how many hours a child (15 and under) can work on a given day:

Youths between 14 and 15 years old may work outside school hours in various non-manufacturing, non-mining, non-hazardous jobs. They cannot work:

  • More than 3 hours a day on school days, including Fridays;
  • More than 18 hours per week in school weeks;
  • More than 8 hours a day on non-school days;
  • More than 40 hours per week when school is not in session.

Although regulations regarding models 15 and under vary from country to country, we are spotlighting the United States Department of Labor’s regulations because most of the incidents we will be discussing involve American designers, agencies, and magazines. As you can see it is legal to use underage models, however, there are many regulations that need to be followed.

2. Health Initiatives

Over the last few years, leaders in the fashion industry have created “Health Initiatives” to prevent the exploitation of models. These initiatives provide guidelines and best practices for fashion designers, photographers, and magazines utilizing models.

Five years ago, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), formed their health initiative. While most of this initiative is devoted to the physical health of models and the possible threat of eating disorders, an age guideline was also included. The CFDA has asked designers to do the following:

Support the well-being of younger individuals by not hiring models under the age of sixteen for runway shows; not allowing models under the age of eighteen to work past midnight at fittings or shoots; and providing regular breaks and rest.

Each season following the creation of this initiative, CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg and CEO Steven Kolb have sent out a letter encouraging those involved in the fashion industry to continue following the initiative’s guidelines. In the letter sent out before the start of this Fall’s fashion week (Spring 2013), Furstenberg and Kolb continued to stress in the importance of hiring models over 16, saying,

We applaud all of the top modeling agencies who have once again pledged to not send models under 16 for shows. We are excited to share that many leading casting agents are publicly aligned with our mission and have pledged to check IDs.

Following in the CFDA’s footsteps, Vogue created their own health initiative in June 2012. Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, stated in her letter from the editor that,

The eighteen other international Vogue editors and I cosigned a letter that furthers the CFDA’s amazing work by launching a worldwide health initiative…

Like the CFDA, Vogue’s health initiative included regulations on the age of models. According to The New York Times, Vogue’s initiative include the following in their “six-point pact,”

1. We will not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. We will work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image.

2. We will ask agents not to knowingly send us underage girls and casting directors to check IDs when casting shoots, shows and campaigns.

Now that we have some background on the laws and initiatives involved in regulating the use of under-age models, let’s talk about some examples of the controversial use of under-age models in runway shows and magazine editorials.

Marc Jacobs Fall 2012 Ready-to-Wear Runway Show

Marc Jacobs
Marc Jacobs | Photo Credit

During Fall 2012 fashion week in New York, Marc Jacobs’ runway show came under fire for including two models under the age of 15. The New York Times reported that the top fashion designer “knowingly hired two, Thairine Garcia and Ondria Hardin (shown in first picture), believed to be 14 or 15.”

By featuring Garcia and Hardin, the Times stated, Jacobs did not follow the the age-limit recommendations of the CFDA. However, the designer has been a member of the CFDA ‘s Board of Directors since October 2011, according The Cut.

In response to the incident, Marc Jacobs told the Times,

I do the show the way I think it should be, and not the way somebody tells me it should be. If their parents are willing to let them do a show, I don’t see any reason that it should be me who tells them that they can’t.

The Times continued their report on the situation, saying,

The fashion council, of which Mr. Jacobs is a board member, did not fault him, responding that it is up to the designers to decide whether to follow its guidelines. Mr. Jacobs argued that there are child actors and child models for catalogs, so he did not see an issue here.

French Vogue Editorial Spread

French Vogue became part of this controversy when they featured an editorial spread in which the models were all children. Jezebel describes the pictures, saying,

The subjects are obviously children, but they’re covered in makeup and styled in sexy dresses and too-big high heels. The girls’ very adult poses preclude any reading of this editorial as a light-hearted riff on little girls playing dress-up.

Many blogs and news outlets accused the magazine of sexualizing the young models. When reporting on the incident, a writer at Feministing said,

This isn’t edgy. It’s inappropriate, and creepy, and I never want to see a nine-year-old girl in high-heeled leopard print bedroom slippers ever again.

However, other reporters viewed the spread differently. Jezebel viewed the spread as a parody:

But it’s also obvious from the over-the-top styling and the overall lurid quality that this story is a parody and a critique of the fashion industry’s unhealthy interest in young girls, not an endorsement or a glamorization of it.

Jezebel provided a quote from modeling agent, Elmer Olsen, who explained the fashion industry use of young models. She said,

“Once a girl has had her 20th or 21st birthday, she’s usually very set in her ways. She has a style already, she has a boyfriend, she doesn’t want to get braces on her teeth, she knows best. It’s much, much easier to groom a younger girl. Sixteen is the perfect age to get a girl started, because she’s more confident than a 14-year-old; she’s just turning into a young woman. But 14 is great, too, because if I don’t sign a 14-year-old one of my competitors is going to.”

Vogue implemented the health initiative about a year after this editorial was featured.

Diane von Furstenberg’s Violation of CFDA Health Initiative

CFDA Board of Directors and Nominees
Tommy Hilfiger, Candy Pratts Price, Diane Von Furtsenberg, Reed Krakoff, Carolina Herrera, Francisco Costa, and Steven Kolb, at CFDA nominations annoucement | Photo Credit

Despite her role as President of the CFDA, Diane Von Furtsenberg became part of this controversy when it was discovered that one of models that walked her Fall 2012 runway show was 15, which violated the guidelines of the CFDA health initiative.

However, according to Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) and DVF herself, the model’s inclusion in the show was an accident. WWD reported that Furtsenberg sent a letter to the othe CFDA member when she found out about the violation, which said,

As you remember, I sent you all a letter prior to the shows, emphasizing healthy models and diversity, and reminding you of our Health Guidelines. One of the guidelines, as you know, is not to hire models under 16 in addition to making sure that all of them are properly fed. Well, it is to my horror, that I discovered last Friday that in spite of me repeating that to my production and casting people, one girl slipped through the cracks. One girl who will be 16 in March walked my show last week!

I was horrified and terribly embarrassed. From now on I will instruct my casting people to demand IDs. I encourage you to do the same. I am trying to be a good leader and set an example…so please please accept my apology.

Vogue’s Violation of their Health Initiative

The CFDA is not the only organization to violate their own Health Initiative. Last month, the media reported that Vogue China and Vogue Japan had broken Vogue’s guideline regarding underage models.

The Cut reported that the two international magazines had cast Ondria Hardin (15) and Thairine Garcia (14). These are the same models that Marc Jacobs controversially used in his Fall 2012 show.

In response to the controversy, Vogue released a full statement on their website. They called the use of the underage model in Vogue China a “mistake” and said “the article was prepared before the Health Initiative ws announced, and editors failed to catch the slip-up.”

According to Vogue, the shoot featuring a underage model cast by Vogue Japan had not been printed. They stated,

Conde Nast International officials clarify that an advertising promotion shoot had taken place but was pulled from the magazine because of the model’s age and will not appear.

Both editors of Vogue China and Japan apologized in the statement.

Along with their apologies, Vogue re-established their Health initiative and created stricter guidelines. The statement says,

The Vogues around the world are strengthening steps to ban the use of underage models in the magazine as part of their Vogue Health Initiative which was announced in the pages of the fashion Bible in last June’s issue.

All model agencies will be asked to provide documentary proof of the ages of models who are not well known, or they will not appear in the magazine.

What do you think?

Do you think girls under 16 should be allowed to walk the runways or be featured in high fashion editorials? Are girls this young prepared to handle the challenges of the modeling industry? Who should regulate the age limits for models: the agency, designer, editors, or themselves? Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Posted on on October 20, 2012 / Filed Under: Fashion News / Tags: , , , , , ,

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19 Responses to “Fashionably Informed: Underage Models on the Runway and in Editorials”

  1. 1
    October 20th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    This is something that has always bothered me about the fashion industry. I had a friend who used to model for children’s clothing catalogs and things like that, and her mother was extremely cautious when is came to things being age-appropriate. I worry how these girls’ body image and self-esteem will fare after being sexualized and criticized so young.

    The excuses that designers give always remind me of professional athletes who say “if I didn’t do steroids, I’d be a t a disadvantage because everyone does it”. That doesn’t make it right! Some kind of neutral third party needs to start holding these guys accountable.

  2. 2
    October 20th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    This is always a topic that seems to get ignored when discussing runway models and their affect on “body image.” So much is made that they’re tall, they’re thin, etc. etc., and most of it is in reference to adult women. But nothing is made of the fact that women in their 20s are being compared to children. Everyone assumes “models are thin because they don’t eat, and that will make women and teen girls not eat,” when the much bigger problem is that the body standard being presented ISN’T simply “thin woman,” it’s “prepubescent.” Many of these girls are totally healthy when they start out; it’s not unusual, weird, or unhealthy for a 13 or 14 year old child to be long and lanky. But, even tall, thin adult women do not look like that. And your body changes so much between 13 and your forced retirement at all of 20 years old. A girl who starts off at a size zero and five foot eight is going to gain weight and start showing curves; even if she stays super-thin, she’s being compared to newer, younger models, and has to try to look 14 when she’s 17 to keep her job. And that is where the rampant drugs and eating disorders come in to play on runways. People are so worried that the women at home will feel fat, but no one really cares that 16, 17, 18, 19 year old girls are being abused, encouraged to stop eating, and encouraged to take drugs just to avoid being fired. This is the danger as framing the “model issue” as just a “fat-thin” dichotomy. I think naturally thin adult women would likely present a very different presence on the runway, and that girls under a certain age should be flat out banned. Instead, people talk about making BMI limits and such; that won’t help if all the models are very young. An adult woman comparing herself to a 14 year old with a BMI of 19 is not any healthier that a woman comparing herself to a 14 year old with a BMI of 17. First, before we can worry about whether the models are too thin, or how the models became so thin, we need to take very young girls off the runway. Then we can worry about everything else.

  3. 3
    October 20th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    That Dept. of Labor ruling doesn’t seem to allow modeling for children, unless it’s somehow covered under “theatrical productions”?

  4. 4
    October 20th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I don’t see the big deal with having a 14 or 15 year old model once they have their parents’ consent. I think people have to stop blaming the fashion industry for their insecurities. We all know that it’s a show and if your not smart enough to realize that, then your an idiot.
    I agree that model should be healthy, but just because a person is thin doesn’t mean their unhealthy. ( And I say this as a 5 foot 2 girl whose wears a size 00. But has difficulty finding clothes that fit, because I’m not average size.)

  5. 5
    October 20th, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I love these articles first of all! One thing I always wonder though is why child actors are viewed as acceptable but not young models? I don’t necessarily agree with allowing young models to be in fashion shows or model in catalogs because I think it can lead to them having body issues and eating disorders. However, how many child stars and young pop stars end up in rehab or have eating disorders or end up in jail? Lohan? Spears? Demi Lovato (although she thankfully took the time to get help for herself)? I think if we are going to be tough on the fashion industry then someone needs to crack down on Hollywood too.

  6. 6
    October 20th, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    I think they have a point. In my opinion, young models are vulnerable because they’re at an age where they tread a very thin line. Not just models, do any of you remember being 14-15 years old? We didn’t know how to dress so as not to look like a 12 year old, wanting to look older than 14-15, but then it was difficult to draw the line between looking older (or wanting to) and looking overly sexualized. And I think that’s the problem with the younger models, that if they were something, or they pose for something that may bring a hint to that model being closer to 17-18 than to her actual age, it can be a bit problematic. The only thing is that when we used to try and look older, not a lot of people saw us, but these girls are on fashion shows that are all over the world.

    Bethany, I think child actors may be viewed in a better light because they don’t usually have to play anyone older than they are (in most cases, it’s the other way around!), and therefore, don’t have to do actions that look very provocative, or are a bit of a borderline. When it does happen though, it rises as much controversy as a young model posing/dressing in a provocative manner.

    I think as long as they have their parents concern, and they follow the regulations, as well as not overly sexualizing them, it should be fine. Unfortunately, we all know it doesn’t happen, and that’s also a big problem.

    Incidentally, on the Child Vogue cover with the 9 year old girls, I don’t remember looking that perfect at all. If I tried my mum’s make-up and/or clothes, I looked a lot sillier. I’m pretty sure that if the article had aimed more towards that rather than the girls looking perfect, it wouldn’t have been so controversial.

  7. 7
    October 20th, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    I actually think Marc Jacobs has a point. It has to be parents first of all who decide whether it is reasonable for their children to walk in a runway show. Of course there are all kinds of parents, and some are just money hungry and want their children to bring cash in. I think there should be a consent form of some sort for underage models and it has to be signed by their parents (is there one?), but I don’t think designers should be held accountable because a 15 year old walked in their show. Another thing is that there are plenty of young actors and actresses that work long hours under high pressure, but I rarely read about how negatively it impacts them. I just feel like if there are guidelines for models and no under 16 girl can walk a runway show, then there should be a similar thing for other forms of art (singers, dancers, actors, etc.). In the end of the day all these kids work long hours, so I don’t understand why there is such a split between the modeling world and everything else.

  8. 8
    October 20th, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    You don’t need to read how long hours under pressure negatively impact young actors and actresses. You just need to look at the covers of magazines with another actor/actress in rehab for drugs or alcohol. That’s how they cope.

  9. 9
    October 20th, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I personally so nothing wrong with hiring child models. It’s difficult, for sure, because it can get in the way of schooling, etc. but it should be up to the child and the parents to decide if that’s the direction they want to take. As for whether it can be unhealthy, I think that kids get those messages from magazines and the media already without being models so it won’t be anything new. Besides, don’t try to be a model if you aren’t prepared to hear ‘we don’t want your look’. As for the sexualization, if the child or parents don’t feel comfortable with something, they can just say no – it’s that simple.

  10. 10
    October 20th, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    The last thing we need are more laws dictating what we can and cannot do. The government is not the morality police and we shouldn’t be asking them to be. Doesn’t mean this practice is right – I think it’s wrong – but it’s up to the designers. If young girls and their parents want to head down this avenue, all power to them. I for one wouldn’t let my daughter, but that’s my choice as a free individual.

  11. 11
    October 20th, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    I didn’t know that such young girls could participate in the modeling industry. I don’t know how hard the challenges are, but they must be hard for every new model that enters this industry. I agree with you in the argument about provocative adds. If fashion houses want to have underage models, then they have to “use” them to advertise clothes for an underage audience, too. It is not correct, absolutely not correct, the fact that they are being known for products for an older audience, like of 30 or 25 (double their age).

  12. 12
    October 21st, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Thank you so much for addressing this important issue. I think most people are not aware, or worse, if they are it doesn’t bother them much!

    I am proud to know that there are some very important fashion labels that pledge to not enter into contractual relationships with girls under 16 and with girls with eating disorders. Obviously there is a lot more to be done (stricter controls and surveys for starters) but that’s a step in the right direction.

    I hope you’ll also address the issue about children working in the manufacture of fashion clothing. I also think that’s a very important issue and we’re often surprised who was “caught” using child labor and people should be more attentive to it!

    I’m thinking about this case for instance.

    Anyways thank you again, love reading your posts!

  13. 13
    October 21st, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    This is very interesting that you posted this, considered this controversy is widespread amongst the nation. Of course, it all comes down to the parents (as Marc Jacobs stated). If the parents find it okay for their child to walk runway shows or pose in editorials, then that should be okay. But of course, the agency’s (and the designer’s) should have the final decision. If they have parent consent, then they have the option of using the model or not.

    The modeling industry is complicated though. Models are always being judges on their size and skin color (as you stated in your previous posts) so it’s better to have older models (ages from 17 and up) who can cope with the pressure. Models at the age of 14 can’t really cope with those critism because they face them at school at well. Sure you can argue that their are young actors and musicians, but as you can see Demi Lovato faced an eating disorder and Miley Cyrus was called fat multiple times. There are many others and they proved to stand up to all the haters, but sometimes it can be hard to believe that you’re beautiful when everyone around you says you’re not (trust me! I know that feeling!)

    Anyways, the article is good and I hope more people take more safety precautions for their models. Many girls and guys look up to these models!

    Oh btw: an article about the discrimination of Male models! We should support our men :D That would be a great article!

  14. 14
    October 21st, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    Where are these girls’ parents?? If a 14-year-old wants to model, go ahead and support her, but don’t put her in adult clothing and doing sexual poses….I think everybody wishes they could be 14 and carefree again, don’t take that away from them! Especially with all the criticism in this industry…..seems like it could totally destroy a girl’s self-image. Plus, I don’t think it’s healthy to have young girls that concerned with beauty and clothing at that age…..

  15. 15
    October 21st, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    I should add that I agree with M, it shouldn’t be illegal for companies to hire underage models because it’s an individual decision, but I disagree very much parents who allow their young children to be overly sexualized.

  16. 16
    October 22nd, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I really do believe it’s okay for a 14 year old to model as long as the parents give consent and establish the rules. Also the parents need to let the child know the dangers of the modeling industry such as scams, eating disorders, and distorted self image. I am 14 and I am a model and I have done a few shows before. It’s not as bad as people portray it to be. All the bad stuff like alcohol and drugs that people think happens usually doesn’t happen at shows or shoots. It happens at the after parties, which I don’t attend. I remember at one show the older girls were talking about an after party they were going to attend. Me and a few of the other girls knew the after party wouldn’t be appropriate for us to attend so we went to get pizza instead. It’s not a big deal.

  17. 17
    October 22nd, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Do I think it’s right to have underage models on the runway? Of course not. But how is this any different than teen “pop stars”? They work long hours and are overly-sexualized too. I don’t think it’s any different, really–and I don’t think either is okay.

  18. 18
    October 22nd, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Also, I’ve never been a fan of Marc Jacobs anyway because of his extremely pedophilic ads with Dakota Fanning.

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