December 28, 2011
IT wasn’t the first time the fashion industry was slammed for extreme Photoshopping. But an entirely fake body?
That was the collective clucking earlier this month when it was exposed by Aftonbladet, the Swedish newspaper, that H&M had superimposed the heads of real models onto computer-generated mannequins for an online swimwear campaign.
“In the future, even models’ faces won’t be considered perfect enough for online fast fashion, and we’ll buy all of our clothing from cyborgs,” said a writer for the style blog Jezebel. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation blasted the retailer for “creating unrealistic physical ideals.”
But the practice is unlikely to end. Putting aside the technological advances that make digitally altered photographs harder to detect, the boom in fashion e-commerce means that radical retouching is here to stay and will probably go further.
It can be cheaper to superimpose a model’s face on a virtual body than it is to photograph a model in multiple outfits, said Ashley Mears, an assistant sociology professor at Boston University and former model, whose book, “Pricing Beauty,” explores the harsh economic realities of modeling.
For working models, it represents an existential threat. Models are generally paid whenever their faces are used. But they’re also paid for their time, and using a virtual mannequin means money taken out of their already-skinny pockets. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median wage for models in the United States was $13.18 an hour in 2008.)
“If H&M just shot her head smiling at different angles, they’d have to pay for hair and makeup, plus the time to prepare her, but would not have to pay for the time it would take her to change in and out of multiple outfits,” Dr. Mears said. “That can be costly indeed.”
In a way, the H&M models should be glad they were included at all. To keep costs low, many online retailers crop out models’ heads entirely to avoid multiple-use fees. That is why so many sites, including low-end Wal-Mart and high-end Net-a-Porter, display page after page of headless dresses and sweaters.
(In one creative work-around, Alexander Wang, for his new e-commerce site last spring, partnered with the artist Terence Koh to obscure models’ faces with halo-shaped fluorescent bulbs: visually striking, but still a bag over the models’ heads.)
If there is any good modeling news in the H&M situation, it’s that a pretty face remains a bankable asset. H&M might have gotten away with a virtual body, but it did not dare create a virtual face. Consumers would have been turned off.
Scientists call it the “uncanny valley” theory, which holds that people will tolerate only so much artificial human likeness before attraction turns into revulsion. Think lifelike sex dolls or Michael Jackson’s nose.
“There is a very striking uncanny effect for faces” but less for nonmoving bodies, said Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. “If they added a super-realistic but not-real face, they’d become uncanny, and therefore frightening, eerie and creepy.”