Runway Rights

09.14.14 9:45 AM ET

Does Fashion Week Exploit Teen Models?

It's been over half a century since Shirley Temple rose to fame and helped revolutionize protections for child actors. So why are underage models still so vulnerable?

In August, 19-year-old Jane (a pseudonym) was at a pre-fashion week casting to walk in Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 2015 fashion show, when she saw something that disturbed her.

"There was a girl in a shear top, no bra, and [part of the casting crew] were filming her. There were at least 30 models in the room and 3 casting directors. When they finished filming, they asked her how old she was, and she said 14,” Jane says. “I thought their response would be to freak out because they filmed an underage girl basically nude, but instead, one of the casting directors said, ‘I wish I looked like that when I was 14.’ I was disgusted." When asked for comment, a YSL corporate PR official said, "Officially, we can not comment on anything for any publication."  

The casting process for fashion shows is notoriously cutthroat and can be humiliating for young models. Models change in rooms often filled with onlookers and are sometimes asked to simply stand there nude between fittings or quick changes backstage. A large part of a fashion model's job is physical, moving and shaping her body to highlight the drape of the clothing. A model's job is to sell products using her image. So, the necessity of protections against workplace harassment should be self-evident, especially when a large number of working models are minors. While the Child Model Act was passed over a year ago to help do just this, this fall’s New York Fashion Week is proving that child labor regulation in the American fashion industry still have a long way to go.

According to a survey by the Model Alliance, 54 percent of models begin working on or before the age of sixteen, and agencies start recruiting new faces as young as thirteen. In October 2013, New York State passed the first law granting protections for fashion models under the age of 18, formally extending them the rights that other underage actors and entertainers have been afforded for the last decade. Protections include such requirements as school-night curfews, on-set hour limits, mandatory chaperones for models under 16, tutors, and financial trusts. When the Child Model Act was signed into law, model rights activists such as myself sounded a collective sigh of relief. We were hopeful that this exclusive, suppressive, and hyper-wealthy country club-like industry would be forced to innovate its policies toward child labor. 

Jane is an Elizabethan vision with her waist-length red hair and peaches-and-cream complexion, so it’s not a surprise that she was an active participant in this year’s fashion presentations. Jane was only five when she graced the pages of Italian Vogue, after which her parents decided against letting her model again until she turned 18. When she speaks about the way she saw models being treated by people behind the scenes at this past week’s New York Fashion Week, her voice becomes emotional. “Backstage none of the press left when the girls were changing. No one was concerned if the girls that were changing were underage.” 

Jane is particularly knowledgeable about the Child Model Act as she lives with and serves as the chaperone for a 15-year-old new model named Emily (a pseudonym). Emily is a tall 5’11” and has a sweet roundness to her face capped by strawberry blonde hair. She was a hit at New York Fashion Week, booking six shows. “I went to a few shows with Emily, and I was the only chaperone. Not a single person asked to see her Child Model work papers.”

On Saturday, Jane modeled in an up-and-coming designer’s Spring/Summer 2015 show. “The clothing we were wearing in that show were sheer,” Jane says. “I did not see one person ask if the girls modeling the transparent clothing were over 18 or even over 16. I have never seen a single person ID’d.”

One week before the September fashion presentations began, CFDA’s CEO Steven Kolb and President Diane von Furstenberg sent a letter to the fashion community saying that models under the age of 16 “do not belong on the runway and we ask everyone to follow this belief.” Von Furstenberg also mentioned the newly passed Child Model Act, and reminded everyone that models under the age of 18 need “proper documents and schedules” in order to work.

Some casting insiders followed these guidelines. Seventeen-year-old high school senior Julia Khoroshilov spent the past two weeks working for runway casting director Zan Casting. She got involved in interning as a way to jumpstart her budding modeling career. Khoroshilov assisted Zan for such shows as Kaelen, The Academy or Art, Mara Hoffman, J.Crew, and Greg Lauren. When I asked her about the Child Model Act and if she was witness to any underage girls walking the shows, her answer was refreshing. “We only cast girls 18 or older. We were aware of the new laws and regulations so we made sure not to cast any underage girls.”

In 1932, Shirley Temple began helping to revolutionize the protections for child actors after she became a star at the age of three. For her first film, she played a woman caught in a love triangle between a nightclub owner and a country boy. Produced by a minor studio, Educational Pictures, the short film series was called Baby Burlesks and used pre-school age children in every role, dressing them as adults and giving them mature dialogue. The regiment the child actors faced at Educational Pictures was extreme and included a “punishment box.” When the children were not performing up to standards, they would be made to sit on a block of ice to “cool off.” 

Five years later, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, which included a statute specifically banning “oppressive child labor,” defined as work that "does not jeopardize their health, well-being, or educational opportunities."

Congress went on to exempt certain groups of child labor from the act’s protection in the so-called "Shirley Temple Act", which was passing in 1938 and allowed child performers and child farm workers to work under the age of 16. But, laws have been passed in 32 since then to help protect children in the entertainment industry.

Now, over half a century later, the fashion industry, continues to struggle to protect it’s underage workers, running an arcane and patrician system reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. New York child models weren’t offered labor regulations until the Child Model Act passed last year, and the industry continues to insist that models are independent contractors, meaning they are not protected against sexual harassment in the workplace or employment description under Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act.

Young male and female fashion models are told how to look, what to eat, and how much they can weigh. They are housed by their agencies and forced to sign multi-year, one-sided contracts without the ability to opt out if the relationship goes south. The message models receive is loud and clear: this is what it is to be a model, and you must deal with it or get out. There are 1000 others waiting to take your place.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Child Model Act passed in New York in October 2013.