The use of underage models in fashion is nothing new. You may recall that, back in the 1980s, Brooke Shields caused something of a stir when she fronted a Calvin Klein campaign aged just 15. However, the issue has come back to the fore recently, following the appearance of a 14-year-old Israeli girl, Sofia Mechetner, in a Dior couture show in Paris this past July.
There are a variety of concerns regarding the use of children and young people in any grown-up, professional environment, including exposing them to pressures that exceed their physical or psychological capacity, the interruption of their schooling, and their possible financial exploitation. An additional concern, particular to the fashion industry, is that, as Sara Ziff of the Model Alliance puts it, “when you dress children up in makeup and high heels, the implication is that they are sexual objects, and more often than not, that is how the images are read by the public”.
Aside from the moral and ethical issues connected with the use of underage models in the fashion industry, there are legal considerations too. Under English law, the employment of children is a highly regulated activity, comprising a variety of statutes, local authority bye–laws and regulations aimed at ensuring the health, well-being, safety, and education of children. The Education Act 1996 defines a “child” as any person who is not over compulsory school age, whilst a “young person” is defined as someone over school age but under the age of 18 years. The Children and Young Persons Act of 1963 provides that children under 16 years old are restricted from taking part in certain defined activities (including working as a model for payment) unless the local authority in the area where they reside issues a licence authorising their performance. If the child does not live in Great Britain, then it is the authority where the applicant resides or has their place of business which must issue a licence. A licence is not required where (a) a child’s performance is unpaid, (b) no absence from school is required and (c) in the six months prior to the performance, the child has not already performed for more than three days.
More interesting, perhaps, are the steps that the fashion industry itself has taken to restrict the use of underage models. Three years ago, all 21 international Vogues signed and published a pact pledging that they would not use models under 16 years old. In 2007, both the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the British Fashion Council (BFC) issued health guidelines that strongly recommended (per the CFDA) and required (per the BFC) that designers use models who were at least 16 years old for runway shows. Moreover, in 2013, after lobbying from the CFDA and the Model Alliance, the New York State Legislature passed a law stating that all models under 18 years old must be treated as child performers, with all the associated regulations and protections that this gives rise to.
According to a spokesman for Dior, Ms Mechetner was chaperoned throughout her time in Paris, and has now returned to Israel for school, her future with the brand to be determined. I suppose that the publicity surrounding her recent Dior appearance is testament to the fact that her story remains the exception, rather than the rule – thanks, no doubt, to the influence of both the law, and the industry’s own attempts to regulate itself in this regard.