Lest our estimation of fashion models get out of hand, it is time to take a look at them when someone else is not choosing their clothes.
Off the catwalks, the very model of clueless dressing
There was a brief moment not so long ago when the off-duty model uniform became a "look". For anyone who has worked with models over the years, this was a major cause for concern. The reality of what models wear when they are not modelling - on a foreign assignment, for example, or at castings - is rarely pretty, seldom creative and certainly not glamorous.
As with most things in an industry where image wins over reality every time, the off-duty get-up on which Alexander Wang based his hugely influential "model off-duty" summer 2008 collection (that he claimed was inspired by the stick-insect brigade out clubbing), was a designer's fantasy woven around what he would like to see models wearing. If you want to see what a model looks like without a professional stylist and a hair and make-up team, look backstage during the Paris shows before the girls change into their first outfit.
Here you can witness hordes of spotty/scrawny teenagers in cheap ensembles ranging from vests with holes to grungy jeans and trainers covered in biro. If you needed any further examples of a model's taste, look at outfits worn to the Models As Muse: Embodying Fashion exhibit party in New York the other night. I gazed in horror at the stream of bizarre choices on the red carpet. How could so many A-list designer frocks worn by unashamedly beautiful, tall and mostly young models, sorry muses, look so hit and miss? And then it hit me. Of course. The models had chosen what to wear themselves.
In brief moments of madness on fashion shoots, I've let one or two talk me into letting them wear something they like, or keeping on their own (black) nail varnish or plaits because so and so (a young pop group, usually) is wearing it. Every time it ends in tears. Mostly mine. You can just imagine the trying-on session at the shared model house prior to the party. Or at least I can, and I know it wouldn't exactly be fizzing with energy.
"Do I look good in this one?" asks one model. "Yeeeeaaaaah," yawns her leggy friend, not even looking. When you spend your days being zipped into then hauled out of garments, no wonder clothes make you zone out. Who cares who they are by? So, on the one night of the year when you can choose, inevitably you settle for the first thing that fits ("let's just get this over with so I can head downtown and listen to the Ting Tings on my iPod/call my friends").
Saying that, the worst outfit of the night wasn't worn by a model. Anne Hathaway looked like Violet Beauregarde - the child who became a giant blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - in her Marc Jacobs Eighties gown with big hair. Jacobs had also created the daring toga worn by Kate Moss that showed off her knobbly knees, and the headdress that prompted questions about a facelift. As for Agyness Deyn, what on earth was with the Margaret Thatcher helmet head?
No wonder Christy Turlington, Stephanie Seymour, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova, five of the most influential model muses of recent times, took a rain check. Was it really because they weren't allowed to wear Azzedine Alaia? Did they have an inkling of the fright night at the museum that was to take place, or did they wisely prefer to let photographs of them in their glory days do the talking?
If you've ever been disappointed by a celebrity in the flesh (aren't they always much smaller and with big heads?), try meeting a model. What struck me most about the Met evening was not so much how fashion needs models but how much more models need fashion. Especially now that the 25-year-old Tommy Ton and his fashion blog, Jak & Jil, have arrived on the scene, plucking out anyone who isn't crucially stylish in their path.
Ton's website, which features shots of real-life stylish people - as opposed to the styled-up variety - boasts 25,000 page hits a day and is now considered a must-read by industry insiders. Most importantly, success has come despite, and possibly because of, its lack of professional models. The Canadian-born Ton is being tipped to take over from the model Svengali Steven Meisel any day now. His latest shoot for the legendary Asian boutique Lane Crawford was shot blog-style on location with real fashion-mad folk in Paris' Jardin des Tuileries, where the fashion pack hang out during the prêt-a-porter shows. If I were a model, I would be very scared indeed.