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As long as there have been artists, there have been models who posed for them. In earlier times, many of these models were the friends or relatives of the artist. Wealthy patrons also posed for artists to have their portraits painted. Actresses, actors, society personalities, and other celebrities were among the first models.

In 1858, Charles Frederick Worth, an English tailor, opened a salon, or fashion house, in Paris and became the first dressmaker to display his designs on live models. The history of the photographic model is comparatively recent. Although the modern camera was invented by George Eastman in 1889, its possible uses in commercial advertising were not realized for more than 20 years. Shortly after the turn of the century, when the ready-to-wear clothing industry began to grow rapidly, businesses discovered that a picture could sell more products than text, and fashion professionals realized that live models boosted clothing sales more than mannequins. Consequently, advertisements began to feature pictures of young women who seemed to endorse a manufacturer's product. As commercial photography continued to grow and develop, so did the career of the photographic model. Today these models can be male or female, and of every age, race, and color, depending on the wishes of the advertiser.

The story of fashion models begins in Paris, where they were first employed more than a century ago to display the exclusive clothing designed by French dressmakers for wealthy women. Before 1900, U.S. fashions were, for the most part, copies of the French originals, and it was seldom considered necessary for copied clothing to be shown by live models. Shortly after World War I, the U.S. garment industry created some original designs. These garments were mass produced. As these fashion houses slowly multiplied, so did the number of models needed to show new clothing designs to prospective buyers. In the past 40 years, the U.S. garment industry has assumed world leadership in the production of clothing, and models have been needed to display these garments and the fashion accessories that go with them.