You either have it, or you don’t.

In the same way that runway models themselves are a sign of the times, runway walks also reveal the complex relationship between style, muse, culture and commerce.

Since the turn of the 20th century, fashion shows have been an exclusive affair directed at the media and high-profile buyers. It’s only within the last decade that technological developments have shaken up the antiquated fashion show format to appeal to the immediacy of the modern consumer.

With a handful of top models having cemented their stilettos in the catwalk hall of fame, what defines a signature walk? And how has the runway represented both the model and the fashion industry as a whole throughout history?

ORIGINS OF THE CATWALK

Even before the roaring ‘20s set style into overdrive, the foundations of scheduled fashion week presentations had already usurped the more discreet and informal “parades” of the decades preceding. By generating an air of excitement around exclusive events, fashion shows would become major marketing tools for haute couture designers to preview their latest collections.

Up until the late-1940s, models walked stoically, usually at the same level as the audience and often carrying numbers corresponding to specific designs. Eventually, some establishments began to integrate raised t-shape or semicircle runways that gave more of a performance-like feel to the event.

In 1947, Christian Dior would throw a wrench in every major fashion trend with his first salon-style couture show in Paris, in which a more dramatic and flirtatious presentation was born.

Christian Dior Haute Couture 1955

SIGNATURES OF THE ‘60s & ‘70s

The ‘50s saw further adjustments to the catwalk, but it wasn’t until the ‘60s that the true revelation of the signature walk began. Unlike in previous years, designers began to encourage presentations that were freer, with more personality and flair.

Twirling, dancing, and music became integrated into the fashion show format. A youthful, imperfect energy was solidified when Twiggy, the first “working class model,” became mod’s indelible it-girl. Twiggy’s slight frame, short crop, and rough-around-the-edges appeal was a physical manifestation of fashion’s overlap into punk and performance art, which really came alive (and drew scrutiny) in the ‘70s.

Kansai Yamamoto In The ‘70s

This is also when models of color started appearing in greater numbers, such as Pat Cleveland, perhaps the first prominent black model. Cleveland is a unique fashion legend with an instantly recognizable strut—energetic, with lots of twirls and bold facial expressions. Contrast this with the Jessica Rabbit-like slink of Jerry Hall, and it’s apparent that the reserved runway walk of old had been replaced by a variety of new struts with spunk.

Pat Cleveland For Chloé

YSL 1970s (Catch Jerry Hall At 0:10)

The disco era of the ‘70s would expand on this theme, and carve out New York City as a fashion capital. Late, great designer Halston drew inspiration from the glamour and excess of Studio 54 and NYC’s nightlife scene. It’s here that the larger-than-life model persona rose to prominence.

‘80s GLAMOUR

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, influential designer Thierry Mugler upped the ante of the fashion show, opting for huge arenas with massive sets over the typical runway or salon-style settings still popular among his peers. Furthermore, Mugler would open up some of his seats to the public, making the event a consumer affair as well as one directed at fashion’s most distinguished.

Mugler shows were long and with no shortage of theatrics. Crowds cheered as their favorite models fully committed to representing the mood behind each collection. This was the era when the catwalk began to separate the top models from the working models.

Embodying the poise of the ‘80s signature is Iman. Regal, sensual, and expertly paced, Iman’s walk indulged in the fantasy of the fashion SHOW, while always doing the clothes justice.

Iman For Mugler

The late-‘80s to the mid-‘90s marked the height of the double turn. Models would stop at the end of the catwalk (sometimes even midway), pose, then pivot their bodies to show the look in full before finishing their walk. Easier said than done, this displayed the distinct expertise and professionalism of top models during this time.

See Models Double Turn For 1991 Anna Sui

SUPERMODELS OF THE ’90s

If the ‘80s were the era of the top model, the ‘90s were undoubtedly the era of the supermodel. It’s here that models would gain more influence and responsibility than ever before, and arguably, ever since.

What makes a supermodel? Some would argue that it’s as cut and dry as 5 names: Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, And Tatjana Patitz.

At the beginning of the ‘90s, this coalition of models took over the industry, with each one representing a different archetype that top designers like Marc Jacobs, Gianni Versace, Anna Sui, and Karl Lagerfeld would harness to generate buzz around their collections.

Of all the “Supers,” one walk was in a league of its own, and would become perhaps the most recognizable in fashion history.

Naomi Campbell’s powerful strut incorporates just enough movement to suggest flirtatiousness, without the need to act demure. At the same time, Campbell knows when to rein it in depending on the designer and collection in question. For this reason and others, she still stomps today after 30 years in the industry.

Here’s 46 Minutes Of Naomi Walking

While Campbell’s ’90s walk represented power and confidence, the other Supers embodied and expanded upon their “characters” in a way that made them rich, famous, and some of the hardest working members of the industry.

THE ANTI-SUPERMODEL

With the US economic boom of the ‘90s, fashion shows became huge events that attracted stars from across industries. Although the shows themselves were still directed at media figures, the surrounding hype was equally focused on models as it was on the designs themselves. This, of course, grew a bit overwhelming for some.

As a result, the remainder of the ‘90s ushered in a new breed of anti-supermodel—those who came to disrupt the glamorous, godlike presentation of the towering beauties before them. This era of the waif aligned with the grunge movement, manifesting in the reserved, somewhat apathetic runway walk of Kate Moss.

Kate Moss Walk

These new girls, among them Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow, provided an edge that criticized the very nature of the fashion industry. All the same, the signature walk far from died out—yet it was clear that a new kind of dark drama had outrun the tenure of the smiling flirt. Nowhere was this more evident than in shows by Alexander McQueen, a perpetual iconoclast who perhaps should not be tethered to a discussion of trends—of which he was a constant innovator.

Popular Models Of The ’90s Walks

SEX SELLS IN THE 2000s

Along came the new millennium. Influenced by reality TV and the bronzed midriff of Paris Hilton, the aughts confronted high fashion designers with a decision; to sell sex or not to sell sex?

The models that would dominate the runway, many of whom came to the industry from Eastern Europe, had fierce, fast walks, thin frames, and stone faces. More than a few blondes began to book the majority of high-profile campaigns and shows.

Natasha Poly Walk

This is also the decade when America’s Next Top Model would amass popularity, capitalizing on the very idea of a signature walk. But at the same time, it became clear that an increasingly homogeneous approach to the muse was in effect.

No longer selecting from various supermodels to convey unique personas, designers began picking a “type” of girl and essentially hiring 20 of them for a show. It could be argued that this era minimized the decision-making power and credit of individual models, signalling a shift in the way models were represented, both on and offstage.

Despite the shift, this period would ultimately showcase some of the best runway walks in recent memory. John Galliano’s years spent at Christian Dior saw the designer restraining no fantasy from inspiring his clothes. Models were encouraged to walk with a trademark fierceness that would become known as the “horse stomp.”

Detested by some, fondly remembered by others, the horse stomp is all but eliminated from the modern runway today. Models like Gisele Bundchen, Michelle Alves, and Raquel Zimmermann were the great showmen of this iconic, OTT strut.

See 3:42 For A Stomp By Zimmerman For Dior

THE NEW ERA

High fashion in the current decade is a scene in flux, and for many reasons. The impact of the great recession and the popularization of social media have changed the way designers work and when shows are held. Today, runway shows are, for the most part, shorter and less theatrical than they’ve ever been.

In effort to keep up with the times, designers have spent recent years employing so-called social media models for both print and runway.

Now, groups of young models who never had the opportunity to learn how to craft a walk are leading shows for major designers. While in the past, signed models like Kimora Lee Simmons were assigned a runway coach like the famous Miss Jay Alexander to teach them the ropes, today, agencies say they have no time or energy to devote to the more artistic side of modeling.

This is the era of the “business model.”

Miss J Teaching ANTM Contestants How To Walk

At present, the average runway walk is inconsistent and reserved. In fact, it serves up a middle ground between the fierce and the coy, which is perhaps why some fashion insiders feel that models have become more vessel than muse. As NEXT Model Management agency director Alex Borges cops to, “I absolutely think it’s less distinctive for sure…You want them to be able to walk without tripping, of course.”

Although there’s not much variety within the walks of the top 50 models on the scene, some have managed to stand out with signatures that deviate from the norm. While the early 2010s had Karlie Kloss and Mariacarla Boscono, the new generation has Imaan Hammam, Teddy Quinlivan, and Yasmin Wijnaldum etching out their strut from the pack.

Mariacarla Boscono Walk

Yasmin Wijnaldum Walk

THE FUTURE OF CATWALK

What case does today make for fashion’s future? Well, the industry changes constantly and in relation to the movement of the dollar. Furthermore, the inclusion of a much more diverse cast of models is an exciting development, and hopefully one that isn’t later revealed as a tacky marketing scam. Perhaps hiring a greater breadth of models from different backgrounds will birth a new strut we haven’t yet seen, one that solidifies how impactful and essential the model is in fashion.

The tides are changing, and fashion’s foot is always on the pulse.