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exhibition review: selling dreams – one hundred years of fashion photography

Skater wears a Digby Morton fur trimmed velvet coat, city gentleman Michael Bentley in the background, London. Daily Express, 1955 John French © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Skater wears a Digby Morton fur trimmed velvet coat, city gentleman Michael Bentley in the background, London. Daily Express, 1955 John French
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

‘I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes.’ – Irving Penn, 1984

In describing his work as a fashion photographer for Vogue, Irving Penn gave the above quote as a response. In doing so he major to capture the growing trend of aspirational fashion; of going beyond simply presenting a picture of a garment to actually inspiring a feeling or thought in the viewer. It is this notion that is being represented in the exhibition Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography, organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and now showing at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

 

All the trends and glamour of fashion over the last 100 years are documented in iconic photographs, providing a visual timeline of the growth of what is deemed to be ‘fashion’.  As the exhibition notes, ‘fashion photography has never existed in a vacuum’ and viewers can see the ways in which context, technology and changes in style have influenced photographers to continually develop and push boundaries with their craft.

 

Upon entering the gallery, viewers are met with a series of black and white photographs from as early as 1911, where the American photographer Edward Steichen first photographed models wearing dresses by designer Paul Poiret. These would later be considered to be ‘the first serious fashion photographs ever made’. This claim provides an interesting challenge to a modern viewer, who outside of this exhibition, might simply consider the photograph to be a historical document or merely just an image.

 

But it is this idea of fashion photography offering an insight into a particular moment in time that Selling Dreams manages to effectively portray. The influence of surrealism is apparent in the avant-garde photographs of the 1920s and 1930s, with photographers experimenting with new techniques to challenge the ‘accepted reality’. Photographs for this period include Melvin Sokolsky’s now famous shoot for Harper’s Bazaar were models were shot in plastic bubbles, floating over the streets of cities like New York and Paris.

 

Viewers exploring the exhibition are met with the more photojournalistic approach of fashion photography of the 1950s. Here the photographs depict the growing trend of shooting models out in the ‘natural environment’ and away from the traditional studio – a trend that is still employed in current fashion photography today.

 

Selling Dreams goes on to demonstrate how the socio-political context of the 1960s influenced fashion photography. Here there was a move away from the rigid formality of the previous era, as perceptions of ‘femininity’ were challenged and constricting corsets were removed from the common dress. Models such as Twiggy and Jen Shrimpton would emerge from this period as international fashion icons, whilst a move towards bold colour and new fabrics would change perceptions of fashion.

 

What was interesting for me for this period in particular, was that it was the first time that the definition of ‘fashion’ was set by the ordinary person. This is referred to by designer Mary Quant, who wrote in 1955 ‘Once only the Rich, the Establishment set the fashion. Now it is the inexpensive little dress seen on the girls in the High Street…’

 

Perceptions of femininity continued to be challenged and redeveloped throughout the fashion photography of the 1970s and 1980s, with the increased use of black and androgynous models. Examples include Arthur Elgort’s “Eye” capturing a shoot with androgynous model Jeny Howorth for French Vogue in 1984.

 

Walking through the Selling Dreams exhibition and following the chronology of fashion photography from almost a century ago right through to the present day, offers a visual stimulating and thought provoking challenge to ideas of fashion, art and femininity. 

 

‘Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography’ is showing at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney until 10 November 2013. Entry is free.

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