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exhibition review: edward steichen & art deco fashion


Image via Herald Sun, Edward Steichen, NGV

2013 is the year of the 1920s love-in. Since the release of Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, elements of the Jazz Age have infiltrated themes of countless parties, fashion, television and art. The opening of Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion at the National Gallery of Victoria either capitalises on this trend or happily coincides with it; either way, the exhibition is a must-see for anyone whose heart has been captured by the glamour of this glittering epoch.

‘Steichen’s evocative images are regarded as among the most striking in early-to-mid-20th century photography and his fashion work in particular revolutionised the genre of fashion photography. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view such a large body of his work and to see up close the intricate details of outstanding Art Deco fashion items that highlight the interplay between fashion and photography,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion showcases the work of Steichen, one of the first fashion photographers, alongside clothing and accessories from the 1920s and 1930s.  Steichen shot the first photographic cover for Vogue, and was a prolific fashion photographer for Condé Nast titles Vogue and Vanity Fair. The photos are from the Condé Nast archives, while the fashion comes from select private collections and the NGV.

 It is rumoured that Steichen was dared to portray fashion as art through photography; prior to this time, a piece of clothing was photographed as an object, not as something wonderful itself. Steichen’s careful composition and artistic background truly challenged this conception. Whether shooting foot models or Hollywood stars, Steichen created works of art to be shared with readers of the historic magazines.

One of the striking qualities of the photos is their timelessness. Although ahead of their time at conception, few of the shots would look out of place in a fashion spread today. Steichen somehow managed to capture the essence of an era, while establishing a mode of working that still translates as striking and modern more than half a century later.

More than 40 pieces of Art Deco fashion accompany Steichen’s work in the exhibition. Created by designers of the day including Chanel, Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Paquin and Callot Soeurs, the clothing and accessories are captivating in their detail.

Another interesting component of the exhibition is a silent film that follows Steichen through the process of a fashion shoot with a dancer. The film allows the viewer to appreciate the enormous work involved in creating a beautiful image, especially in a time before digital photography!

The only (minor) downside to Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion is less to do with the exhibition and more to do with plaques that accompany the images. It is a minor quibble, but they are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors that do detract from the finished product. It may seem like a small issue for some, but for an English major, it is irritating. That said, the overall quality of the exhibition is amazing and cannot be denied.

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into an age of decadence. Steichen’s work undoubtedly belongs in such a space and is recommended for anyone interested in the romance and chic beauty of a time long past.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion runs until March 2nd at the National Gallery of Victoria (closed Tuesdays). Admission fees apply: Adult $12 | Concession $10 | Family $30.


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