Tag Archives: Vogue

Fashion In Ruins: Luxury and Dereliction in Photographs of 1940s London

Today, Rebecca is giving a paper at the Museum of London’s The Look of Austerity conference.  This is a short extract of her discussion of 1940s fashion photography that used bombsites as backdrops: 

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941
Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941, both for Vogue

During the Blitz people’s ability to survive became paramount, and their tenacity was linked to the city.  Cecil Beaton wrote about London for Vogue, where he discussed the city’s fabric as though another family member to be cherished, a community comprising people and buildings held together by collective memories and experience,  ‘In spite of the degradation of bomb havoc, the cold fury and the tedium caused by the raids on private houses, hospitals, Wren churches and children’s playgrounds alike; in spite of the general horrors of war, those who, loving London are not able to be here at such an epic time, are to be pitied.  The menace of danger gives a perspective to life, and in the face of what is happening in world history today, Londoners have reason to be proud of one another.  Despite the methodical ruination, the great Capital City remains.’ His photograph of a model in Digby Morton suit turned to see better the horrid remains of Temple encapsulates this mood.

While the destruction of such a meaningful, historic site dealt a further blow to London, the model’s stance suggests movement and action, and her suit is a defiant marker of traditional Britishness, designed to endure. It is as though the model herself is unable to stay facing the camera from the shock of realising that the ruins behind her are not some fashion studio or film set, but London’s current reality. Vogue’s belief in fashion’s symbolic value, as a manifestation of tenacious spirit in the face of adversity is underscored in the title, ‘Fashion is Indestructible’.  The model is a stand in for all the women looking at the image in the magazine, and, by extension, regarding similar scenes as they walk in their own neighbourhood.  The ruined buildings’ drama draws the eye to its textural excess and dissonance, but focus remains on the staunch tweed suit, and the model, turned from the camera to convey our collective shock at the bomb’s impact.

Like many others, Beaton was only able to comprehend and describe such scenes through art historical references.  At one point he used the phrase ‘Breughelesque’ to convey the twisted horror of the streets. Vogue, however, maintained its focus on fashion’s power throughout, and asserted its strength, even as buildings were falling.

Written as the Board of Trade allotted 66 coupons for clothing in summer 1941, an editorial states that, yes, fashions may have to pause under austerity, in as much as changing trends and the extravagance attached to such constant shifts are not possible: ‘But fashion, or elegance, is indestructible, and will survive even margarine coupons, for it is that intangible quality of taste, that sense of discrimination and invention which has lived on through all the clangour and chaos of the world’s history … It is also the most positive photographic record of the tempo and aspirations of each epoch; a record or indictment, according to the times.’  Fashion as an idea therefore supersedes the crisis, and endures as a temporal and personal record and expression of wartime life.  The magazine also recognises its emotional significance, and the contrary impulses that government dictates concerning rationing and austerity measures might trigger.  The article further asserts that such sumptuary legislation has created ‘a violent psychological stimulus’ by making fashion forbidden fruit, and therefore, will, perversely, encourage further innovation as women search for ways to maintain fashion and beauty.

Vogue, as an institution embodied this stubborn attitude. As seen in Lee Miller’s photographs of Vogue’s building which was itself later bombed, the seemingly handwritten script again refuses to accept the consequences implied by such devastation. Once again, fashion continues amongst the rubble.

Sources:

Cecil Beaton, ‘Time of War: Reflections on the Coming Months of Victory Vigil,’ Vogue, October 1940

Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton Diaries: 1939-44 The Years Between (Liverpool: C.Tinling & Co, 1965)

‘We Re-Affirm Our Faith in Fashion,’ Vogue, July 1941

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

Cover SD

Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.

The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.

Cradle SD

Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925
Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.

Two fashion models in Delaunay's bathing suits
Two fashion models in Delaunay’s bathing suits

Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.

It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.

MA Study Trip to New York City: Voices from the past, visions for the future: a visit to Condé Nast’s New York archive.

One has only to scan the bibliographies of most major academic fashion articles to see that Vogue maintains a position of the highest authority in sartorial research, particularly concerning the interwar years. This is not to say that other contemporary fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar lack academic importance: more so that the material bound to each issue was not deemed worthy of preservation back then, in fact much of Bazaar’s archive – including prints by Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Louise Dahl-Wolfe – was destroyed in the 1980s. This was not the case with Condé Nast’s archive, which dates back to the 1920s, instigated by Mr Nast’s awareness of the monetary value of this vast collection of images. In our recent visit to the New York archive, Shawn Waldron, Senior Director of Archives and Records, showed us just how vast this collection really is. State of the art, temperature-controlled rooms house the thousands of high-quality original prints in colourful, expertly alphabetized folders. The effect is mesmerising, like a sweetshop lined with Steichens and Horsts, instead of Flying Saucers and Humbugs.

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Another room boasts a staggering quantity of loose and bound copies of publications, such as Architectural Digest, Glamour and Vanity Fair and, of course, Vogue. A researcher from a well-known fashion label pores over bound copies of the latter, highlighting the scholastic potential of the archive. Loose copies of many publications are also available for perusal, offering a more haptic experience for the viewer. The archive today is a dynamic editorial asset, both from an information and commercial point of view, and a far cry from ‘The Morgue’ that it once was. Mr Nast’s business model was ahead of its time, incorporating what is known today as ‘Blue Economy’: the process of turning waste into revenue. ‘The Morgue’ transformed into the active editorial asset that it is today, generating revenue through digital licensing and distribution of images.

As an informative resource, apart from the proliferation of beautiful fashion images, the intricate daily contracts visible on each spread, detailing the names, locations and costs of each shoot, are invaluable to the historian. What emerges is the closely linked relationship between business and preservation, and business’ potential in shaping the fashion canon. Were it not for Mr. Nast’s willingness to invest in the protection of his publication’s material, alongside his fastidious account-keeping, this barometer of social and cultural change would not exist.

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The archive promotes cultural research from many other trajectories; with publications, including Charm exposing what editors told young homemakers was necessary to set up home in the interwar period. Similar interdisciplinary research pathways exist within House & Garden, Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler. These publications bring the past alive, and are a testament to the complexity of day-to-day concerns.

These research opportunities would not be possible without the painstakingly selective process of acquisition, organisation, and digitisation, undertaken by Waldron’s team. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in fashion publishing. Despite the challenges faced by a small team of archivists and photo editors, working with an ever-growing collection, the archive has become a valued editorial asset that can generate income, promote fashion research, and influence new interdisciplinary study.

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Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham's latest 'On the Street' article in the NY Times, about the trend for braving the snowy streets in no socks.
Bill Cunningham’s latest ‘On the Street’ article in the NY Times, about the trend for braving the snowy streets in no socks.

When studying the History of Dress, there seems to be a tendency to focus on the clothes featured by designers in fashion shows and magazines and worn by the most famous and wealthiest members of society. There is, of course, good reason for this; however, to do so exclusively is to ignore the largest platform for showcasing new trends- the street.

Bill Cunningham, who, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I only recently learned about, has devoted much of his life to documenting the fashions worn by the everyday person. Bill is a devoted fashionista: he attends the major fashion shows, photographing his favourite styles as modeled on the catwalk. He then takes to the streets of New York, capturing these styles in the everyday world. His images, published in the fashion section of the New York Times, are candid shots, taken when people are unaware, and thus showing clothes and the body at their most natural and least glamorous. His latest series, entitled ‘Fashion’s Deep Freeze,’ captures people battling the snowy conditions on a typical New York January day. Bill explains, in article ‘Bill on Bill,’published in the Times in 2002, that, when he began photographing the people of New York in the 1970s, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were doing a similar thing, however they only focused on famous or well-known people at society events. Bill is different. He claims not to care at all who the person inside the clothing is, he is only interested in the best dressed people on the street, famous or not. He says ‘I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting.’

Interestingly, despite the fact that he had no fashion or photography training, Bill is extremely highly regarded by even the most prominent in the industry. Anna Wintour has notoriously said that ‘we all get dressed for Bill. However, even being Anna Wintour does not guarantee her a shot: she describes how the worst feeling is having him cast a glance over her outfit and not taking a photograph.

This mini personal discovery came at quite a pertinent time in relation to what we are studying on the MA, for this week we focused on representations of everyday clothing, captured by early photography and film in the 1920s and ‘30s. The sources we looked at were often taken by amateur photographers, simply capturing their friends and family, with no real regard for the clothing. Only now, these images are useful as illustrations of everyday clothing worn by real people. The articles of clothing that exist in archives and museums tend to be less everyday wear and more garments that were bought or made for a specific event, such as wedding dresses and ball gowns, which were generally much more expensive and less often worn. Subsequently, dress historians must rely on what film and photography remains to gauge the everyday dress of a period.

In this respect, Bill’s images are an invaluable resource, both for the fashion conscious now, and those in the future wishing to look back on fashions of the early 21st century. He refuses to accept any payment for his images, claiming that this allows him the freedom to photograph whatever he wants without being restricted by the demands of the newspaper. He travels through New York by bicycle with his camera, ready to take a snap at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of his images remain unpublished, and are stored in his tiny apartment in rows of filing cabinets. He takes these images for himself, to satisfy his love of clothing and his appreciation of aesthetics.

Sources:

Bill Cunningham, ‘Bill on Bill,’ New York Times, October 27, 2002

Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2010 https://zeitgeistfilms.com/billcunninghamnewyork/

‘A Good Old-fashioned Head Lock’: Sport and Slimming Aids Battle it out in the Pages of Vogue

Wrestling Sept 1925
‘Wrestling,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

As I was buried in old issues of British Vogue at the British Library this week, I came across an illustrated column called ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes’ in a September issue from 1925. The column covered the topic of sports under the title ‘Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’. The series of mock-advisory illustrations by Charles Martin (a fashion designer, graphic artist, costume designer and illustrator) are a spot-on satire of the drastic reinvention of the female silhouette in the 1920s. The emancipated climate of post-war London led to an increase in sport and leisure activities, which in turn ushered in a new look that prioritized freedom of movement for liberated women. The modern aesthetic – streamlined, flat and tubular – demanded a leaner body. This posed a problem for some, and a proliferation of adverts in Vogue for quick-fix slimming products and regimes bears witness to this. Although this column precedes the first use of the term ‘keep-fit’ by about four years, Martin’s illustrations resemble commentators’ mild mockery of groups such as the Women’s League of Health and Beauty and the Legion of Health and Happiness in the thirties.

The sketches show women engaged in extreme sporting activities usually associated with men such as wrestling and boxing, accompanied by farcical counsel:

One of the best ways to do anything is to do it involuntarily. For instance, Yvonne, who is here seen volplaning through the ether, had no idea of going in for high jumping until her bicycle tactlessly wound itself about a telegraph pole.

These captions humorously allude to the incompatibility of women and sport, whilst others highlight their newfound right to inclusion:

Women are no longer content with ring-side seats at boxing entertainments, but must themselves be equipped to enter the arena and take on all corners.

Boxing Sept 1925
‘Boxing,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

It is rather amusing – and suspicious – that Vogue published these sketches mocking the popularity of sport alongside advertisements for ridiculous weight-loss products – my personal favourites being ‘thinning bath salts’ which promise to dissolve excess fatty deposits, and a magical ‘reducing paste’ to ‘slenderize thick ankles’. (The same advert also warns against ‘violent exercise’).

Clarks Sept 1925
Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Were the new attitudes in health and hygiene a threat to the beauty industry, and by association the fashion magazines? The battle between sport, dieting and quick-fix beauty products is one that would continue to play out across the pages of women’s publications throughout the interwar years.

Slenderise Sept 1925
Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Sources:

Martin,Charles, ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes: Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’ Vogue. Late September, 1925

Matthews, Jill Julius, ‘They had Such a lot of Fun: The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Between the Wars,’ History Workshop Journal, 30 (1), 1990, p.23

Fashion and Commerce: An Overview of Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen (1930)
Edward Steichen, Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet, 1930.

Focusing on the aesthetic innovation of Edward Steichen during his tenure at Condé Nast, a conference hosted by the V&A, substantiated Steichen’s progressive image of fashion photography and portraiture that was at all times corresponding to a particularly American brand of identity. The collaborative conference was organised and held in light of recent exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 and Inventing Elegance – Fashion and Photography 1910-1945 at the V&A. Speaker and co-curator of the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition William A. Ewing provided the best summation of Steichen’s vision as distinguished from the trajectory of other contemporary photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Martin Munkasci, Gerge Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. By establishing the ‘metaphoric bridge between old and new’, Steichen facilitated the pivotal shift that allowed photography to escape the confines of documentation and broach the new frontier of the crossing between art and commerce.

The photographer’s role in becoming both the ‘maker and producer of art’ is particularly evident in the Vogue photographs throughout the ‘High Fashion’ exhibition, at once uniting the medium that casts a modern spotlight on refined simplicity and clarity, with the literal spotlight on the designs themselves, such as those by Poiret, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The imbued value system that negotiates the space between fashion image as art, and fashion image as function, attests to what Alistaire O’Neill terms a ‘buttonhole complex’, in order that the consumer is clearly able to see each and every detail of the garment that is not corrupted or enhanced by photographic embelishment. In this light, the prominence placed on the reassurance of craftsmanship is symptomatic of the social insecurity intangible with new deal America, whilst at the same time responds to a conscious call for quality and truth, which the photographs stand to demonstrate exist in America. As a result, the total fashion image constructs an outlet that transforms ideals into reality, therefore strengthening, if not re-constructing a modern identity.

As has been explored, a dominant theme throughout both the High Fashion exhibition and Inventing Elegance conference, is the way in which Steichen’s photography functions under the duality of an explicitely ‘American’ and ‘Fashion’ framework. The exhibition presents photographs from Vogue alongside those from Vanity fair, clearly distingushing the image of both publications via their respective preoccupations, thus fashion imagery and portraiture. It could be argued therefore, that the role of the consumer that the fashion image relies upon is perhaps not as instrumental to the role of portraiture, as the commercial value is not intrinsic to it’s existence as art.

The portraits of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and Mexican-American actress Armida Vendrell however call into question the commercial value of identity. In a room full of sportswear signalling the ‘American woman’, both subjects are presented in attire emblematic of their heritage, that even though born and raised in America, assume the identity of ‘other’. It is for this reason questionable whether the presentation of exoticism is itself a function of commerce that much like their roles as actresses invariably sells a foreign identity to an American audience, thus replicating the role of fashion imagery, or whether the photographer is relying on such social understanding of foreigners, in order that those who do not immediately fit the confines of an American look are deemed viable subjects of beauty befitting a public portrait.