On the 12th December 2014, the V & A, in collaboration with the Photographers’ Gallery London, hosted a conference entitled ‘Inventing Elegance: Fashion Photography 1910-1945’. The presented papers placed the careers of Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst, Louise Dahl-Wolf, Cecil Beaton and Toni Frissell, to name a few, within a period of dynamic social and technological transformation. The conference was a celebration of creative collaboration – not only between individuals (photographers, art directors, editors, models, designers and artists) but also between art forms. Susanna Brown discussed the link between Horst’s bas-relief series and Classical sculpture. Oriole Cullen described the interplay between fashion illustration and fashion photography. William A. Ewing drew some remarkable similarities between painting, particularly European portraiture, and the poses adopted by Steichen’s models. Ewing also posed the idea that these photographers were in someway ennobling ‘trivial’ fashion by referencing ‘high brow’ art forms. We see a similar strategy in the early 1920s with British Vogue, under the editorship of Dorothy Todd. Todd’s intentions were to convert Vogue into a study of the contemporary world: a guide to the modernist way of dressing, living, reading, and seeing. Virginia Woolf, along with many of her Bloomsbury compatriots, contributed to the magazine and was criticised for doing so. The anxiety between art and commerce was as ubiquitous then as it is today. Artists such as Steichen saw no problem with art for commercial purposes, as Ewing pointed out, as long as the images were ‘useful’. The commissions were certainly useful to Woolf, both economically and in circulating her name. Yet some challenged the ethics of the Bloomsbury Group’s decision to accept these commissions. Writing to Vita Sackville-West in response to criticism by Logan Pearsall Smith, who asserted that Woolf should maintain prestige by only writing for ‘serious’ newspapers. Woolf asked “whats [sic] the objection to whoring after Todd [Editor of Vogue]? Better whore [. . .] than honestly and timidly and coolly and respectably copulate with the Times Lit. Sup.” However the assignments were short lived. Conde Nast, who was unhappy with the dwindling sales and the magazine’s overtly literary path, fired Todd in 1926.
Fast-forward ninety years, and Bloomsbury yet again adorns our fashion pages. Yet this time, it is within the November 2014 issue of Harper’s Bazaar in a spread entitled ‘Among the Bohemians’, shot at Charleston, The Bloomsbury Group’s country home. Justine Picardie, editor of Bazaar, wrapped up the conference with an insightful look into the pages of Bazaar today, through the eye of the magazine’s past. Picardie spoke extensively about Bazaar’s legacy to combine fashion with wider culture, in particular art and literature. Art and fashion have always had a complex relationship. As Picardie puts it, the two inhabit the same environment and hence often overlap – in their greatest moments colliding to make something brilliant, innovative, and beautiful. The collaboration between the V&A and Bazaar on their series of V&A covers, particularly those photographed by Cathleen Naundorf, are a testament to this. Bazaar has succeeded in the upkeep of ever-strengthening links between contemporary writers and artists. Picardie’s talent lies in achieving a unique point of view, balancing the witty with the serious, the light with the dark and the high fashion with the thought-provoking journalism. All the while, Bazaar maintains a unique point of view and above all, integrity.
‘Among the Bohemians’ is a poignant piece in that it acts as a bridge between the past and the present. There is an interesting conversation between Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s eclectically designed interior seen in the background, and the colourful dresses in the foreground by diverse designers ranging from Fendi, to Paul Smith, and Louis Vuitton. The photographs celebrate the irreverent clashing colours created by merging objects from the Omega Workshops, murals, textiles, textures, couture, shocking red hair, ceramics and furniture.
Woolf used fashion to explore binaries such as surface and depth, intellect and frivolity, commerce and art. At Bazaar, fashion, art and literature combine to create something beautiful. And if artists are “sweeping Guineas off the Vogue counter” by facilitating these interchanges, then let the whoring continue.
‘Inventing Elegance: Fashion Photography 1910-1945’, 12th December 2014, V&A
A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Persephone, 2012)
Cohen, Lisa, All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)