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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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.