Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Harper’s Bazaar

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This magazine is an October edition of Harper’s Bazaar published nationwide in the year 1940, during the London Blitz. Despite the hardships of wartime, the magazine targeted the female upper classes, which were the only ones with enough purchasing power to afford it. With the costly price of 2 shillings 6 pence, it was a considerable expense that could feed an average family for one day. In contrast to DIY publications, Harper’s Bazaar relies on the desire to emulate the rich and powerful to disseminate latest fashions. With the upcoming winter, the issue centers around the season’s new fashions coming from the capital, presenting a wide array of greatcoats both furless and completely fur-lined, made mostly out of warm wools or commonly available types of fur like squirrel, mole, and rabbit. The effects of rationing clearly influence the choice of images which are plain in their style with scarcely any accessories and minimal display of jewelry, painting a picture of a simple, although fashionable, woman. The practicality of the inside contrasts sharply with the flamboyant cover which is aimed at defying the grim realities of wartime and giving people back the feeling of normality.

Looking closer at the front cover, we can examine it as a historical source from the era, a social history document that tells the historian part of the story of Britain in the 1940s, and more particularly its dress history. A closer inspection may reveal that the colours chosen in such a specific moment in history are not random. The predominant purple tones, which are one of the first elements that catch the viewer’s attention, are historically associated with opulence, richness, royalty and empire. The crispness and silky texture of the sleeve contrast with the other colours of the dress that look as if they are polluted with randomly distributed red dots. The grainy and wooly texture of the material creates an off-focus effect that contrasts with the smooth and well-shaded arm and the sharp colours of the jewellery that richly decorates it. Our gaze is naturally led towards the hand that holds the cigarette, a luxury item that was rationed and reserved mostly for the servicemen at the front. Smoking, at the time, was an activity reserved for the feminine elite, symbolic of the defiance and rebellion against the male culture and male-centred workplace. The model positions herself in a relaxed and mindful manner looking down upon the viewer in an almost spiteful way, suggesting her higher status. This projects an image of power and confidence, a new Britannia clothed in all the riches of the Empire, watchful and confident of her power to withstand the dangers that befell her.

Women Photographers: Spring Term Starts for MA Documenting Fashion

It’s the first class of my MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in Europe & America, 1920-60 for the spring term on Friday – and we will discuss one of my favourite subjects – midcentury women photographers. Focusing on Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Toni Frissell we will look at the ways their work shaped ideals of femininity, and, importantly, how it connected to shifts within American design – of clothes and magazines.

Both photographers worked in a number of genres, which included documentary, portrait and fashion and it’s interesting to think about their approach to each. For Frissell, her love of natural gesture, and connections between bodies can be seen both in her photographs of college girls leaping with joy in their chic readymade fashions, and her intimate images of soldiers being briefed during the Second World War. For Dahl-Wolfe, a more painterly conception of the textures and space of a composition is always apparent, as well as a love of light and colour that permeates her oeuvre.

Another aspect of their work that I want to discuss with my students is the ways their photographs were used in high fashion magazines – thinking about firstly, the practicalities of fashion photography and secondly, thinking about the readers’ experience of their images. To do this, we will consider their collaborators, including Dahl-Wolfe’s work with Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow, the costs and difficulties of location shots, and their rivalry – the latter evidenced in letters from Toni Frissell’s archive at the Library of Congress.

By looking at magazine design, we can then situate the images within their original context – how they relate to the text and pictures around them, the size and feel of the magazine and how they ‘spoke’ to readers.

As I said, this is a favourite area of mine, I love learning about the ways women worked, created and collaborated in this period, and I hope my students will also enjoy our seminar, rethinking fashion photography from a number of perspectives.

German Traditional Dress 2.0: Gregor Hohenberg’s Trachten

Cover of Gregor Hohenberg's Trachten

Cover of Gregor Hohenberg’s Trachten. Photo by blog post author.

Trachten (which will here be loosely translated as a term describing German traditional dress) today seemingly only move into the fashion spotlight once a year during the month of October. During this time, two events draw the world’s attention to them: the Oktoberfest (Wiesn) in Munich, where Dirndl and Lederhosen make an appearance all over the city, and Halloween, during which “German Beer Maid” costumes are suddenly advertised widely on the internet, readily available for purchase.

However, both events only highlight very limited facets of the rich variety of Trachten in Germany today- and at that only in a mediated form. The Halloween costumes remove any serious aspects of German traditional heritage, replacing it rather with an overt sexualisation of form by shortening of the skirt and addition of thigh high stockings. Similarly, Lederhosen and Dirndl, mostly associated with Bavaria, are not the only version of traditional dress and are also not as full of the age-old tradition as is widely assumed. Rather, this particular Tracht stemmed from the 19th Century, and is in fact linked to the savviness of Wittelsbacher noble family who used it as a type of branding or marketing strategy to further the feeling of a Bavarian identity.

Pages from Trachten. Photo by author.

Pages from Trachten. Photo by blog post author.

German fashion photographer Gregor Hohenberg has helped to change this rather one-sided representation of traditional dress by producing a marvellous photographic work. It is entitled simply Trachten in German and Traditional Couture in English. Indeed, the English title seems nearly more apt for the role the book takes on: it presents Trachten as high fashion or haute couture. Printed in a large coffee-table-book format, the photographs of the garments shown within the book are made to be coveted and admired; the visual effect of each dress stands in the foreground. Many shots are taken in front of a black background, highlighting the details of stitching, material and fabric. Were the clothes not contextualised in the book with descriptive texts, detailing the history and make-up of each Tracht, the photographs might as well be, to give just one example, of John Galliano’s 2004 Ready-to-Wear collection. The glossy pages and accessibility of the layout, which divides the books into regional chapters, make this book an aesthetically pleasing page-turner.

Page from Trachten. Photo by author.

Page from Trachten. Photo by blog post author.

Yet, vitally, it manages to strike the balance between that often contested dichotomy of traditional versus modern. For example, Hohenberg chose not to use professional models for the shoot. Rather, the actual owners of each dress wear it in the photographs. Some, are further shown in front of houses, farms or walking up mountain paths. This helps to situate the clothes on a more personal level and raises questions of (regional) identity and representation of the individual. Similarly, the inside of the front and the back cover is formed by a landscape shot. The dresses are therefore framed by nature and land itself, and associations with the rural and local still given. Hohenberg thus achieves a remarkable feat; he manages to present the Tracht as current and fashionable, while still maintaining its cultural values and meanings.

Further Reading

Hohenberg, Gregor, and Annett Hohenberg, Gestalten (eds.). Trachten. Berlin: Gestalten, 2015.

Dissertation Discussion: Aric

What is your title?

Madame Yevonde’s Goddess Protraits: Subverting the Surrealist Gaze

What prompted you to choose this subject?

When we visited the National Portrait Gallery in December and the archivist brought out a few of the original prints from the Goddess Series, I knew because of their stunning beauty they would be the topic of my dissertation.

Most inspiring research find so far?

I am really inspired by the depth of care Madame Yevonde took in her creative process. This ultimately resulted in her use of a cutting edge photographic techniques and color printing that created the powerful luminescence of the Goddess Series.

Favourite place to work?

I am not really a library or archive person at heart, so I spend a lot of time working coffee shops and on occasion in my flat.

Madame Yevonde, Self Portrait, 1925.

Madame Yevonde, Self Portrait, 1925.

Documenting MA Students

We’re almost at the halfway point of our MA (shocking how quickly the time goes!) and wanted to share a little bit about ourselves now that we’re here. It’s been a pleasure for us all to contribute to this blog, one of the firsts of its kind!

Below are some photographs of us, and we’re each holding a photo of one of our favourite ladies from history (although it should be said that we all had a hard time narrowing it down). Don’t forget to read the captions closely – each one describes some of our History of Dress related interests.

Giovanna

Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery

Giovanna’s interests – Art fashion collaborations, Surrealist fashion, surface tensions, history of hair, and cats in fashion imagery

Leah

Leah's interests

Leah’s interests – Time and temporality, Paris, early twentieth century, photography and film

Carolina

Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body

Carolina’s interests – Costume in film, Latin American dress, History of Couture, Consumerism, Gender & Body

Eleanor

Eleanor's interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation

Eleanor’s interests – Dress History in the Museum, Gender, Uniform, Dress and Emancipation

Aric

Aric's interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic

Aric’s interests – Androgyny, the Black Body, and all things chic

Aude

Aude’s interests - history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Aude’s interests – history of photography; feminism; fashion and modernism; and when it comes to fashion fantasies, Martin Margiela!

Documenting Fashion MA Course – Our leading ladies

From left to right: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

From left to right, then top to bottom: Elsa Schiaparelli, Germaine Krull, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Katherine Hepburn and Josephine Baker

A Conversation With: Photographer & Artist Julian Marshall

The fashion images produced by British photographer and artist Julian Marshall are quiet, contemplative and multi-layered. They halt you in your tracks and encourage you to look a little closer, to dig a little deeper, to uncover the emotion that lies beneath their beautiful glossy surface. They reveal the photographer’s fascination with the exquisite qualities of light, and how it can be used creatively in order to fashion the dressed body. His work probes various boundaries; between the real and the artificial, the active and the passive, the feminine and the masculine, the subject and the viewer. I caught up with Julian to find out a bit more about his work, and to examine some of his images in closer detail.

On how he got started…

‘I was working as an assistant for Eammon McCabe . He was a real genius with light, and I learnt everything about light from him. Then one day I woke up and decided – today, I’m going to be a photographer. So I didn’t assist for one second longer! I phoned up all the magazines, I went all around London with my book, showing people my work. I only had about 5 photographs because I was very reluctant to take pictures…I am still very resistant in fact. And then PR agent for Ghost phoned me back and they wanted a lookbook. But I really enjoyed that experience of showing my book…meeting people, speaking to people, getting feedback on my work. Making a connection with people – it’s so much easier than trying to communicate through email.’

On his photographic Achilles heel…

‘When I started taking photographs I had a good connection with how I wanted the image to feel, but no idea about composition. Though both my parents were artists, I had studied for a Law Degree and I hadn’t considered composition at all.  I couldn’t connect with composition on an emotional level. So I was shooting on 35mm film and I would think to myself, oh I should put the model to the side of the frame at some point. Just because that’s what people do. But I didn’t know why I should do it at all. And for a long time, I felt that composition had been my Achilles heel. I think it’s because I didn’t relate to it emotionally, so a lot of my early pictures were shot against a wall, which I found far less traumatic. I decided I couldn’t go on like this, so I hired a 10 x 8 plate camera and shot exclusively on it for 2 years. You cannot hide behind this camera, you have to make your choices and it forces you to address any issues you might have with composition.

On what he’s searching for in his images…

‘I want to move people through my images. Photography is a great way to connect to peopleI was quite shy at school. Often people don’t realise how incredibly shy I am I hide it well. So being a photographer is quite funny for me. It’s a bit like being a tightrope walker who is afraid of heights. 

On his relationship to his subjects…

I have to go in front of people and connect with them. This connection with my subjects is one of the things that drives and informs my work. I feel a great duty of care to the people I photograph. They are allowing to me into their lives to photograph them. So to me that’s very special, and feel like have a responsibility towards them. I know other people don’t shoot like that – maybe they look for a conflict, I don’t know, but for me this relationship with the subject and the responsibility I have towards them is central. I want the experience to be positive and I think why not. My images are driven by love. I always remember that when I like photographs in magazines, it’s because they are so moving that you want to touch the image… so I’m directing the model towards a way of being that expresses what I want to say. Sometimes if a model has done a lot of commercial work I have to deconstruct that, to make it more real, in order to express a feeling that is key to the photograph.’

On why photography is a form of performance art…

I have come to feel like photography is in itself like a performance art. The moment I walk through the door I can feel how everyone in the room is feeling. And all that energy needs to go towards making a great picture. I can feel how the assistant’s assistant feels, and how the assistant’s assistant feels may affect how the makeup artist feels. So I can throw something over to one side of the room to make a reaction on the other side of the room. And all of this comes together to have an effect on how the subject feels and appears before the camera. It’s in this sense that the fashion photograph is very much the result of a live event’.

Some highlights of Julian’s work include a series originally shot for Spanish Vogue in 2002It was inspired by the 1998 photobook Albanie: Visage des Balkans, ecrits de lumiere [Albanie: Face of the Balkans, writing in light] – a collection of images taken in Albania by the Marubi photographic dynasty, between 1858-1956. One of Julian’s images, succinctly captioned Albanie 1, depicts a model dressed entirely in black and standing confidently in the centre of the frame. The monochromatic palette highlights the clean, sharp lines of her streamlined, tailored clothing, which is punctuated only by a teasing glimpse of bare midriff. With a self-possessed stare she gazes directly at the viewer, observing him or her with an equivalent level of curiosity to the gaze that is placed upon her. Her gaze thus subverts the asymmetrical balance of power frequently attributed to ethnographic-style portraits, such as those presented in Albanie: Visage des Balkansby displaying the subject, rather than passive and powerless, as determined, active, and in charge of her own representation.

Albanie 1, 2002

Albanie 1, 2002

Another series, and my personal favourite, was first shot for the Financial Times in 1998. Cheryl 2 is a contemporary deconstruction of classical ballet and captures an ungainly figure against a bare concrete wall. She arrives in motion from the left-hand side of the frame; barefoot, with arms extended to display her muscular physique, and gaze focused straight ahead, she is a contemporary re-presentation of the classical ballerina. The muted tones of her cream and peach satin dress swirl around her limbs as she moves, whilst her painted white mask-like face adds an element of mystery and disguise. The visible line between the dark floor and bare wall encapsulates a tension, between the polished perfection of high fashion or classical ballet, and the vibrant realism of street style or contemporary dance.

Cheryl 2, 1998

Cheryl 2, 1998

A final, more recent, series shot by Julian entitled ‘In the Service of the Mind’ featured the fashion model Tessa Kuragi. These images were inspired by Man Ray’s provocative fascination with the female form, and originally shot for Volt magazine in 2014. One example from this series, Tessa 7, captures the model in a uncompromising position: arms awkwardly flung behind her head, body bent forwards and face contorted. She wears a Fyodor Golan [http://fyodorgolan.co.uk/] futuristic dress, which has been designed using a variety of high-tech fabrics and neon plastic applique flowers.  There is a sense of a frenetic energy now lost in this image, a once active body reduced to a passive and inert form of exhaustion. With her equivocal facial expressions and distorted pose, a direct interconnection between subject and the viewer is refused. Instead, the viewer is left unsure of how to read this image, confused by the event that has been documented. Whilst the model’s exposed feminine form has a seductive, even erotic quality, the pieces of wood discarded in the background suggest something else….a violence or danger, perhaps, that is about to happen, or potentially, has already occurred.

Tessa 7, 2014_

Tessa 7, 2014

Julian’s work has featured in publications that include Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Financial Times, Volt, and Nylon, and brought him into contact with the likes of Kate Moss, Ines De La Fressange, Bella Freud, Emanuel Ungaro, Gemma Arterton, Daisy Lowe, Emma Watson and Alberta Ferretti. To find out more visit his website www.julianmarshall.com and www.julianmarshallprint.com, or follow him on Instagram @julian_marshall

A Day in the Life of a Courtauld Student – 18th November 2015

With a vast number of libraries to visit across London, and a variety of fascinating lectures to attend, no day as a student at the Courtauld is quite the same. On a Wednesday morning, I would usually attend the Foundations lecture series, however today I made my way to Brixton for a tutorial on our first marked essay. Rebecca and I had a productive discussion at the Ritzy café on my topic – how Alfred Hitchcock uses Dior’s New Look in his 1955 film Rear Window – then once everyone’s sessions wrapped up, the course gathered to discuss our quickly approaching field trip to New York (time does indeed fly on a nine month MA course!).

Brixton

However, we weren’t quite ready to head back to school and were keen to explore Brixton a bit more so Giovanna, Leah, Aric, Aude, Eleanor and I popped over to Brixton Village Market to energize ourselves with a quick coffee before heading back to Courtauld to resume work on our essays. We stopped at Federation, an Aussie-owned café, and treated ourselves to their famous Anzac biscuits and gluten-free brownies, which we enjoyed over quality flat whites and lattes.

Walking through Brixton Village Market. Christmas decorations are up already!

Federation

Enjoying some very needed coffee and treats.

Intense dress history discussion.

Flat White at Federation.

Afterwards, we took the tube back to the Courtauld and buried ourselves in the stacks! We settled in our cozy basement library for an afternoon of (hopefully) productive study. In search of 1950s contemporary commentary and images regarding femininity in America for my essay, I spent most of the afternoon immersed in the Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily archives at the Courtauld’s Book Library.

Everyone on the tube.

Secluded study spot in the Courtauld Library.

Some research materials.

In need of a bit of fresh air after an afternoon of study, I ventured up to the Somerset House courtyard, where the Fortnum and Mason’s SKATE rink, Christmas Arcade and Lodge have now been officially opened – indeed to much fan fair yesterday. Dodging enthusiastic skaters and passerby’s taking selfies, I walked over to the New Wing of Somerset House for the Law Society’s “Art Law” course in which I have enrolled. The certificate is essentially a crash course in copyright, intellectual property law and related themes, which will hopefully allow me to speak with a bit of confidence on the subject one day.

Somerset House and Christmas tree!

F&M Christmas tree decorations.

Tom’s Skate Lounge.

Skaters on the rink.

Tomorrow promises to be equally diverse and exciting with visits to the British Film Institute’s archive and the British Library planned. Perhaps I’ll wrap up the day with the yoga society’s weekly evening session. Namaste!

Avedon: Ancestor of Photoshop

“All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”

– Richard Avedon

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay (and a few tweaks from the author!)

In our very first MA class the inevitable conversation about fashion, its imagery and manipulation of the real body turned to Photoshop. Scourge of contemporary fashion media that it is, a quick trawl through the history of fashion photography will tell you that it is not a new phenomenon. While the technology may not be the same, fashion photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest years of the genre.

Richard Avedon was an American photographer with a prolific career in fashion. He held positions as lead photographer at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, shot campaigns for Dior, Versace, Revlon and Calvin Klein among many others and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He worked relentlessly and consistently from the mid 1940’s until his death in 2004.

Avedon was keenly aware that fashion photography had presumptions toward the ideal. Clothes and models starred, and the image should inspire, appeal and oftentimes—sell. The medium of photography allowed for both a ‘realistic’ and highly adjustable way of making images.

“The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie—or to tell your own truth. You make subjective judgements every step of the way—in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.” Avedon

Avedon worked with ‘retoucher’ Bob Bishop for over forty years, manually adjusting photo-negatives. Lengthening necks and legs, making eyes larger and even swapping heads and torsos from different images to create an idealized picture, half a century before Photoshop.

As we rage against photo-manipulation in today’s print media, a moment of reflection on its rootedness in the world of fashion photography may yield new perspectives. Would understanding the subjective role of the photographer make us less desperate to believe the final image is the ‘truth’? Or perhaps it is the influence of celebrity in fashion media, with tightly controlled images and a desire to appear perfectly ‘real’. How many today would surrender their image to the photographer as Audrey Hepburn did in 1967? If we continue to view fashion photography through Avedon’s lens of aspiration and fantasy do we really want to restrict his tools? Perhaps understanding the artifice would simply ruin the magic.

 

Sources

Avedon, Richard. In the American West, 1979-1984 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), foreword. Print.

Avedon, Richard, Carol Squiers, and Vince Aletti. Avedon Fashion. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2009. Print.

Fineman, Mia. “Pictures in Print.” Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 157. Print.

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

When War Meets Fashion Photography: Lee Miller and Marlene Dietrich

Photograph from Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life

Photograph from Lee Miller: Portraits from a Life

Lee Miller, born Elizabeth Miller (April 23 1907) started her career as a successful fashion model after a fateful run-in with Condé Nast on the streets of New York City during the 1920s. Such a crossing of paths resulted in Miller landing her first modelling job for American Vogue, and she became a favourite model and muse to some of the greatest American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. After returning to Paris in 1929, Miller went on to become a pupil of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, who inspired her to open her own photographic studio. Switching from one side of the camera to the other, Miller became a unique talent, performing with brilliance on either side of the lens.

Miller’s career as a photographer resulted in various portraits and fashion assignments being published inside the glossy pages Vogue.  She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer in 1940. However, with the on-going struggles of the war, Miller found that working for a ‘frivolous’ publication such as Vogue was becoming a drain on her own morale. In 1942 she applied and was accepted by the US army for accreditation as a war correspondent. What followed was a series of photographs documenting the British home front, before she headed to France and Germany where Miller shadowed the steady successes of the Allied advances.

The accompanying image of the Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was captured by Miller after the liberation of Paris in September 1944. During the war, many of Paris’ finest Couturiers had closed shop. Therefore, this image of Marlene is particularly important as it signalled the re-opening of the fashion house Schiaparelli.

Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, became one of the most glamorous leading ladies in film of the 1930s and 1940s. Famous for her ability to challenge the accepted notions of femininity, Dietrich often wore trousers and more masculine fashions both on – and off – screen. In this respect, Marlene’s sense of fashion combined with her German origins and her relocation to America, in order to crack Hollywood, meant that the actress came to resemble the sought-after exotic other.

Dietrich as ‘other’ can be explored in relation to the Schiaparelli evening coat she wears in the black and white photograph. The Damask fabric is almost oriental in appearance with its floral embellishment and decorative detailing. However, the coat is also positioned within the context of the war period as well. The single-breasted construction of the coat combined with the gold threaded toggles and matching belt allude to a military uniform. Whereas the coat had originally been part of Schiaparelli’s 1938 Zodiac collection, when placed within the context of war the clothing becomes imbued with colonialism and empire: ‘The design is so subtle that one hardly notices that it represents the British lion capering among faint bluish flowers.’

 Marlene can be understood as challenging the accepted notions of femininity whilst wearing this evening coat because of both the feminine and masculine qualities of the garment. Her styled hair, painted nails and the make-up on her face indicate typical womanly conventions, especially when combined with the floral patterning of the evening coat. However, on the other hand, the appropriations of military uniform characteristics allude to a more masculine identity.  Such an observation is particularly interesting because the coat can be identified as embodying wartime culture. With more men volunteering and being conscripted to join the front, women had to step out of their traditional sphere and enter into the world of work – something that had typically been reserved as the more masculine domain. As a result, the construction and decoration of this coat when read within the historiography of wartime culture can be seen as reflecting these changes within society

 

Sources:

Calvocoressi, R., Lee Miller: Portraits From A Life (London, 2002)

http://www.vogue.co.uk/spy/biographies/elsa-schiaparell

http://irenebrination.typepad.com/irenebrination_notes_on_a/2014/12/schiaparelli-kt-auction.html