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.

Interview with Edie Locke – A career in fashion media

Image 1 Edie Locke today

Edie Locke, March 2016

One of the many things I love about being a dress historian is meeting inspiring women through my research. Women who have pioneered aspects of our industry, worked to connect with female readerships and to forge successful careers. Edie Locke is one such woman. I was introduced to her via email by model turned photographer Pam Barkentin (my interview with her will follow soon).

Locke has had a fascinating life. Born in Vienna in 1921, she went to New York alone in 1939, as the situation in Europe worsened.  She attended school in Brooklyn – where she learnt to speak English, and then embarked on series of jobs in fashion. Locke generously agreed to answer some questions via email in fashion media:

What was it like working at Junior Bazaar? And with Lillian Bassman? Did your experiences there impact your approach at Mademoiselle?

[In 1945-46] I was working as an assistant to the Ad Manager of Harpers Bazaar, when Hearst Magazines launched Junior Bazaar, as a ” competition” to Mademoiselle.  A short-lived, futile idea! But knowing how much I had hoped to be on the editorial side of the magazine, my then-boss arranged for a transfer to the merchandising department of Junior Bazaar [1946-47] consisting of my covering the very minor dress manufacturers (largely out of St.Louis) and occasional weekend photo shoots, no other editor wanted to go on.

[I] never worked with Lillian Bassman! But did get to know and work with Pammie’s father, [photographer] George Barkentin! When Junior Bazaar gave up its ghost, I followed its then Editor, Kay Long, to the very well-known fashion advertising agency, Abbott Kimball.  [From 1947-49] I became its fashion ” guru” –  [I] wrote the Newsletter the agency sent to clients and business friends and went on all fashion shoots.

[In 1947] one of the Newsletters reached Betsey Blackwell, Editor in Chief of Mademoiselle and prompted a phone call from her office to arrange a private meeting with her and a job offer to join the magazine as an Assistant Fashion Editor, covering the dress “market”. (My ex-boss offered a huge salary raise… trips to Europe…etc to keep me from jumping to Mademoiselle, but after some excruciating evaluations of my options, I happily phoned [Betsey Blackwell] with an enthusiastic YES).

Fashion magazines are so collaborative – how did you organise and manage the various interconnecting fashion and beauty stories for any one edition?

I do believe that you’re only as good in what you do, as the people who work with and for you. Having the right individual editors in place to head the different departments of any magazine is key. And then trust their expertise and opinions and ideas and judgements. When I became Editor in Chief of Mlle, I was blessed with a great editorial staff – Fashion Editor, Features Editor, Beauty Editor, College and Career Editor and Art Director. And a Publisher who respected editorial content, direction and use[d] it all well to “sell” the magazine to potential advertisers. Two things that are crucial: strong circulation and demographics ( 18-35 at Mlle )  and a readership that is financially compatible with the price range of the products you feature, clothes etc etc – whether self-earned or “parental” income.

Several meetings with all editors come first – each Editor presenting her ideas for the upcoming issue. Discussions, more meetings, until the whole content gels and is one-of-a-piece …. hangs together!

How did the nature of fashion photography included connect to your readership? It’s so interesting that college girls formed such a major part of your target audience, how did you feel about the annual college edition and the college competition?

Mlle‘s annual big College issue (August) would be very much directed to that reader, September more geared toward a “working’- career – readership.

Mlle always leaned more toward lively … location photography, than more formal in-studio shots. Moving, rather than “still”.

The college issue was photographed totally on “real” college students, not professional models! Associate Fashion Editors and photographers traveled to campuses all over the US to do this – with a wardrobe of appropriate fashions. The PR department of each school would sometimes pre-select  who they deemed suitable or leave it up to hordes of  volunteers who’d assemble for try-outs and fittings in conference rooms on campus. The toughest job: the gentlest rejections… that would not bruise egos !!!!!!

The college competition – which was NOT based on anything but accomplishment  – be it in writing, illustrating, or fashion – spawned many extraordinary talents, who went on to major careers.

As attending college became more and more the norm, no longer an elitist group, and definitive target audience, Mlle‘s emphasis had to broaden as well. A move strongly demanded by CNP management.

What was your favourite aspect of working on fashion magazines?

My favorite aspect of working on a fashion magazine???  Making it more inclusive, by diligently balancing content between fashion-beauty, how-to features, and intellectually stimulating articles. Feeding the brain!

The rest is history. I went from Assistant to Associate to Fashion Editor and in 1970 to Editor in Chief, when Betsey Blackwell retired. Til 1980 when Publisher Si Newhouse terminated  (fired !) me. Reason : I had firmly kept Mlle‘s intellectual stance … and not made it into a sexier ( [like] Cosmo ?) publication.

A year later, I was on TV with my own version of a fashion/beauty/relevant articles half-hour weekly program called YOU! Magazine. Originally airing on USA CABLE, and eventually LIFETIME, it was on-air til ’86, when Lifetime launched its daily ATTITUDES and I joined as fashion producer and on-air fashion pro until the early 90s. We moved from NY to LA in ’94 to be near our daughter and eventual granddaughters (3) …. and I again worked on fashion TV.

Interview edited and condensed.

 

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.