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Like many others, Beaton was only able to comprehend and describe such scenes through art historical references.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