Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own at Fashion and Textile Museum

In our last MA Documenting Fashion class before the end of term we discussed ‘women imagining women’ and examined the photography of Toni Frissell and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Fortunately for us, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum currently has an exhibition of Dahl-Wolfe’s photography. A couple of my fellow MA Documenting Fashion students and I excitedly visited the exhibition together. Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own appropriately began with an informative wall-text chronicling Dahl-Wolfe’s trajectory from art student to fashion photographer. A small hallway leading into the main exhibition space featured several of Dahl-Wolfe’s Harper’s Bazaar covers from the 1940s and 50s. These were not just prints of Bazaar covers, but the original magazines themselves held in simple white frames. The imperfect state of the worn magazines gave Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs a tangible materiality and reminded me that although her photographs were now presented in a museum context, most images in the exhibition were originally intended for the pages of a fashion magazine.

The main exhibition space began with examples of Dahl-Wolfe’s early photography. Experimental nudes and still lifes reflected Dahl-Wolfe’s training as an artist at the San Francisco Art Institute. I enjoyed how these early works revealed her skill for manipulating light and shadow that would define her fashion photography. These skills are also highlighted in Dahl-Wolfe’s Depression-era documentary style photographs of the residents of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Influenced by Edward Weston and Dorthea Lange, Dahl-Wolfe began her professional career in 1930. Her photographs of the impoverished community in Gatlinburg were later included in a group photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe,
Halter dress by Brigance, 1954, Palm Beach

In 1936 Dahl-Wolfe became a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar where over the next 22 years she would produce 86 covers, 600 color pages, and thousands of black and white portraits.The exhibition featured numerous examples of Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion photography, making it impossible to choose a favorite. Among my favorites however, is the above photograph of a halter dress by Brigance taken in 1954 at Palm Beach. This image exemplifies Dahl-Wolfe expertise in light and shadow, capturing fashions in natural, outdoor settings, and rendering the subject as confident and at ease. As this image suggests, Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion photographs are shockingly modern and the influence of her dynamic images on contemporary fashion photography is astounding.

Arielle and Olivia looking at Dahl-Wolfe’s portraits

In addition to her success in fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe continually produced portraits throughout her career. The exhibition showcased her portraits of Hollywood stars and cultural figures. Much like the subjects of her fashion images, Dahl-Wolfe’s portraits capture natural poses and the relaxed confidence of her sitters.

An unexpected yet delightful addition to the exhibition was a reproduced set of one of Dahl-Wolfe’s Harper’s Bazaar covers. Sitting on a stepped platform, a mannequin wears a bright yellow, striped 1950s play-suit and matching yellow accessories that stand out against an orange, blue, and green vinyl wall decal meant to replicate the original tiled backdrop of Dahl-Wolfe’s photograph. This scene brings the 1950s-magazine cover to life, once again adding to the materiality of the exhibition. Overall,   the Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition beautifully presented Dahl-Wolfe’s stunning photographs and successfully highlighted the photographer’s contribution to fashion photography.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own is on at Fashion and Textile Museum until 21 January, 2018.

 

Abby Fogle

All photos author’s own

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.

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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