Are You Educated in Art?: Vogue and Taste

The other night my dissertation research had me searching through Vogue’s 1944 issues and while I didn’t find what I was looking for, I did come across an article that stopped me in my tracks. As an (aspiring?) art historian, the editorial titled “Are You Educated in Art?” in the January 1, 1944 edition of Vogue caught my attention. In this two-page spread art critic Frank Crowninshield instructs the reader about Western art history in the form of fourteen questions. Crowninshield provides answers to various questions ranging from the use of archaic Greek statuary to the influence of Picasso.

Although this questionnaire comes across as an art history pop-quiz, the text insists that it “has little more to do with your discernment and taste than with your study-book knowledge; for, in the appreciation of art, one may know all the facts and still be a Philistine.” The use of the word “taste” here is integral to the reader’s reception of this article. IAntje Krause-Wahl describes that in this period, “Vogue increasingly saw it as its responsibility to guide their readers in the principles of good taste. Jessica Daves, who in 1952 followed Edna Woolman Chase as editor-in-chief, explicitly formulated this when she described the magazine as a ‘vehicle to educate the public taste.’”

The use of art and the acquisition of art historical discernment played an integral role in Vogue’s discourse on how to obtain taste. Later, in July 1945 Vogue even devoted an entire issue to the Museum of Modern Art which featured Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” on the cover. Thus, the 1940s Vogue reader not only knows the latest fashions but she also acquires other skills crucial to being an ideal society lady such as knowledge of art history and an interest in modern art. Indeed, women’s magazines such as Vogue act as “instruction manuals” of femininity. This direct appeal to its reader to cultivate their taste and learn how to properly appreciate art, provides an excellent example of the way in which fashion magazines work to construct femininity and teach artistic literacy.

By Abby Fogle

Sources:

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge (1994), 47.

Crowninshield, Frank. “Features/Articles/People: Are You Educated in Art?” Vogue 103, no. 1 (1944): 48-49, https://search.proquest.com/docview/879229981?accountid=10277.

Krause-Wahl, Antje. “American Fashion and European Art—Alexander Liberman and the Politics of Taste in Vogue of the 1950s” in the Journal of Design History Vol. 28, No. 1. (2015).  doi:10.1093/jdh/epu041.

Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.

Romano image

The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.

Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggered readers’ collective unconscious and imaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.

 

References

Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92. 

Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.

Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 [2004]), 49.