Sometimes, a fashion photographer captures a truly great shot, a perfect combination of composition and color, of the model holding just the right pose and of the light draping her face in the most paradisiacal way. These are the photographs that make it to magazine covers, that cause us to stutter step at a newstand, that lure us into clicking on a story online. And oftentimes, this is where photographer’s job ends. But there are other times when the influence of a photograph boils over and spills outside its four corners, to other aspects of the world. When that happens, it becomes capable of telling stories that far surpass fashion.
Of course, I didn’t know all of this before I stepped into The Getty’s latest fashion photography exhibit, titled “Icons of Style.” The exhibition tells the story of modern fashion photography, “beginning with 1911—the year Edward Steichen created the first “artistic” fashion photographs—and ending with 2011 with digital technology as a dominant paradigm.”
So, on a gloomy, post-rain Wednesday afternoon in July, my education began. I’d be lying if I said I started where I was supposed to, that I followed the breadcrumbs the museum curators sprinkled in an effort to guide visitors through the exhibit in a chronological fashion. No—I made a beeline to the mannequin propped up in the middle of the space. A black dress from Dior’s Fall/Winter 1948 collection that oozed femininity with its asymmetrical shawl collar, three-quarter sleeves and an A-line skirt that poofed a generous amount.
On the outside, it was just a dress, something you’d see Audrey Hepburn donning in an old, black-and-white film. Perhaps in Rome. Or maybe at Tiffany’s. But put in context, or more precisely, in the context of post-war Paris, and it became more than just a dress. To me, it became a lesson in history.
The dress was Dior’s way of rejecting the very masculine-slash-functional, military-like garments that were typically worn after the outbreak of World War II. (During the war, women sported “Utility” wear—designs that were simple with minimal trimmings due to fabric being heavily rationed at the time). Three years after the war drew to an end, the House of Dior began popularizing a new style dubbed, well, “New Look,” in Paris. (Think: designs that championed feminine silhouettes with lots and lots of fabric. Rationing laws be damned).
After ogling the mannequin, I decided to double back. The exhibit appropriately starts with the 1910’s, aka the birth year of modern fashion photography (Thanks to photographer Edward Steichen and Baron Adolf de Meyer), characterized by softly focused images. I moved room to room, decade by fashionable decade, perusing the works of American photographer Richard Avedon. I was particularly entranced by Dovima with Elephants, a shot he captured in 1955 of American model Dovima clad in a black Dior gown posing magnificently with circus elephants. (I’d seen the photograph online, but this was my first time viewing it in real life).
I learned that, when the workforce finally cracked its door open for females in the 70’s, ready-to-wear lines by Halston, Anne Klein, and Yves Saint-Laurent became popular among working women. Photographs back then surely showcased beautiful clothes, but they also served to highlight larger issues, like “disruption of long-standing traditions of patriarchal control.” Forget picture perfect. The models behind the lens were more natural, more relatable, more woman-next-door-esque.
Moving on, things got a little gritty in the 90’s, with British photographer Corinne Day (who’s best-known for discovering Kate Moss), when she traded in glamour for grunge. The last decade, of course, veered away from that sickly thin, “heroin chic” aesthetic. The prevalence of technology and software enabled photographers to tweak or completely alter reality. I saw a drastic change in mood, in color and in whimsy. I was introduced to Richard Burbridge’s surrealist chromogenic prints, and I instantly googled more of his work. (Yes, I was that person at the museum, head bent over my phone. But hey, I was self-educating, so it doesn’t count).
The question of why I left The Getty wanting more seemed to offer a very obvious conclusion: museums are not meant to sate curiosity, they’re supposed to unfurl a desire to learn more about a particular thing. And Icons of Style, despite its efforts to cover many decades of fashion photography in a comprehensive manner, did just that.
The exhibit is open June 26 to Oct. 21 at the Getty Center.