Selling Dreams Not Clothes

Context, Exhibitions, Inspiration

“…beyond the simple recording of fabric and surface detail, the most memorable images fulfil or challenge the desires and aspirations of the viewer.”

ImageIrving Penn

On Sunday I finally made a date with myself and went to see Selling Dreams Not Clothes: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography at the McManus in Dundee.  Goodness knows how it has taken me this long to get there, especially considering my lust for the subject (see previous post).  One thing is for sure; I will be returning!

Displayed chronologically, beautiful photography runs amok in this second exhibition in collaboration with the V&A, cleverly interspaced between mirrors and walls (more on this later).  We begin at the turn of the twentieth century; Edwardian romance soon gives way to the sharp-cut glamour of the 1920s and the clear influence of Hollywood, becoming increasingly free and fantasised in evident reflection of the changing perceptions of fashion, its documentation and its role in modern society.

ImageEdward Steichen

I feel like this is so much more than a photographic exhibition; there are moods and undercurrents that take a little while and a little thinking to come to the surface.  Even in terms of the basic production of the images: all of the very early shots are studio based, with backgrounds and props and lighting.  Indeed this does lend itself to the classic “Hollywood” glamour, but it also has its limitations.  Later the photographs suddenly embrace the outside world as a backdrop, altering the entire dynamic and spectrum of the imagery more than a change of a light bulb and use of studio shadow ever could.

ImageMelvin Sokolsky

“Never pose your subjects, let them move about naturally.  All great photographs today are snap shots”
Martin Munkasi.

Furthermore, we see a parallel shift away from formal portraiture to a more photojournalistic style.  Possibly my favourite image from the whole exhibition was William Klein’s shot “Evelyn Tripp, Isabella Albauer and Nena Von Schlekrugge wear fashions by Talmack, Mollie Parnis and Herbert Sondheim, New York.  Vogue USA 1959.”

ImageWilliam Klein

Published at the turn of the decade, I really think that the ingenuity in the use of the mirrors here was a great sign of things to come, and so clever and modern.

As I mentioned earlier, the entire exhibit is hung on walls with mirrored ends.  As the viewer moves around the space they too are reflected in between the beautiful and the frivolous, like the models in Klein’s shot, as much a part of the entire experience as the photographs they are here to see.  Other narratives to be taken from that would be the influence of fashion on photography and vice versa, and the influence of both on the viewer.  Are we more aware of ourselves as ‘living photographs’ because the mirrors are there?  Is the use of reflection here a metaphor for the entire influence of the fashion world through time?  Probably.  But I really liked this touch, and I think that pushing the message into a physical form really brings the point home.  Clever.

The Sartorialist

Much later (temporally), Scott “The Sartorialist” Schulman makes his appearance.  Famed for his street-style photojournalistic approach to fashion photography, from the everyday ensembles in the avenues and boulevards of the world to the hot-footed fashionistas stepping forward at fashion week, Schulman has undoubtedly paved the way in his field in recent years.  It is nice to see him included here.

Demonstrated in spectacular style by the very best Tim Walker is the twenty-first century fashion editorial.  “Lily Cole and Giant Camera, Italian Vogue 2005” not only dismisses absolutely any previous fashion editor’s quip regarding the stretching of artistic licence, and like Walker’s other dream worlds epitomises the title and point of this show.  I think it is a shame that Walker did not have more photographs shown, however, and altogether think that the last part of the show was rather weak.  All we are told of fashion photography in the twenty first century is that the sets and budgets are as huge as the poetic narratives, though I don’t feel like this was aptly demonstrated.  In consolation, here is a snippet from Lucinda Chambers’ recent article in Vogue UK about her career as fashion director at the same magazine:

“You have to be slightly bonkers to be a fashion editor.  You need to look at things – not just clothes, but people, places, toys, sweet wrappers, art, colours – in a slightly skewed way.  Anything can spark an idea:  I am writing this on a train to Brighton, from which I can see a very still pond with perfect reflections.  That’s how I want my next short in Sweden: nature still and clothes so stark.  I’m not sure it’s what my editor will think of as a “collections” story, but so, too, in this job, must you be bloody minded.”

“No one works alone.  You may have an idea, and sometimes it may be almost fully formed, but then you call Mario Testino or Nick Knight or Paolo Roversi and tell them about it, and that’s when the collaboration begins.  It’s all about collaboration.  You may have a wizard idea about hair stuffed into huge scarves, inspired by something you’ve seen in Shepherd’s Bush Market, or dip-dyed dreadlocks that you spotted on a plane, and your job is to ignite people to take your dream and run with it.  It really is the best job in the world when you imagine something – anything – and then ask the most talented people in the field to go with you on that journey.”

 Lucinda Chambers  “My Fashion Fairytale” Vogue UK August 2012

Nonetheless we gain a sense of how far the field has moved on, not only in freedom and fantasy, but also in the addressing of the hundreds of issues faced by a modern society.  Though I don’t feel that the choice of Stephen Klein’s images met the bar in terms of their ‘dreaminess’, they starkly confront the themes of “decadence and decay in America…violence…masochism”.  Interestingly, they are the only images to feature men in the entire show. The war-era photographs remain glamorous and bold despite the terror and uncertainty faced by all, instead offering fashion as a means of escape.  Indeed, as we know, Dior’s post-war New Look aimed to do just that, despite the restrictions of heavy rationing.


Lillian Bassman

Overall I thought it was a well put together show.  I think that there could have been more photographers included – no mention of Patrick Demarchelier – but as an introduction to the huge, huge field that is fashion portraiture it serves its purpose very well.  Hopefully this touch of glamour is a sign of things to come with the V&A!

Most of the images I have shown here do not feature in the exhibition.  I thought it nicer to show what else these great photographic artists could do, rather than simply repeat what I saw online.  I do not own any of the images, and all can be found by simply googling the photographers name.  Many of them, and other works by the artists, can be found in the following books: Unseen Vogue; People in Vogue; The Fashion Book; The Photo Book.


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