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Capturing Couture: The Aesthetic and Influence of Fashion Photography

David Bailey once distilled it to a mere “portrait of someone wearing a dress,” but the art of fashion photography goes far deeper. Its roots trace back to Victorian society’s penchant for portraiture, where debutantes, actresses, and dancers draped themselves in finery for photographers, much like their mothers had done for the eminent portrait painters of their era.

However, the lens, as Bailey exemplified in his work, wields transformative magic. Irving Penn, Vogue magazine’s enduring photographer, considered himself a purveyor of dreams, not mere garments. Beyond capturing fabric and surface minutiae, the most indelible images either fulfill or challenge the viewer’s yearnings and ambitions.

Fashion photography exists as a vibrant, ever-evolving entity, forever intertwined with the world at large. Photographers continually defy boundaries, as the interplay between artistic expression and commercial necessity fuels boundless creativity and technical breakthroughs. Whether gracing the pages of high-fashion spreads or adorning billboards, these images become reflections of contemporary culture, global events, and the seismic shifts in women’s roles throughout the 20th century.

A glittering new century

Back in 1911, amid Europe’s gilded age of opulence and refinement, an American visionary named Edward Steichen embarked on a photographic odyssey. His lens immortalized models draped in the exquisite creations of designer Paul Poiret. Thirteen ethereal images graced the pages of Art et Décoration, a moment Steichen would later hail as the birth of “the first serious fashion photographs ever made.”

But rewind to a time before photography, and fashion magazines like Le Costume Français and Journal des Dames et des Modes primarily relied on engraved illustrations, their audience limited. It wasn’t until the 1890s that strides in printing technology ushered in a new era. Suddenly, photographs seamlessly intertwined with text on the same page, and fashion magazines found a broader, eager readership.

Challenging perceptions

The 1920s and ’30s saw the intoxicating influence of Surrealism permeate the pages of fashion magazines. Vogue, a pioneer of avant-garde expression, boldly featured works by Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico alongside mind-bending photographs by Man Ray. Some intrepid fashion photographers embraced this revolutionary wave, striving to give visual life to the enigmatic realms of the unconscious mind. They employed new techniques and unexpected juxtapositions, aiming to shake the foundations of reality, provoking both delight and disquiet.

These audacious experiments didn’t sit well with Vogue’s formidable editor, Edna Woolman Chase, who vented her frustration to her team in 1938:

“Focus solely on showcasing the dress; light it with this purpose in mind. If art cannot serve this purpose, then let art be damned. Show the dress.”

In the heart of this surreal storm was Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, the chief photographer of French Vogue, and later Harper’s Bazaar. His work radiated a painterly fascination with light, shadow, and classical forms. His protege, Horst P. Horst, echoed this inventive spirit, weaving surreal and classical motifs into his captivating imagery. Together, they inspired a generation and left an indelible mark on the world of fashion photography.

Post-war revival

Amidst the shadows of the Second World War, a resilient spirit prevailed in fashion: ‘make do and mend.’ But as the world began to heal from the scars of war, a new breed of designers emerged. After years of wartime frugality, there was an unquenchable thirst for glamour and femininity. This yearning found its most extravagant form in Christian Dior’s iconic New Look, unveiled in 1947, with its cinched-in waists and extravagantly billowing skirts.

In step with this fashion renaissance was the elegantly sensual vision of photographer Lillian Bassman. She pioneered a unique approach where evoking emotion took precedence over capturing every clothing detail. Her grainy, ethereal images, however, left Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow somewhat vexed in 1949:

“Your mission is not to create art; it’s to showcase the buttons and bows.”

Meanwhile, Erwin Blumenfeld was another visionary who stretched the limits of experimental fashion photography. He had a penchant for Kodachrome color film, allowing his vibrant creations to leap from the magazine page in a dazzling burst of hues.

Shooting in the city

The 1950s ushered in an electrifying wave of change in the hallowed halls of major fashion magazines. Photographers discarded convention, embracing a more spontaneous, photojournalistic ethos. Models spilled out onto the bustling city streets, and the confines of studio backdrops made way for the sprawling cityscapes.

In 1957, Richard Avedon etched an indelible mark on fashion history. His lens captured a model striding along the Place François-Premier in Paris, a Cardin coat billowing behind her. Caught mid-step, both feet suspended in mid-air, it seemed as though a whimsical gust of wind had lifted her into the skies. Avedon dubbed this masterpiece “In Homage to Munkácsi,” paying homage to one of the pioneering fashion photographers who had dared to venture beyond the studio.

Back in 1935, Martin Munkácsi had prophetically written in his article, “Think While You Shoot”:

“Never pose your subjects. Let them move about naturally. All great photographs today are snapshots.”

This cinematic vision found fervent champions in the form of influential art directors, Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar and Alexander Liberman at Vogue. Together, they fueled a revolution that transformed fashion photography into a dynamic, streetwise art form.

Sixties liberation

In the 1960s, as the feminist movement gained momentum and women raised their voices against inequality, the world of fashion underwent a radical transformation. The rigid structures of 1950s designs gave way to a youthful, free-spirited look, and the female body was liberated from the confines of constricting undergarments and corsetry. Emerging designers and photographers found their spotlight in magazines like Queen (relaunched in 1957) and Nova (born in 1965).

Photographer David Bailey was enlisted to breathe new life into the ‘Young Idea’ section of British Vogue. His vibrant, documentary-style approach, along with that of his fellow London-based photographers, catapulted teenage models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy to international stardom, personifying the essence of Swinging London. This zeitgeist found its cinematic counterpart in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Blowup (1966), where David Hemmings portrayed a character inspired by Bailey himself.

Starting in 1966, fashion embraced a riot of exotic fabrics, clashing patterns, and audacious colors. Penelope Tree, with her unconventional beauty, became the poster child for the hippy fashions that captured the latter part of the decade. The ’60s were a kaleidoscope of change, where style and society converged to redefine fashion’s very essence.

Picturing femininity

The 1970s witnessed a daring exploration of the edges in fashion photography. Photographers delved into the shifting sands of femininity, sexuality, and ventured into potentially contentious territories like religion and violence, all of which profoundly influenced their work.

These images were not just fashion; they were invitations to voyeurism, granting viewers access to charged, highly emotive scenes. Helmut Newton’s lens wove a tapestry of emotional ambiguity and sensuality, capturing confident women in glamorous yet deliberately constructed scenarios. Guy Bourdin and Gian Paolo Barbieri plunged into the shadows, crafting provocative visuals that focused less on the garments and more on the essence of the women within.

The concept of ideal beauty broadened within mainstream magazines as black and androgynous models gained regular prominence. Photographers like Deborah Turbeville and Sarah Moon, both former models themselves, approached the female form with a distinctive perspective. Their contemplative images offered a feminine gaze on beauty and the complex interplay of sexual objectification, shifting the narrative in captivating ways. In the ’70s, fashion photography was an unapologetic journey into the realms of the daring and the evocative.

Capturing real life

In the 1980s, a fresh wave of style publications emerged as a counterbalance to the glossy, airbrushed perfection of mainstream magazines. These rebellious newcomers didn’t just showcase fashion; they were vibrant hubs of contemporary music, culture, and emerging trends. On their pages, you’d find unconventional icons of beauty, often not professional models, but real individuals representing alternative forms of allure.

Steve Johnson’s portraits in i-D magazine were iconic, capturing punks and New Wave youth in their unvarnished glory. These images, dubbed ‘straight ups’ for their unfiltered authenticity, presented subjects in full, unapologetically real. The movement sparked a cascade of imitators eager to capture the personal and groundbreaking street fashions of the era.

As the ’90s rolled in, champions of this naturalistic, documentary style of fashion photography, like Corinne Day, David Sims, Craig McDean, and Jason Evans, took the stage. Their work was an ode to everyday life and genuine people, celebrating their unique flaws that rendered them beautifully individual. These decades marked a shift towards raw, unfiltered authenticity, amplifying the voices of the unconventional and the real in the world of fashion photography.

Fiction and fantasy

In the realm of contemporary fashion, images are vibrant tapestries of storytelling, steeped in rich colors and poetic narratives. The canvas is grand, with budgets that rival blockbusters, set designers conjuring wonderlands, and a multitude of stylists weaving their magic to craft elaborate fantasies. Photographer Miles Aldridge likens this process to the art of filmmaking:

“If the world were pretty enough, I’d shoot on location all the time. But the world is just not being designed with aesthetics as a priority. What I’m trying to do is take something from real life and reconstruct it in a cinematic way … condensed emotion, condensed color, condensed light.”

As fashion designers reinvent and recycle trends from bygone decades, photographers too delve into the archives of their predecessors for inspiration. Tim Walker, a modern-day magician, summons a whimsical, technicolor England, inspired by the opulent heritage of Cecil Beaton’s early work and the timeless enchantment of classic children’s fairytales. These images are not just fashion; they are reverberating echoes of creativity, where the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary, and every frame is a chapter in a colorful narrative.

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