Editor’s Choice April 2007

“Show the Dress”

What to read this month

Strikingly but entirely appropriately, this fat history devotes essentially no attention to the reams of glossy print that Vogue has given over to reporting and probing the subject—clothes—to which the magazine dedicates itself. (Non-fashion pieces by fancy writers, almost always mediocre work, have regularly adorned its pages, but largely, it would seem, so that those contributions can be noted in books like this one; as a former art director said of one such writer decades ago, “She’s like a piano player in a whorehouse. She may be a very good piano player, but nobody goes there to hear music.”) You might expect fashion to be a great subject for sparkling, accessible criticism: It’s a popular and tactile art form that sensitively reacts to (and has even at times engendered) cultural, technological, social, and economic forces both sweeping and minuscule; that possesses a highly developed set of techniques; and that holds a rich and complex history to which its practition‑ ers continually respond. But not only has fashion failed to produce its own Mencken, M. F. K. Fisher, or Kael (and that the theorists in academe have embraced it as a trendy subject should extinguish all hope that it ever will); seldom does any fashion writer clearly define the essential qualities of a design or concretely convey the workings of cut and construction.

Then again, that’s what fashion photography is supposed to do. And the really important history of Vogue is the interplay of clothes, femininity, and the camera—a history largely determined by fashion’s enduring and defining tensions between art and commerce, between the lasting and the ephemeral.

“Show the dress.” That was Chase’s order, in a 1938 memo to photographers, and it summarized the magazine’s workaday mission: Show to the cognoscenti how artfully (or not) Chanel’s atelier has constructed a suit sleeve; show to the Manhattan socialite, who’s on the fence about subjecting herself to the endless round of fittings for Chanel’s spring models at Saks, how the suit will fit and how its fabric drifts over rather than clings to the body; and perhaps most important (in an era before prêt-à-porter), show to the sophisticated 35-year-old Kansas City clubwoman all the details her dressmaker will need to copy it.

Chase, echoing Nast, who seems to have spent a good part of his life issuing detailed critiques of photographs, declared that if showing the dress “can’t be done with art, then art be damned.” But in fact Vogue’s requirements largely complemented the artistic direction that fashion photography was taking (or should have been taking), though it required Chase, Nast, and many of Vogue’s photographers a long time to recognize fully and absorb the new medium’s potential.

Indeed, although fashion photography was born in 1913, when Nast snapped up highfalutin Continental photographer Baron (!) Adolphe de Meyer, in fact, de Meyer’s images—painterly, soft-focused, slightly blurred (he veiled his lens in gauze), and ethereal photos in which the models shrank away (softly, demurely, dreamily) from the camera—worked against Vogue’s purposes.

But then in 1923, the magazine’s new chief photographer, Edward Steichen, introduced the sharp-focused, high- contrast, clean-cut techniques and sensibility of his “straight photography.” He showed the dress—with more detail than clothes had ever received. (Before de Meyer, the fashion mags had used illustrators, and photography wouldn’t fully supplant illustration until the 1930s.) Far more important, he showed the woman in the dress, approaching the camera and impressing her personality on the viewer with a straightforward, offhand confidence that was in keeping with Steichen’s aesthetic and with the radically different, jaunty-yet-refined Chanel dresses his models frequently wore—clothes that reflected and helped create a new style of femininity.

“Every woman de Meyer photographs looks like a model,” Nast told Steichen; “you make every model look like a woman.” Still, in the 1920s and ’30s at Vogue, Steichen’s approach competed with photographic styles that favored elaborate lighting and overwrought sets and with the glamorous gauziness of Cecil Beaton. (At Snow’s Bazaar, in contrast, the straight-photography style always reigned supreme.) And while In Vogue, with perhaps a dash of retrospective feminism, justly praises the charming brio with which socialite photographer Toni Frissell used the new high-speed Rolleiflex in the 1930s to capture a new kind of clothing on the move (most prominently McCardell’s sophisticated sportswear) and a new kind of woman moving in it (often athletic young mothers), Frissell—who was by all accounts utterly admirable—wasn’t prized by the magazine; in fact, she left Vogue for Bazaar in the mid-1940s. (Surprisingly, Angeletti and Oliva barely mention Frances McLaughlin-Gill, Frissell’s protégé, who injected a similar relaxed physicality into Vogue’s photography.)

The ascendancy of the Steichen sensibility emerged only in the 1940s, when the precisionist-inspired realism of John Rawlings, whose crisply defined color images, at once sharp and subtle (Dahl-Wolfe was his closest counterpart), showed the dress with more clarity and detail than had any previous Vogue photographer. (Rawlings receives ample credit here, though his work was all but forgotten until the Fashion Institute of Technology mounted an influential retrospective in 2001.)

That precisionism reached its apogee with Irving Penn’s celebrated series of astringent, almost clinical photographs of the fall 1950 Paris collections. These iconic images—stripped down, hard-edged in the sharpness of their detail—balanced their austerity with a knowing, intimate engagement with the women modeling the designs.

Penn and my other favorite early postwar Vogue photographers—Rawlings and Norman Parkinson (who, although he mostly shot for British Vogue, photographed prolifically for and published a number of his most memorable images in its American counterpart; his neglect in this book is a major oversight)—all used their direct camera style to establish what Parkinson’s subject Wenda Rogerson called a “witty underplay” with their models; their work in this period constitutes an admiring study of the intelligence, complexity, and humor of great feminine beauty. And Penn and Parkinson’s favorite models, decidedly not ingenues, were … their wives. (Penn married Lisa Fonssagrives in 1950, and they’d remain married until her death, in 1992; Parkinson and Rogerson remained married until her death, in 1987.)

Indeed, what will probably most strike readers of this work is the grown-up sexuality that infused fashion up until the 1960s (when what Vreeland famously called the “youthquake” hit). Haute couture, of course, was meant to be worn only by the femme du monde—with, at least in the case of Balenciaga’s designs, a round stomach, ample hips, and even some bulges. In this and other ways, Vogue was clearly aimed at the woman over 30: It simply assumed that no woman under that age had developed a sense of style. While its models were hardly matrons, they were, as Angeletti and Oliva note, “perhaps thirty years old and somewhat curvaceous.” (Fonssagrives was in fact 38 in the 1950 Paris Collection series, and she continued to model into her 40s.)

Maturity was obviously necessary for the success of photographs that, in their directness, relied as much on the substance of the woman wearing the dress as on the art of the photographer.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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