Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fashion reframed

When publisher Conde Nast asked Edward Steichen in the 1920s to become kingpin photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, the artist was assured he wouldn't have to put his name to his work. The assumption in those days was that someone of Steichen's creative calibre would prefer anonymity when it came to mere fashion photography. Yet, Steichen told Nast that if he was going to make photographs, he would most certainly be signing them.

He was rightly proud of his work, and there was no reason fashion photography - or fashion itself - couldn't be art. Steichen - artist, painter, graphic artist, interior designer, curator, publisher, wartime aerial snapper and, yes, the highest-paid fashion photographer of his era - was incredibly talented. But surely Vogue and Vanity Fair were nowhere near as high-minded, as elevated, as important as art? Could those deeply entwined worlds - fashion, commerce and mass media - ever be so?

Fashion's status is something museums big and small have been championing for a good while now, and it is more than a century since the Luxembourg-born, United States-bred Steichen (1879-1973) emerged in the field. His first fashion photograph was in 1911 and he was important in giving fashion and fashion photography serious credibility. He did so by taking on the big job at those two magazines in 1923 and directly asserting through his highly creative work the ability for fashion photography to be much more than just a shallow star and product vehicle.

Clothing and fashion, certainly, can be transformative, and exhibitions can posit interesting ideas about their multiple meanings. Paola Di Trocchio is the National Gallery of Victoria's fashion curator, and while she too notes the inextricable relationships between fashion, art and commerce, she clearly articulates the rich heritage of fashion - the way clothing reflects and often embodies broader cultural and even industrial developments, and the way it frequently charts social history. Clothing - as she meticulously picks through a garment's lineage, its reasons for being, its marvellous aesthetic qualities - is treated as another artwork, with the same rigorous scrutiny, historical groundwork and assessment that would be applied to a painting or sculpture.

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Di Trocchio is especially interested just now in the art deco period in which Steichen was working when at Vogue and Vanity Fair (he was there until 1937, just before art deco came to a halt with the outbreak of war in 1939).

Curating Edward Steichen and Art Deco Fashion for the NGV with photography curator Susan Van Wyk has meant contextualising the history of the 30 exquisite garments in the show against Steichen's 200 photographs - drawing parallels between the NGV's impressive fashion collection from the period and the clothing Steichen photographed and which was often worn by stage and Hollywood screen stars of the day.

What we get is not just a lot of pretty dresses and photographs - although it is clearly all sumptuous, gorgeous and thrilling to behold; we are also exposed to a coherent argument about legacy, origins and how the art deco clothing on the mannequins and in the Steichen photographs surrounding them tell us enormous amounts about human cultures at the time, against a fascinating backdrop of changing gender balances, evolving leisure activities, industrialisation and interaction with other ''exotic'' cultures.

This ranges from Gabrielle ''Coco'' Chanel's prototype for the little black dress (expressing notions about modernity), to extraordinary evening cloaks and coats by Lanvin or Jeanne Paquin (reflecting the effects of exposure to Asian cultures, via Japanese kimonos and ukiyo-e woodblocks), to daring ''flapper'' dresses (whose geometric forms anticipated vibrant new architecture and, says Di Trocchio, the highly social, reckless and independent young women of the era).

This is why art deco and the fashion that came out of it was more than just a style - its angularity, extraordinary colour palette, bold graphics and daring designs were reflective of the burgeoning machine age, its adventurous clothing signifying the liberation of the modern woman.

As Di Trocchio explains, the term was born out of the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in 1925 - a mouthful that soon compacted to art deco.

She writes in the catalogue for the NGV show that art deco excelled, thanks to its ''contradictions and combinations'', in the way it revered the machine while borrowing patterns and shapes from ancient and exotic cultures such as Japan, China, Turkey, Russia and Egypt, from both folk and classical art, while also citing avant-garde movements such as cubism, futurism and constructivism, and ''a life of speed and celebration of industry with diagonal and rectilinear lines''.

The period, though, was also well-endowed with famous faces and Steichen's work in the show reveals him first working with the big stage idols of the day through to photographing Hollywood stars such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo Gary Cooper and Gloria Swanson.

Van Wyk says Steichen was a real pioneer who had a clear sense of the significance of what he was doing and ownership of it. She says Steichen, who worked into his 90s, kept his fashion photography in sync with his creative practice. ''That relationship between commerce and art has always been there and if you think about some of the big fashion photographers, such as Steichen, their work is not dissimilar to art photography.

''You look in those great magazines at the best fashion photography and they definitely have a place in the art books.''

Di Trocchio and Van Wyk say magazine publishing in the 1920s-30s was increasingly vital in circulating images of fashion and modern lifestyles at a mass scale. And with Steichen's arrival, this meant modernising Vogue and Vanity Fair, especially when a new art director, Germany's Mehemed Agha, was appointed.

''He came with a knowledge of the New Photography, which Steichen had been a part of,'' Van Wyk says.

The layout and design changed, as did the typeface and masthead, and Steichen began doing radical things to the architecture of his photographs: very tightly cropped views, faces cut off at the edge of a page, sharp rather than soft focus on figures and faces. It was striking and glamorous, and audiences will be able to see examples throughout the NGV show (whose entire design is magnificently art deco, from the champagne-coloured curtains, to the curved stairways and chevron mirrors and a life-sized image of the extraordinary lobby in Melbourne's Manchester Unity building). Based on a travelling exhibition drawn from the Conde Nast Archive, creatively teamed with the NGV's art deco fashion collection, the entire show traces the way in which, on starting at the magazines, Steichen quickly established a style of great opulence, sophistication and glamour. His style also made evident the confident personalities of the female models he photographed.

''Through the 1920s you see this new woman who's engaged in all sorts of new activities - who moved in different ways, who swam, competed in the Olympics, played tennis, danced on their own - and you start to see that reflected in the woman on the street.

''In turn, you begin to see that reflected in Steichen's photographs,'' Van Wyk says.

When these black-and-white photographs were printed in Vogue and Vanity Fair, they were accompanied by long, incredibly descriptive captions so that readers could imagine the brilliant colours.

Indeed, says Di Trocchio, the whole structure of clothing changed immensely in this particular period.

The modern coat emerged, based on the Japanese kimono; the slip or dance dress - a simple construction with flat planes that slipped over the head - was created, with lots of strong motifs and patterns on its surfaces; and there was the invention of women's sportswear, not necessarily worn for sport, but it was filled with the connotations of leisure pursuits such as going to the races or lounging pool or beachside.

In the form of loose sailor pants, silky pyjamas and commodious, sporty chemises, the basic premise was making something in which women could move freely, Di Trocchio says.

''This comes through particularly with dance dresses.

''The ways people were moving their bodies, the way they are dancing and doing other things, were changing, so fashion responded,'' she says.

The reasons they could actually do these new things are manifold, but a key fact was gender imbalance - especially in England, where there were a million so-called ''surplus women'', a skew caused by World War I.

Di Trocchio says they became creative ''and built a new way of being'', which is reflected in the designs of the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Chanel or Madeleine Vionnet - the only time in fashion history, she says, when women led all the big fashion houses. These couturiers transformed themselves and the women who wore their designs.

And there it is in the mannequins at the NGV, as they face Steichen's glorious photographs, their poses often mirrored back in the content of his studio-based work: assertive poses with hands on jutting hips, shoulders broad, legs confidently planted apart and chins raised. Forceful, independent and striding into the future wearing bold, sassy outfits that reflected the fast-paced, swiftly changing world around them.

Edward Steichen and Art Deco Fashion is at NGV International from October 18 to March 2. ngv.vic.gov.au


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