Fashion has changed over the years. Photography immortalizes a moment. The meeting of fashion and photography gives to the designers’ creation a timeless and unchangeable form; at the same time, it reveals the spirit of an era. The study of the relationship between photographic style and the garments depicted could reveal in part the mystery of fashion.
Introduction: post-war optimism and the emergence of the humanist movement
The stage photographs of the suits by Dior taken by Willy Maywald provide insight into the 1940’s mindset. Waist tucked; shoulders rounded; and skirts in the shape of a flower requiring forty meters of fabric appear in full frontal compositions. The oversize of the dresses provides optimism and hope post-war. Classical shooting amplifies the elegance of the model. In the United States, the inventiveness of the framings taken by Louise Dahl-Wolfe or Norman Parkinson brings a touch of modernity to Dior’s creations: the decorations of a tapestry brighten up for instance the ruby red tone of a silk velvet dress. Fashion photographs taken by the “Groupe des XV”’s members exacerbate the characteristic of practices in this movement, that is to say the interplay of light and shade, the classical manner and the control of the composition, the technical precision and the expression of the photographer’s sensibility. This association of fourteen photographers was inaugurated on the 8th of March 1946, in order to “give French Photography its place in the world”. They testify to the aesthetic, formal, anthropological and social transformations which appear post-war. Fashion photography is divided into two directions: physically it records fashion and formally, it shows it. On one hand, the images themselves depict a time thanks to visual and technical parameters, as the medium evolved. On the other hand, clothes are representative of a period of time. What kind of dialogue can bring together the fifties, the photographer’s gaze and the image of high fashion?
Fashion photography and history: a symbiosis of shooting locations and designers’ creations.
During the war, selected locations were related to an historic use. In 1941, for instance, Cecil Beaton takes a photograph of a British Vogue model wearing a tweed Digby Morton suit; she poses in front of a ruined temple destroyed during the bombing of London. Post-war, French photographers prefered locations with strong French and cultural connotations.
*Sociological background and cultural heritage
In the French post-war era, society and feminine status evolved. Location selection was crucial. When Philippe Pottier said that he « fits a strict city suit with the geometric design of the elevated rail », he reconciled both form and substance with a graphic and dynamic composition. Inside private mansions, marbles provides a setting to the Jean Dessès’ vaporous silk evening dresses. According to him, « that evening dress would be better placed in a Louis XVI salon than an Empire decor, that city dress better in a provencal auberge than on the stairs of the Palais de Chaillot ».
Fashion photography of the fifties gives an image of modernity. It associates the image of the woman with strongly suggestive locations and objects (car, plane, globe, encyclopedia, library…) First, the poses are less static and photographers want to show movement and natural scenes. The image of the woman is idealized and symbolizes both feminity and refinement. However, photographers give her a cultivated image. Sometimes, the model, by holding an object such as a book or perhaps even an artist’s monograph, gives preeminence to the geographical location. Photographers manage to combine both elegance and cultural values, by associating arts, museums and Haute couture. Pleat fabrics dresses fashioned by Madame Grès interact with the setting in the Musée de l’Île-de-France. Decorations of Louis XIV style are an answer to the sophistication of drapery and gathering. On a photograph presenting a Robert Piguet frock coat, there is a reiteration of the canine decor because of the little dog in the foreground.
Philippe Pottier tried to control light whether in the perfect environment of the studio or in the spontaneous environment of the outdoor. He expresses his technical rigor and precision in graphic “moods”. He always adapts his stage to the current topics of everydaylife. He references the car show of 1957 by taking a photograph of a couple in front of a convertible vehicle. Finally he introduces a future using a stage to create a dimension on playing on perspective to trick the eye. The model is photographed looking at an image of an architectural project planned for the future.
The Séeberger brothers also choose stereotypical positions for the fashion campaigns of Jean Patou, Jean-Louis Scherrer, the pleated coat of 1953 and the Bubble dress of 1954 created by Pierre Cardin. Models pose on the banks of the river Seine, or Place de la Concorde and in front of the Palais de Tokyo.
*Reference to the History of art
Avant-garde movements are a major inspiration for designers. Fashion in the 1950 is in synergy with works of art belonging to the Op’art movement, abstraction, architecture and visual culture. During the Salon des réalités nouvelles in 1953 which was organised to promote abstract art, P. Pottier gives an avant-gardist character to a series of photographs taken in the Musée d’art moderne. Ektachromes prints reveal this stage: the model with a Lanvin « cognac-colour » coat, is standing barefoot, on a stool, in front of the Vasarely painting. However, the publication reframes the picture at the ankles.
The fifties in History of fashion photography
*Theoretical options: fashion photography as a gender
Fashion photography plays an increasingly important role in the world of communication since the fifties. Certainly there has been fashion iconography using photographic media since the nineteenth century. The first true fashion photographer, Adolf de Meyer, started in 1910. Yet it is only in the middle of the nineteenth century that fashion Photography was born. Photographers don’t just want to show the clothes but they also wish to express, to interpret, to incarnate and to capture every angle in just one image. The “Fashion photographer” is born from a request of the magazine’s directors and editors: Richard Avedon is employed by Alexey Brodovitch for Harper’s Bazaar; Irving Penn gives his photographs to Alexander Liebermann for Vogue. The History of Fashion photography has been written a posteriori, since 1970.
*The advent of the photographer’s profession in the fifties. A comparative approach.
During the fifties, many photographers began to suggest some alternatives to the classical style and traditional shooting of the Seeberger brothers. Sabine Weiss, who was a young swiss photographer recently moved to Paris, took in the same time fashion photographs; she insisted on the technical training which was essential to acquire solid foundations. She followed professional training in Genèva and then, she entered the studio of Willy Maywald in Paris. During an interview she gave me two years ago, the photographer who was born in 1924 emphasized on the strangeness of the working conditions in the forties: there was no water in the studio, but she explained that everything was very still controlled by specific protocols. Now she is recognized among humanist photographers, she radically splits these two practices – on one hand to capture the key instant, for the pleasure in catching an unexpected view, on the other hand, to produice stage photographs, for customers. She uses both technics in her fashion photographs, in particular in her images for Vogue. “There are some stage photographs very difficult to take and on the contrary, spontaneous snapshots”. She insists on the physical and technical difficulties involved in taking this kind of photographs in the fifties – camera and materials were heavy and cumbersome – and the knowledge to count the lights, select the filters, and constantly adapt to changing lights. Sabine Weiss was searching for the perfect composition, by raising her objective to the mobile stages where everything was arranged to create the illusion of action. The model wearing a Chanel suit, sketches a gesture.
Diane Arbus first worked for Glamour and then for Esquire in the fifties and for Harper’s Bazaar. Her photographs showed concrete methods for making an image. The photographer’s studio is separated into different parts, one part of it with a white background where the model poses. Everything is controlled; it is a team effort. So she is in a similar line to the French movements which the Séeberger brothers and Philippe Pottier participate.
While Frank Horvat, who takes photographs in the same period, breaks away from these approachs. Nevertheless, he shares the idea of a specific gender which could be fashion photography. But one of the big differences is to adopt the democratization of fashion, in contrast to traditional fifties idealism. Moving the shooting from the studio to the street with bystanders and dogs changed preconceived ideas.
Frank Horvat searched for natural and real expressions, refusing stereotypical poses. Instructions given to the models are revelatory: he wants relaxed and flexible poses; he asks the models not to smile and not to look at the camera.
He avoids the stylists and make-up artists’work which remove naturalness. His goal is narration through dress. He told me an anecdote: one day he had inadvertently photographed the back of a dress thinking it was the front; unexpectedly, the designer – Hubert de Givenchy – discovered this way showed better the details of the cloth.
Muriel Berthou Crestey
 Marie de Thézy, Paris 1950 photographié par le groupe des XV, catalogue de l’exposition organisée dans le cadre du Mois de la photo 1982, Paris, Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 1982, p. 25.
 R. Seube, « Un photographe de mode : P. Pottier », Kodéco, mars 1959, cité par Dominique Versavel, « Philippe Pottier, un photographe au service de la mode », Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale de France n°21, 2005, p. 33.
Recherche menée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France avec le soutien de la Fondation Louis Roederer pour la photographie. Conférence ayant reçu le "Soutien à la participation à des colloques internationaux", Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, 2015.