But when we see it in retrospective, without the impulse to purchase, is it easier to see fashion photography as art?
We still idolise fashion images from the 20th century as style milestones and fashion touchstones: you only have to think of Audrey Hepburn or YSL's Le Smoking, or Dior’s New Look. The cyclical nature of fashion means that the past is never a foreign country. It is always revisited. It is always relevant – and potent.
The new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum shows us the work of pioneer fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. The American, born to Norwegian immigrant parents in San Francisco in 1895, started out as a sign designer but became a professional photographer in 1931. She went on to be the in-house photographer at Harper’s Bazaar.
In her beautiful images of beautiful scenes, we see an aspiration to present ‘the New Woman’ who was both active and sophisticated. The artist moved between black and white and colour photography and also pioneered ‘environmental’ fashion photography – shooting models on location in the ancient city of Kairouan in Tunisia, on the Seine in Paris or at Nassau beach, Florida.
Looking at Matisse, Museum of Modern Art, 1939. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
Louise Dahl-Wolfe was the darling of Harper’s Bazaar for 22 years. As their in-house photographer, she produced 86 of their covers and worked closely with legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland before Vreeland became editor of Vogue.
She loved portraiture and captured images of the icons of the day: British-American poet W.H. Auden in Central Park with British-American novelist Christopher Isherwood, the French novelist Colette at the end of her life, or Josephine Baker in full costume.
The Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition is the first major retrospective of her work in the UK. It will show 100 of her celebrated images. The head of the FTM, Celia Joicey says ‘They present an aspirational portrait of the mid-century woman as she newly wished to be: independent, self-assured and in control of her own destiny.’
Images full of optimism, beauty and power. Historical they may be, but they should still prompt us to ask what we want from fashion now.
|What||Louise Dahl-Wolfe – A style of her own, Fashion and Textile Museum|
|Where||Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey St, London, SE1 3XF | MAP|
|Nearest tube||London Bridge (underground)|
20 Oct 17 – 21 Jan 18, Open Tuesday to Sunday. Open until 8pm on Thursday. Closes at 5pm on Sundays.
|Website||Click here for more information from the Fashion and Textile Museum|