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Interrupting the Age of Innocence: Fashion Photography in the 1950s

Interrupting the Age of Innocence: Fashion Photography in the 1950s

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
Interrupting the Age of Innocence: Fashion Photography in the 1950s
Tina Butler,
May 9, 2005

The mid-1950s bore witness to a dramatic shift in terms of presentation and posturing of the subject in fashion photography. This change only hinted at the coming transformation in the exhibition of the clothing and the models inhabiting it. A reversal occurred, a transition in the photographic form from passive to active—the traditionally reserved and stationary model of the 1940s and early 50s disappeared. The motionless and elegant woman, displaying the garments to the best visual advantage, shot indoors in controlled studio settings or stately mansions no longer dominated the aesthetic of the current fashion photography. [Fig. 5] Instead, the new persona of the “Single Girl” was empowered and energetic. She was presented in motion, her body and clothing distorted by movement, shot in unpredictable and spontaneous locations, customarily out of doors. [Fig. 6] The new model was no longer merely an object for observation; she was engaged and equipped with independence, or at least the photographer’s version of it.

Radner summarizes this new ideal best, noting the model’s youth and single status, and yet her ambiguous economic and social situation. She could be a secretary or a socialite. The new ideal persona in this age of transition, “also emphasized the element of surprise, of the unanticipated, of the continually new, as an attribute of the ‘stylish'” (130). The imminent feminism of the later 60s was preceded by this consolidation of a new feminine ideal. The model embodied a sense of movement, paralleling a culture in transition. Because of her location in a period in flux, the ideal is presented paradoxically in fashion photography of this era. An ironic and conflicted figure, the ‘Single Girl’ at once represented ‘movement,’ and yet, her capacity to move was limited by the fact that her primary function was to signify the ideal of a period. “Both in appearance, waif-like and adolescent, and in goals, to be glamorous and adored by men (in the plural) while economically independent,” the ‘Single Girl’ proffered a new definition of femininity, one beyond a traditional patriarchal construction. “At the same time, the Single Girl establishes consumerism as the mechanism that replaces maternity in the construction of the feminine” (Radner 128). The inherent contradictions of the ‘Single Girl’ match the inconsistencies of her era, and further, the contradictions of the form in which she was represented. The vibrant and evanescent seductress of the mid-60s came to replace the tepid and submissive prude of the mid-50s. The period in between these times was marked by rapid transition in attitude and taste.

This shift was in attitude and presentation in image and assertion of self was not the first and certainly not the last. In the 1970s, the pronounced of tradition of gender roles and interaction in front of the camera was unsettled by Helmut Newton, one of the most revolutionary fashion photographers of the era. He attempted to reverse the gaze, give it to the female to objectify the male form.

The casting of Hepburn in Funny Face as the new model aided in instigating and propelling the shift to a new attitude and aesthetic. She was or could be the girl next door; she was beautiful but slightly awkward and imperfect. She offered a more palatable version of ‘reality’ to audiences. This new kind of look began to appear in print shortly thereafter. Notably, there was a sharp distinction between show and photographic models. This distinction is no longer present in the world of contemporary fashion. The model in the photograph and the model on the runway are now the same person. Perfection is now expected in both realms and photographers are responsible for presenting this illusion. The period of the late 50s saw additional changes in fashion photography in terms of presented conventions and conceptions of beauty. Dovima, along with Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker, were considered the top models in the fashion world during this time. These women were cool, aloof and distant and were not to be confused with ‘real’ women. One lead modeling agent said of Dovima, “She was the super-sophisticated model in a sophisticated time, definitely not the girl next door” (Steel 44). The illusion of inaccessibility added to the models’ prestige and perceived glamour and elegance.

The most prominent figure in fashion photography in this period was Richard Avedon. He was known for creating very specific kinds of images, photographs that were narrative in nature, in particular. His images were carefully staged and crafted in vignette-like scenes, yet retained a sense of spontaneity. Avedon created and prompted a more progressive look, an aesthetic whose influence is recognizable everywhere in contemporary photography (Steel 44).

While he represented the essential look of 50s day glamour, Avedon, like fashion itself, has shown remarkable adaptability in his work through the past decades. One of his particularly dramatic shifts in artistic and photographic style and sensibility from his 1950s work involved the products of his collaboration with Calvin Klein. Avedon directed a series of commercials for the designer, who was launching his line of blue jeans in 1980. The television advertisements featured a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields asking, “Want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing” (126 Steel). This kind of sexualized work was a clear departure from his earlier images of proper and restrained ‘ladies’ posing beside flower stalls and parks. As an aside, Avedon’s use of the young actress, Shields, in his campaign, supports and illuminates the increased overlapping and erasure of distinction in what and whom constitutes a model. Returning to the original topic, such transition in style is a clear illustration of Avedon’s versatility as a photographer and the continued evolution of fashion and its limits of taste, suggestion and propriety in presenting the clothed (or unclothed) body.

Avedon is indeed one of the most notable photographers in this genre and in fashion photography in general, for his breadth and skill. The photographer is highly regarded and continues to work, even in his eighties. And yet, even Avedon, with his skill as a photographer and his prominence as such well established, had the value of that skill questioned in regard to his fashion photography. Julian Rodriguez writes, “Often [his] non-fashion work is stronger…the uncompromising quality of [Avedon’s portraiture] never made the jump into his fashion work” (51). The bias of the inferiority of this photographic genre seems to always subordinate the work, regardless of the artist—if he may be called that.

Another major figure in 50s and 60s fashion photography was William Klein. Avedon and Klein, as two of the most prolific photographers of the period, shared the spotlight, but maintained different styles of presentation. Klein pioneered the ‘street’ look in fashion photography, inspiring a more instant and sometimes more gritty sense of realism, while Avedon’s work during this time had a fairy tale-like quality to it (Radner 131). “William Klein…successfully makes the transition to art…self-consciously plays with the codes of fashion photography” (Ibid. 138). The way they were presented in his images, the models “seem fiercely intent on breaking through the frame” (Ibid.). His models seem slightly less passive and more independent as they oppose their position and combat their capture by the camera in their expressions and posture. They are aggressive and confrontational, either challenging or ignoring the camera. Klein’s photographed women seem to possess “integrity and purpose,” beyond acting as mere objects of display, and because of this, seem more progressive in this presentation. Avedon’s women, at times, almost appear as decorations or props in a set piece.