The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 8, 2005
- “Fashion is never anything but an amnesiac substitution of the present for the past” Roland Barthes
Fashion, as it is actualized and spoken through the medium of photography, represents some of the most beautiful and hideous elements of culture and society. Invariably, fashion photography pictures and proffers standards of beauty, self and display that, by sheer style and omnipresence, overwhelm common sense and rational thought. The innate contradictions within fashion photography and the larger industry it represents burden the form with criticism. This precarious position fashion photography exists in endangers the possibility of looking at the form outside a purely non-decorative or aesthetic framework, and further, problematizes the reconciliation of a place for its valid study in the academic schema.
This discussion will focus on fashion photography in advertising as a perspective on the perceptions and presentation of the human form in modern culture. The inquiry will be based on the examination of three films’ representations of significant periods in fashion photography and a review of the criticisms of social theorists in regard to the form. The objective here is to determine whether fashion photography provides insight into the social context and notions of the self and display and their constructions of gender, sexual and personal identities.
Fashion photography informs and is informed by social context in perception and presentation of the human form, especially the female form. By using three films representing the world and system of fashion photography in three different periods, I will consider the importance of this photographic genre by asserting its place in socio-cultural discourse as it addresses and questioning notions of self and display and the constructions of gender, sexual and social identities. Each film encapsulates the essence of its period by reflecting the current values and standards of society and fashion through a visual medium. Film and photography are two visual means of mass dissemination, particularly relevant for fashion images. Their combination, resulting in fashion photography in filmic narratives, presents the viewer with significant cultural insight as it refers to the fashion arena. These films simultaneously speak a reality and a misrepresentation of reality, in that they report the actualities of their time while participating in the continued perpetuation of a more general sense of illusion inherent in fashion photography.
By performing close readings of these texts and images, it is possible to develop a greater understanding of why fashion photography used to be highly relevant, revolutionary and respectable form and speculate about the reasons why this may no longer be the case. To take some of the most talented photographers of the genre from previous years and pit them against the majority of contemporary fashion photographers may appear extreme and one-sided, but the chasm between the two groups serves only to more fully reveal the progression of decay and regression of creativity in the more recent years. There has yet to be another photographer of the caliber of those selected to examine in this paper.
In engaging with the films, as well as the work of several theorists in cultural studies and adjacent areas, I offer a perspective that expands and rejuvenates rather than narrows and further colors peoples’ understanding of and negative opinions about fashion photography. Through comprehensive readings of three films, one from each era, I intend to demonstrate how each film functions as an advertisement for its period, in its aesthetic, historical and cultural sensibilities. Additionally, I will examine the evolution of the persona of the fashion photographer and his relationship to all elements and facets of the form as this character is manifested in the films. The figure of the fashion photographer also assumes the responsibility of continuously generating what constitutes the fashionable image’ at given historical moments. As Stella Bruzzi and Pamela Church Gibson assert in Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis, the photographer memorializes notions and conceptions of beauty (4). Finally, I will explore how the audience is constructed for each film, for which the gaze has been catered to and designed for viewing and how the characters are seen onscreen.
I have chosen Funny Face (1956), Blowup (1966) and Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) as representative texts for their uncanny sense of historicity in regard to their adjoining real fashion climates. These films are not timeless; while they are still referenced and relevant today, they are almost totally nuanced to their era. Each text recreates the individual realities of their fashion worlds. I offer these films as advanced case studies, visual texts that openly communicate the historical trends, sensibilities and theoretical elements of discourse about fashion photography in each context.
My project for this paper, in addition to providing a solid background for each of the aforementioned periods and their complementary films, is to examine the origins of actions of appropriation that have surfaced in more contemporary work, and their implications and impact. I also plan to investigate the evolution of fashion photography aesthetics in conjunction with the shifting structuring of the gaze—the interplay between spectator and spectacle. When, where and how did this come about? What led to the cessation of creation and the instigation of mimicry? The question at hand is how can contemporary fashion photography remain autonomous and novel in the age of appropriation and pastiche, and, in the commercial age, do these things even matter anymore?
Fashion photography, in the form of presenting garments on and off bodies and the system in which these images circulate and operate, has long been on tenuous ground in both the public and academic spheres. While the public may continue to be critical of the idea of such photography and the idea of fashion in general—its triviality, wastefulness, impermanence and commercialism, many people still buy the clothes and keep up with the trends. Attempts to legitimize the topic of fashion and its depiction as a subject as an area warranting serious academic consideration and examination however, have proved more difficult. Although these attempts have been increasingly frequent as the role of fashion has become increasingly more evident and influential and its dialogue more social in its mainstream prevalence, the general consensus is still to view fashion and its related institutions in a largely negative manner and its presentation unworthy of consideration beyond a superficial level. Proponents and creators of fashion photography have strained to garner respect for their form as well as maintain an appearance of continuous innovation and a sense of progressive modernity’ through each season.
Popularizing and giving credence to an academic discussion of fashion photography and advertising is a daunting task given the widespread and long-standing bias against these forms of popular culture, often associated with frivolity, wastefulness and decadence. Attempting to situate these media in a respectable position is doubly hindered by prejudices against elements of both areas. Fashion has been a traditionally and frequently dismissed, criticized or mocked industry, practice and preoccupation. Joanne Entwistle comments on this sentiment in her book, The Fashioned Body, acknowledging the widely-held beliefs that fashion is, among other things, vain, elitist, and wasteful (53). Julian Rodriguez further attests to the difficulties of approaching the topic in the essay “Fashion’s Fantasy.” “Fashion,’ Photography,’ or History’—you are entering a minefield with these subjects, so writing in a subject which ties them together has to be fraught with problems” (49). With these kind of negative preconceptions implanted in the present public and scholarly minds, altering conceptions of fashion photography is no easy exercise.
Fashion’s apparent wastefulness also impairs modern scholars’ ability to elevate the status of the form. The nature of fashion and fashion photography to be impermanent, its latent transience in ever changing and shifting trends, generates and exudes a perpetual in-process’ quality. This quality is delusory however, as images and styles repeat themselves in carefully calculated and timed increments. Joanne Finkelstein suggests in her book, Fashion: An Introduction,
The apparent instantaneousness of fashion lends it an attractive volatility. Fashion is really about maintaining the eternal sameness, preserving the status quo; it is a quixotic gesture, a con trick, a sleight of hand, which makes us think that change is happening when the opposite is closer to the truth Fashions are not about putting into circulation the really new, because the genuine novelty cannot be absorbed quickly into the cultural formations of everyday life. (5)
The form has to preserve a palatable character to remain commercially viable on a mass scale. The author continues, “Fashion—in its various guises as a practice, an industry and a social force—provides so such opportunity for a full engagement with the new. Fashions are being continuously recycled, and new marketing strategies are constantly being tried out to maintain this impetus” (Ibid.). Fissures in this illusion of constant innovation and flux have become apparent though.
Like fashion, photography and advertising have their own less than esteemed opinions and interpretations by cultural critics. Advertising is a regularly demonized entity, and photography, as an art form, is still struggling to be recognized and validated, with prolific public debates on the topic tracing back to at least the 1970s. Hilary Radner makes a particularly damaging claim against fashion photography as a viable art form in the essay “On the Move: Fashion Photography and the Single Girl in the 1960s.” “Unlike art,’ fashion photography obviously functions primarily within a marketplace that serves to sell clothes. Only belatedly does fashion photography sell itself as art, almost as an afterthought” (131). The author recognizes and emphasizes its commercial character, which is undeniable, and yet certain photographers insist on continual attempts to present fashion photographs as something more. Rosetta Brookes expands further on this photographic genre and its lowly perceived position in the essay, “Fashion Photography, The Double Page Spread: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Deborah Turbeville.”
Fashion photography has traditionally been regarded as the lightweight end of the photographic practice. Its close relationship to an industry dependent on fast turnover makes the fashion photograph the transitory image par excellence [The] commercial sphere of photographs—the domain of the everyday image—represents the debasement of a conventional history of photography. Fashion advertising, in particular, is seen as negating the purity of the photographic image. We see the typical instead of the unique moment or event. (17)
Clearly, the conflation of the two terms, fashion and photography, into one medium is thus rather problematic in regard to the business of solidifying the position of the form. Beginning by relating fashion’s function beyond a simple decorative gesture bereft of meaning, and fashion photography its equally empty vessel of expression, to its importance as a means of communication, I hope to reveal and present the multiple values and complexities often ignored in popular discourse. Fashion photographs in advertising, with their capacity to communicate social ideals, standards and taboos, operate chiefly to form their consumers—on one level, to make them buy products, and on another level, make them buy the illusion of a lifestyle and possibility for a new identity by gaining ownership of the featured products.
Fashion periodicals are the primary purveyors of these images and subsequent identities, with Vogue as the gold standard for magazines in this arena. Through fashion photography, these publications exhibit and mediate the ideals of each era. Their role in such activities of dissemination and influence is problematic and damaging on several levels. Finkelstein highlights some of these more insidious functions, citing the fashion magazine’s didactic character. With the growing popularity and seductive appeal of this medium and the apparent innocuous quality assumed by it, of merely reporting new styles and where to obtain them, the publications’ more subversive edge remains hidden. Fashion magazines do not just present fashion, “[They] instruct in the creation of image and self representation” (46). Through these publications, women are able to imagine and construct the best’ and most desirable’ versions of themselves. “Fashioning the body becomes a practice through which the individual can fashion a self” (Ibid. 50). Whole distinct identities are formed through dress; social perceptions of wealth, class, taste and personality are mediated by the presentation of the body. The garment constructs the self, and the individual’ captured in photography memorializes and makes permanent that self.
Fashion advertising has been enormously instrumental in presenting and perpetuating these largely unattainable images and standards of style. Atkinson, in essay, “Fashion Photography: A Short Survey,” recognizes the changing role of the photograph. Beginning in the 1950s, photographers and advertisers alike came to recognize and “[promote] the value of a photograph on its own’ as a very persuasive image for advertising products (304). Finkelstein expands on the power and influence expressed by advertising in recognizing the industry’s role in the dispersal of the fashionable. Advertisements give instruction on how pleasures can be pursued and enjoyed and offer chimerical lifestyles that help to stir up desire in all its states in the consumer. “[It] destabilizes the practices of the everyday in order to reinvent them” (46). The routine is upset by style. A particular skirt length is constructed and presented to be new; in a just matter of inches, another is passé. Novelty is presented as something that can be bought and sold and is misleadingly found in the most common of objects and behaviors.
Advertising feeds into the visual pleasures of looking, partaking in images and encountering the fashionable, the novel, the risky and the sexual. The presence of such elements provides individuals with a sense of curiosity, wonder, envy or disgust or a combination of each. Advertising makes fantastical and elitist imagery available to the common observer; the privileged private is made public. This new availability has its consequences, however. The images presented in fashion advertising, with their glossy, seductive appeal, indoctrinate viewers and implant conceptions of beauty and self-display in the minds of consumers, whether or not the ideal is possible for the spectator to achieve. Advertising of this kind is present everywhere, and has two clear forms in commercial presentation.
The two most notable manifestations of advertising in fashion photography are specific fashion brand and general editorial images. While there are discrepancies between pure’ fashion photography consisting of editorial spreads and more commercialized image conception in particular designer advertisements, both are fundamentally about selling. The editorial spread is, without a doubt, an ad in its own right, differing only in the increasingly subtle changes in modes of representation of the garments. Typically, clothing is more deliberately and clearly displayed in official corporate advertisements. In editorial spreads, all the viewer may see is the intimation of a garment—a single strap of a dress obscured by dramatic lighting. Editorials often attempt to create more depth and meaning by presenting a narrative flow. And yet, conventions in corporate advertising fashion photography are changing and assuming similar qualities. Such advertisements are increasingly becoming either narrative in representation, with multi-page spreads for the same brand, such as Anne Klein [Fig. 1]), or not showing the garment at all, and instead relying on the cultural capital that their name carries by simply presenting the corporate logo, such as Helmut Lang. Entwistle remarks that Baudrillard once noted, “the thing consumed is the image, not the commodity” (225). At this point, there has yet to be a real change in the presentation of garments in editorial spreads, however. Regardless of the disparities between these two forms, both offer the gift of access to the fashionable and the fabulous to the average consumer.
While the exclusivity of haute couture fashion shows as well as the limited number of those able to afford the items presented there persists, the prevalence and prominence of photography capturing this realm allows its reportage and accessibility to a wide audience. Few are offered first row at Chanel’s runway shows, but most anyone can pick up the latest issue of Vogue. Through fashion photography, access is granted to the general public and culture is continually renewed and reformed. With the democratic dispersal of high fashion through such publications, fashion itself retains a sense of universality. Finkelstein writes, “[It] is made universal through its ubiquity” (13). Saturation of the market with these elitist images makes high fashion more homogenous and mainstream; it is vulgarized by accessibility. Valerie Steel emphasizes the profound role of the media in regulating access in Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now, “New media and increased fashion coverage [have] made previously elite fashion accessible to a mass audience, but only as image, never as object” (97). Through developments in mass media and subsequent growth in the consumption, popularity and influence of the form, the pervasive coverage and exposure of fashion to this larger audience has incurred some repercussions in culture and in individuals’ notions of self and worth.
The formation, expression and conception of the self vary in relation to historical context. Each period of fashion determines a particular and seemingly unique aesthetic. These differences manifest significantly more in certain periods than others. Fashion photography periodizes significantly during the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Yet, even within this defined framework, the exact periods are difficult to delineate absolutely. As with any new mode or style, representation or interpretation, there are aspects and developments that lead up to a recognizable emergence. No new genre is spontaneous or immediate. Indeed, the transitional periods between eras are not so cleanly defined, but a general aesthetic and character of presentation can be gleaned from each selected time.
In the 1980s, 90s and the contemporary fashion world, trends and conventions have become far more fractured and de-centered. No singular feeling or ambiance has emerged for these times; nothing fits easily into a bound category. There seems to be less and less sincere or honest innovation and more and more desperate envelope pushing, as can be witnessed in contemporary fashion photography and in the fashion themselves. This drive and rush to shock and break ground are flagrantly overcompensatory gestures that deny a sense of validity for fashion today. For an industry and art form already on tenuous ground, these flailings for meaning increase the transparency of the enterprise and continue to compromise fashion’s quest for validation beyond a mere trivial aesthetic in both social and academic discourse.
The decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s may be regarded as the most profoundly transitional periods in fashion photography, and thus, in fashion culture at large. For each era, a new ideal of feminine beauty was constructed, introduced and marketed to the public. In the mid to late 1950s, this model woman was loosed into the outdoors, beyond the previously conventional passive and restrictive posturing. The new figure of fashionability in the 1960s was granted greater independence and realized sexual identity with increased activity and dynamism. In the 1970s, the ideal was less clearly defined, although this woman’ possessed the quality of cool, alien detachment, an overt sexuality and implicit violence. Diana Crane recognizes these periods of transition in fashion photography, specifically in the landmark fashion publication, Vogue, in her book, Fashion and Its Social Agendas. Highlighting the sometimes subtle and sometimes overt changes in certain aspects of the magazine’s fashion photography, she tracks this process of evolution. Crane notes that by 1957, models were often photographed looking directly at the camera, indicating their inferior status through expressions of vulnerability rather than defiance. During this time, the major focus of the photographs remained the clothing. A decade later, the magazine was showing close-ups of models in bathing suits and there was an increasing emphasis on their youthfulness.
The supermodel rather than the society woman was becoming the role model. By 1977 Both advertisements and editorial pages appeared to be oriented toward a male gaze. Men were more likely to be included in the photographs, along with pairs or groups of women. Models generally looked directly at the camera and often assumed childlike or contorted positions. Most photographs were not contextualized. The vantagepoint of the camera was less likely to be at eye level and more likely to be looking down or looking up at its subject. (Ibid. 211)
The expressions and postures of the models from these periods clearly reflect Crane’s observations about Vogue classifications. What is more, these qualities of presentation transfer to film.
In Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn peers demurely at the camera, her body well covered, the camera focusing predominantly on her clothing. Her real world colleagues,’ Suzy Parker and Dorian Leigh, for example, are pictured the same way in their photographic images. The overt and vampy sexiness of the model Verushka is unmistakably illustrated in the shoots constructed for Blowup and her real fashion work. In the images of working photographers from the 60s such as Brian Duffy, the models are similarly presented—scantily clad and pushing at the limits of propriety. The models in Eyes of Laura Mars are dually erotic and violent in their photographic renderings. They closely mirror the visual qualities of Helmut Newton’s photographed women. In addition to outlining the shifts in the presentations, and subsequently, the conceptions of femininity, Crane also introduces the notion of the gaze and the act of gazing at the photographic subject, a topic of continuous examination and debate.
Several theoretical constructs from the past century are useful in helping to recognize and give meaning to the language and influence of fashion photography within a social framework. The gaze, and as its related social constructs, the homospectatorial position and the construction of femininity as represented through photographic images; members of the Frankfurt School insights on commodification and mass reproduction of images; semiotics and elements of postmodernism are all relevant in examining fashion photography’s greater influence on and purpose in the social and academic schema. Addressing these intellectual positions are scholars ranging from post-structuralist, semiotician Barthes to postmodern theorist Baudrillard and feminist Fuss to linguist Foucault. The viability of fashion, with the form of fashion photography in particular, is best revealed and understood within the framework of cultural studies.