“Show the Dress”

By Benjamin Schwarz

April 2007 ATLANTIC

john-rawlings-17-3Gorgeously designed, handsomely bound, and abundantly illustrated with some of the best photography of the last century, this swank volume—with its 410 pages of sumptuously thick matte stock—has the look and impossible- to-read-in-bed heft of the highest-end coffee-table book. But In Vogue is a serious, sometimes minute chronicle of the 115-year history of Vogue magazine—or “The Bible,” as the fashion-afflicted call it.

Oddly, the authors, Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva, who are magazine historians rather than schmatte scribes, begin by averring that “no book has yet recounted [the magazine’s] history,” and that theirs is one of the “few titles published about Vogue.” Although it’s true that theirs is the first comprehensive account of American Vogue (Georgina Howell wrote an unusually polished and intelligent history of BritishVogue, the first of the at least 14 international editions and a magazine whose grace and stylishness in the 1920s through the ’50s often surpassed its parent), I can think of very few magazines that have been as widely and deeply probed.

Polly Devlin, for instance, wrote an excellent history of Vogue photography (Angeletti and Oliva obviously follow Devlin’s schema in their exploration of that subject, which is the focal point of this book); there’s a history of Vogue illustrations; there are even two histories of Vogue covers. Condé Montrose Nast—who bought the magazine in 1909, brilliantly reconceived it as the incontrovertible arbiter of taste and style to “the woman of fashion” and as the meeting ground of the well-born and the flashy, and directed it toward those ends until his death, in 1942—is the subject of what I reckon as one of the two best biographies of an American magazine publisher (The Man Who Was Vogue, by Caroline Seebohm). All of the major photographers in the magazine’s history—including Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon—have been scrutinized in at least one major book. Vogue’s most illustrious art director, Alexander Liberman, is the subject of an exceptional biography (Alex, by Dodie Kazan­jian and Calvin Tomkins) and of his stepdaughter’s recently celebrated reminiscence (Them, by Francine du Plessix Gray).

The current creative director, Grace “The Cod” Coddington; a former fashion editor, Bettina Ballard, who covered theee25112b9371a132bf0022e06013f5ed-1 great, waning years of haute couture; and four of the past five editors in chief have written compelling memoirs or books about the fashion world. (Coddington, once a renowned model and editor at British Vogue, has noted of life at American Vogue, “You’re either having dinner with 300 people or groveling on the floor with pins in your mouth.” She and her partner, the acclaimed hairstylist Didier Malige, have just published The Catwalk Cats, a winsomely revealing and chicly off-kilter account of their lives with their, uh, five cats. Those creatures, “bouncing between Paris, London, and Milan,” must be leading the most glamorous feline lives in world history.)

The Vogue years of the magazine’s most famous deputy editor, Carmel Snow, who was later the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, are treated at length in her memoir and in a recent biography, A Dash of Daring(which I reviewed in the July/August issue). The magazine’s most flamboyant past editor—the loopy, loping, jolie laide Diana Vreeland—is the subject of two biographies, and the current editor, Anna Wintour, is dissected in a pretty trashy tell-all. Mary McCarthy analyzed Vogue with humorless bite, and Gay Talese, who described its editrixes as “a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women … who can speak in italics and curse in French,” sketched it with uncharacteristic smugness.

What accounts for this scrutiny?

For nearly a century, the magazine’s cultural sway—perhaps even more than the content—has lent glamour to the enterprise. Soon after Nast acquired it, Vogue became the authoritative voice in high fashion—the most evanescent art form, as well as a formidable area of commerce—and has never relinquished that position. In fact, since Vreeland’s reign, in the 1960s, Vogue’s role and influence have in certain ways swelled. Until then, the magazine was content in its Olympian task of reporting trends and anointing “just the right coat, the smart shoe, the really elegant bag,” as Edna Woolman Chase, the Quaker-born editor who had worked at the magazine from 1895 to 1951, put it in her charming but forgotten autobiography, Always in Vogue (1956). But now it at-moma-1948-copyhelps shape and create fashion, as its editors—with antennae exquisitely sensitive to various avant-garde, subcultural, and even transgressive developments—collaborate with designers to create the clothes and the various looks the magazine seeks to promote

Authority, however, has its downside, a fact of which Angeletti and Oliva are oblivious. Indeed, those looking for critical judgment—including an appraisal of the current Vogue—won’t find it here. Although the authors assure us that they were granted editorial control and “encourag[ed] to write freely” (one wonders by whom), their book is very much a Vogue project, and its narrative of “The Anna Wintour Era,” which swallows up fully 30 percent of the volume, is perforce unrevealing and rah-rah.

More disappointing because less predictable is the authors’ somewhat gingerly treatment of Vogue’s past. An innovative magazine graphically and editorially—it was the first to print an image across a double page, the first to use a full-color photograph on the cover, and the first in America to run a “bleed” photograph (in which the picture runs to the page’s edge; Angeletti and Oliva, who clearly like this sort of thing, fail to note this innovation)—Vogue was nevertheless, up to the Vreeland years (when it ran a bit too wild), constrained by its self-assigned role, which is clear when you compare it in the mid-1930s through the late ’50s with its only competitor, Harper’s Bazaar.

Snow, who left her post as Chase’s deputy at Vogue, presided from 1933 to 1957 at “the Bazaar (with her art director, Alexey Brodovitch, and her norman-parkinson-british-glamour-by-louise-baring-02fashion editor, Vreeland, who after Snow’s retirement would leave Bazaar to edit Vogue) over the most distinctive and inventive fashion magazine in history. With its varied, Bauhaus- and constructivist-influenced layouts containing the groundbreaking action photography of Martin Munkacsi, the meticulously balanced and corrected pioneering color photography of Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and the innovative work of the young Richard Avedon, Bazaar was often daringly supreme during a crucial period in fashion history: the late, brilliant flowering of haute couture in the work of Dior (Snow famously hailed his spring 1947 collection as the “New Look”) and, above all, Balenciaga (whom the magazine discerningly, aggressively, and at times almost solely championed), as well as the burgeoning of American high fashion in the designs of Charles James, Hattie Carnegie, and Claire McCardell (whose creations inspired some of Dahl-Wolfe’s most exuberant work).

Vogue, astonishingly, had dismissed the work of Munkacsi—whose 1933 snap for Bazaar of a model running on the beach permanently altered and profoundly enlivened fashion photography (models had previously been elaborately posed and lighted in studios) and signaled the new verve of the magazine for which it was taken—and of Dahl-Wolfe, whose cool, formal perfectionism cleanly conveyed the buoyant ease of her models and their clothes. Chase pronounced Munkacsi’s photographs merely “country girls jumping fences,” and her art director thought that the 30-something Dahl-Wolfe, whose work would largely define the look of Bazaar, was too old. The high-flying Snow could take chances that the more rigid Chase wouldn’t and—more important, given the role Vogue had arrogated—couldn’t: As Ernestine Carter, the London Sunday Times fashion editor, put it, “Edna Chase was Vogue’s creation, while Harper’s Bazaar was Carmel’s.”

But in neglecting to assess the intense and creative rivalry between the two magazines—a rivalry that was fueled by Nast’s and Chase’s undying sense of Snow’s treachery, and that shaped Vogue’s sense of its style and mission—the authors distort a central period in the history of Vogue and of fashion. (By the way, ICP/Steidl has just published the definitive work on Munkacsi’s work, Martin Munkacsi, featuring more than 300 photographs and exceptionally penetrating and detailed commentary.)

images-4Strikingly but entirely appropriately, this fat history devotes essentially no attention to the reams of glossy print that Vogue has given over to reporting and probing the subject—clothes—to which the magazine dedicates itself. (Non-fashion pieces by fancy writers, almost always mediocre work, have regularly adorned its pages, but largely, it would seem, so that those contributions can be noted in books like this one; as a former art director said of one such writer decades ago, “She’s like a piano player in a whorehouse. She may be a very good piano player, but nobody goes there to hear music.”) You might expect fashion to be a great subject for sparkling, accessible criticism: It’s a popular and tactile art form that sensitively reacts to (and has even at times engendered) cultural, technological, social, and economic forces both sweeping and minuscule; that possesses a highly developed set of techniques; and that holds a rich and complex history to which its practitioners continually respond. But not only has fashion failed to produce its own Mencken, M. F. K. Fisher, or Kael (and that the theorists in academe have embraced it as a trendy subject should extinguish all hope that it ever will); seldom does any fashion writer clearly define the essential qualities of a design or concretely convey the workings of cut and construction.

Then again, that’s what fashion photography is supposed to do. And the really important history of Vogue is the interplay of clothes, femininity, and the camera—a history largely determined by fashion’s enduring and defining tensions between art and commerce, between the lasting and the ephemeral.

“Show the dress.” That was Chase’s order, in a 1938 memo to photographers, and it summarized the magazine’s workaday mission: Show to the irving-penn11cognoscenti how artfully (or not) Chanel’s atelier has constructed a suit sleeve; show to the Manhattan socialite, who’s on the fence about subjecting herself to the endless round of fittings for Chanel’s spring models at Saks, how the suit will fit and how its fabric drifts over rather than clings to the body; and perhaps most important (in an era before prêt-à-porter), show to the sophisticated 35-year-old Kansas City clubwoman all the details her dressmaker will need to copy it.

Chase, echoing Nast, who seems to have spent a good part of his life issuing detailed critiques of photographs, declared that if showing the dress “can’t be done with art, then art be damned.” But in fact Vogue’s requirements largely complemented the artistic direction that fashion photography was taking (or should have been taking), though it required Chase, Nast, and many of Vogue’s photographers a long time to recognize fully and absorb the new medium’s potential.

Indeed, although fashion photography was born in 1913, when Nast snapped up highfalutin Continental photographer Baron (!) Adolphe de Meyer, in fact, de Meyer’s images—painterly, soft-focused, slightly blurred (he veiled his lens in gauze), and ethereal photos in which the models shrank away (softly, demurely, dreamily) from the camera—worked against Vogue’s purposes.

tumblr_md4s9oVSQj1qm6qwdo1_500But then in 1923, the magazine’s new chief photographer, Edward Steichen, introduced the sharp-focused, high- contrast, clean-cut techniques and sensibility of his “straight photography.” He showed the dress—with more detail than clothes had ever received. (Before de Meyer, the fashion mags had used illustrators, and photography wouldn’t fully supplant illustration until the 1930s.) Far more important, he showed the woman in the dress, approaching the camera and impressing her personality on the viewer with a straightforward, offhand confidence that was in keeping with Steichen’s aesthetic and with the radically different, jaunty-yet-refined Chanel dresses his models frequently wore—clothes that reflected and helped create a new style of femininity.

“Every woman de Meyer photographs looks like a model,” Nast told Steichen; “you make every model look like a woman.” Still, in the 1920s and ’30s at Vogue, Steichen’s approach competed with photographic styles that favored elaborate lighting and overwrought sets and with the glamorous gauziness of Cecil Beaton. (At Snow’s Bazaar, in contrast, the straight-photography style always reigned supreme.) And while In Vogue, with perhaps a dash of retrospective feminism, justly praises the charming brio with which socialite photographer Toni Frissell used the new high-speed Rolleiflex in the 1930s to capture a new kind of clothing on the move (most prominently McCardell’s sophisticated sportswear) and a new kind of woman moving in it (often athletic young mothers), Frissell—who was by all accounts utterly admirable—wasn’t prized by the magazine; in fact, she left Vogue for Bazaar in the mid-1940s. (Surprisingly, Angeletti and Oliva barely mention Frances McLaughlin-Gill, Frissell’s protégé, who injected a similar relaxed physicality into Vogue’s photography.)

The ascendancy of the Steichen sensibility emerged only in the 1940s, when the precisionist-inspired realism of John Rawlings, whose crisply defined color images, at once sharp and subtle (Dahl-Wolfe was his closest counterpart), showed the dress with more clarity and detail than had any previous Vogue photographer. (Rawlings receives ample credit here, though his work was all but forgotten until the Fashion Institute of Technology mounted an influential retrospective in 2001.)

That precisionism reached its apogee with Irving Penn’s celebrated series of astringent, almost clinical photographs of the fall 1950 Paris collections. These iconic images—stripped down, hard-edged in the sharpness of their detail—balanced their austerity with a knowing, intimate engagement with the women modeling the designs.

Penn and my other favorite early postwar Vogue photographers—Rawlings and Norman Parkinson (who, although helisa-fonssagrives-in-coat-by-balenciaga-photo-by-irving-penn-paris-vogue-sept-1-1950 mostly shot for British Vogue, photographed prolifically for and published a number of his most memorable images in its American counterpart; his neglect in this book is a major oversight)—all used their direct camera style to establish what Parkinson’s subject Wenda Rogerson called a “witty underplay” with their models; their work in this period constitutes an admiring study of the intelligence, complexity, and humor of great feminine beauty. And Penn and Parkinson’s favorite models, decidedly not ingenues, were … their wives. (Penn married Lisa Fonssagrives in 1950, and they’d remain married until her death, in 1992; Parkinson and Rogerson remained married until her death, in 1987.)

Indeed, what will probably most strike readers of this work is the grown-up sexuality that infused fashion up until the 1960s (when what Vreeland famously called the “youthquake” hit). Haute couture, of course, was meant to be worn only by the femme du monde—with, at least in the case of Balenciaga’s designs, a round stomach, ample hips, and even some bulges. In this and other ways,Vogue was clearly aimed at the woman over 30: It simply assumed that no woman under that age had developed a sense of style. While its models were hardly matrons, they were, as Angeletti and Oliva note, “perhaps thirty years old and somewhat curvaceous.” (Fonssagrives was in fact 38 in the 1950 Paris Collection series, and she continued to model into her 40s.)

Maturity was obviously necessary for the success of photographs that, in their directness, relied as much on the substance of the woman wearing the dress as on the art of the photographer.


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