The title ‘Coming into Fashion’ proves incredibly appropriate for this exhibition. One of the key strengths of the collection lies in an excellent process of curation, by which individual snapshots of haute-couture clothing and avant-garde art direction are allowed to tell as much of a tale as any text.
The most immediate effect of this narrative structure is a gorgeous glimpse into aesthetic progression over the years. Starting with the dreamy-soft silver-prints of the 1920s easily underlines their strong contrast to the uncompromising monochromes of the 1930s, as honest head-on shots of waifs draped around beautiful houses are swapped for unnervingly diagonal angles. The 40s and 50s see a cinema-like twist sneak into cityscapes, before a shift toward the understatement and intimacy of the 60s with the naissance of David Bailey’s career. Post-permissive moment photos then veer toward the sexily, scorchingly corporeal, with selections from the 70s including Hans Feurer’s evocative image of a glistening naked body bent double upon the frame of a fixie bike and Albert Watson’s photos of bikini-clad models oily and prostrate upon sunbeds.
A move up the stairs and into the bombastically-captured consumerist boom of the 80s highlights another engaging aspect of this exhibition. Images not only demonstrate artistic development, but also effectively illustrate the print history of Conde Nast’s various publications and the relationship between commercialism and creativity. The impact of Vogue Italia’s flourishing under the editorial control of Franca Sozzani and the impact of the divergent audiences of American, British, French and Italian editions is highlighted by juxtaposition of their significantly different styles.
Occasionally, such fidelity to the historical narrative of these magazines’ content trumps artistic power and value. American dependency upon commercial populism is demonstrated by comparatively uninspired content, rehashing 30s avant-gardism in a philistine-friendly approach to the arty. British Vogue develops a taste for bland and candid pixie-shots. Creative agency becomes the special preserve of Italy with its concentrated and discerning readership, which continues to produce powerful shots. Of particular note is an image of surreally-shaped legs, bent and twisted through myriad mirrors.
In the centre of the exhibition’s first room rests a set of telegrams exchanged between Vogue’s British and Italian offices. Despite their banal appearance, their typewriter text lays out an almost academic artistic manifesto. Editor-in-Chief Liberman notes – by way of a casual Vermeer reference – ‘The secret of great photography is not to take everyday occurrences for their accidental value, but to try to give them a stylised permanency.’ In both the document itself and the surrounding images, this exhibition manages to fulfil this very manifesto; Coming into Fashion finds value in arguing the case for fashion photography as a significant artistic and historical source. Forget trash fashion, this is a treasure trove.