Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography.
Paul Martineau (J.Paul Getty Museum, $65)

Here is a double treat: an exhibition of 180 photographs, costumes, and sketches that runs through October 21 at the Getty Museum and a sumptuous companion book with more than 300 images plus five scholarly essays. The story begins in 1911 with a French publisher commissioning Edward Steichen to create the first artistic fashion photographs, and it traces the evolution of fashion and photography down to the present. It doubles as a social history, as fashion—once the preserve of high society—became democratized, and photographers left the salon for the street. The two world wars emancipated women and Chanel was there with her little black dress in the early 1920s and Dior with his New Look in the mid-1940s. The first was a gesture of liberation, the second a reaction against austerity, and both achieved instant fame through magazine illustrations.

The rivalry of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar challenged the best talents to reach for something extraordinary. All the famous names are represented here, from George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst in the 1930s to Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Lillian Bassman in the 1940s and Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in the 1950s. Iconic is no idle boast. Models caress circus elephants, balance in plexi bubbles, and leap over curbs. Images from the 1960s on cast aside all restraint, such as in the S&M scenarios of Guy Bourdain and Helmut Newton and the growing emphasis on “Realism and Fantasy,” as Ivan Shaw titles his essay on the past two decades. Shaw was photography director of American Vogue from 1996 through 2016 and played a large role in this shift.

Fashion photography has always contained a large element of fantasy: few women are likely to climb the Eiffel Tower in a ball gown or hang out with meat porters in a tailored suit. For the first half of this exhibition, the images are mostly black-and-white, and the models are paragons of elegance and detachment no matter what they are asked to do. In the second half, monochrome gives way to color, goddesses to pouty teenagers, elegance to grunge. Images of startling beauty alternate with a seedy underworld in which the clothes are relegated to the shadows. They accurately portray a world of relentless commercialism in which almost everyone dresses down, and couture is merely a come-on for name-brand accessories. Anyone who shares my sense of loss should head over to The Fashion Show, an exhibition at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station. Fetterman is an old-fashioned romantic, and he focuses on the golden age of fashion photography in the two post-war decades. The exhibition runs through October 20, and it’s an ideal complement to the Getty’s eclecticism.

For more information on the Icons of Style, Featured Exhibition visit The Getty’s website here.

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.