FASHION / The tender trap: Vogue magazine
Sunday 11 October 1992
IN THE 1940s, about halfway into the remarkable, now century-long history of American Vogue, the magazine published one of its many thousands of portraits of creative artists: Henri Matisse, in old age. He is sitting up in bed at home in Provence, tranquilly using a big pair of scissors to make those paper collages that were given to him as a coda - a late blooming of shape and colour - at the end of his life. With his neatly trimmed grey goatee and his wire spectacles, he looks like some respectable professional in Freud's Vienna. Although his legs are under the bedclothes, his top half looks very proper in a starched white collar and a carefully tied four-in-hand. There is something endearing about that tie. ('Go for the details]' Diana Vreeland, the dramatic Vogue editor, would say to the photographer Horst P Horst.)
The formal touch serves to keep us at a distance as we spy on Matisse bobbing down the years on his magic bed - wise as any Prospero, innocent as a child - and also to make us intimates of his household, to draw us in. For he must have chosen and knotted his tie with particular care on that vanished sunlit morning, knowing the man from Vogue was to come and take his photograph.
I'm glad Matisse is here. Anchored, harmonious, this old chap with his tie and his scissors. He's reassuring, somehow. So much, beneath the perfect surface of these pictures Vogue has collected from its archive - fetched up from the image-stream of the 20th century - seems to quiver with jaggedness and pain. When I first saw the photographs together, I felt quite sad. So many forgotten faces looking back at me; so much spirit, power, and beauty; so much struggle between the pure and the corrupt.
I remember understanding in a flash, years back, that 'fashion' could have this spiritual dimension, a kind of fieriness. I was talking to the photographer Richard Avedon, in his kitchen, and he was telling me about Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was barely more than a girl and married to Stokowski still. Presenting me with the memory as if it were a museum- quality print, Avedon told how he had called at her house on Gracie Square, after midnight one New Year's Eve. As the door was opened, he had looked up to where she came to greet him from the head of the stairs. She wore a Charles James with a tracery of silk lilacs over her bosom. Her black, black hair fell to her waist; the light shone on her in a particular way. 'I have never forgotten it,' Avedon said.
I knew then - knew, from the way he looked as he spoke, that he knew - the danger, the terror in seeing things like this.
'An aberration, a burden, a mystery,' was how Diane Arbus spoke of beauty. Naturally, if you've seen it even once, you want to push a button and try to make it happen over and over again. And then, around all this, especially in America, there's a lot of money to be made.
CONDE NAST, who created Vogue (in partnership with his editor, Edna Woolman Chase), knew all about the radiant moment, and how to make it pay. He was well versed in yearning and understood the perpetual pebble of dissatisfaction even in expensive, handmade shoes. He grew up in St Louis, quite poor, but with a grandparental mansion that he would be taken to visit as if to a castle in a fairy-tale. He became an innovative publisher, first of Vogue and then of the famous Vanity Fair. He was one of the great early-20th-century American merchants of dream. On his mother's side, Conde's people were Catholic; Mrs Chase was raised by Quaker grandparents in Asbury Park, New Jersey. 'Between us . . . we showed America the meaning of style,' Nast said with satisfaction before his death in 1942.
Like others who have sustained long careers around the ephemeral idea of fashion, he was a perfectionist who demanded absolute control. He was puritanical in his working habits, and liked nothing better than talking business with Edna over dinner at the Automat. He invented the idea of 'class' publications - drawing a line around his magazines and convincing advertisers that his readers formed an exclusive circle of taste, now to be reached directly.
In the Twenties and Thirties, he threw amazing parties in the 30-room Park Avenue apartment that his friend, the famous decorator Elsie de Wolfe (later Lady Mendl), had done over for him in the grand style. People liked to think it was Nast who had invented 'Cafe Society' by seating George Gershwin next to Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Now the 20th century is at the cusp. Time is rushing, smashing, snipping off the historic high culture all the time. The ocean turns over, as they say. Who knows what comes next? Vogue was born in 1892, in what was still Edith Wharton's New York. The magazine was laun- ched by and for people whose names were in the Social Register, the city's elitist 'Four Hundred' families. Four hundred would fit in Mrs Astor's ballroom at one go.
Conde Nast acquired the 'dignified authentic journal' of society, fashion, and the ceremonial side of life in 1909. Eighty three years on, it is the world of Nast, the one-time outsider, that seems to prevail: a more permeable, rootless, and democratic elite of looks, talent, image, money, and success.
THE CAMERA changed everything. Morally, politically, culturally, the critic Harold Rosenberg once observed, we are affected. 'The camera has thrust us into a man-made world composed of fictions beheld by the eye and facts about which we are in the dark,' he wrote. At any given moment, we know more about the present and forget history faster than ever before. Vogue's long, distinguished, copious contribution to the image-stream has, unlike reports of wars or famines, licence to be 'fiction'. Not for nothing does Surrealism recur so often in the history of fashion photography. 'A Surrealist is a man who likes to dress like a fencer, but doesn't fence . . . to wear a diving suit but does not dive,' Vogue explained to its readers when Dali's portrait appeared. Deborah Turbeville, whose photograph of five skeletal and isolated-looking women (one of them apparently masturbating) in a run-down public bathhouse shocked Vogue's readers in 1975, professed to have been surprised by the meaning people read into the work. 'People started talking about Auschwitz and lesbians and drugs,' she said. 'And all I was doing was trying to design five figures in space.'
If fashion is licensed to divorce itself from meaning, it is also in an ambivalent, if not openly hostile, relationship to its past. In order to protect its power in the present, fashion will ruthlessly cold-shoulder yesterday's talent, yesterday's look. (Until the look is ripe for appropriation, at least.) Perhaps that's why the history of dress, however brilliantly presented, always retains an odour of mustiness. These images have slipped their erstwhile moorings in back issues. Old commercial tags and credits no longer weigh them down. The lipstick shades are discontinued; the hat designers' names are forgotten; the once-exclusive stores have closed their doors. Gone are the texts that used to accompany the pictures - mitigating or chuckling at the visual messages: 'The secret of looking great in a maillot . . . is knowing which one to choose,' read the copy adjoining Turbeville's picture, as if reassuring, calmly clicking its knitting needles in the shadow of the avant-garde. Absent, too, are the sometimes quite feminist essays of recent decades, the urgent call for women to cultivate their independence and integrity. (A call sometimes contradicted by photographs of objectified, vulnerable, scantily clad women in an atmosphere of urban violence and sexual pain.) The former frame falls away, then, leaving us with this collection that is something like a family album - ours, the culture's, Vogue's.
'THE COMPLETE falsehood, the artifice intrigued me,' Cecil Beaton once said of fashion photography. The power of the present collection comes from the contrast between that 'falsehood' and the truth - between the repeated attempt (heroic, hopeless, human) to lock in the moment of perfect beauty and
arrest the impassive movement of time. All these women at the height of their beauty are in silent confrontation with the portraits of 'real' people, palpably gripped by mortality. All the artifice in the world, these pictures cry, is powerless in the end. Look] Look, you Blumenfeld girls with arrogant mouths and cold, hard eyes. Draw back the veil and see what became of chipper little Mrs Dorothy Parker. Roll backward, time, and freeze. Give back Jack, an unsullied, sunlit boy in espadrilles (Details] Go for the details]) in that far- off garden, with his sisters. And Marilyn. There is another way. To live. Get out of bed and wash your face. Don't trust that guy with his case of booze and his sneakers.
The fashion world's a dangerous place. The most vulnerable don't survive it. Over its hundred years, many of the artists who have been drawn to Vogue's radiance have singed their wings or crashed. The love of physical beauty and of finery is a grand and innocent thing, as natural to the human race as the urge to have sex or to worship. But beyond the gorgeous tableaux, we may find many warnings. The Baron de Meyer, revered and rewarded by Nast for those romantically lit society ladies shimmering like 'Whistlerian nocturnes', wandered into the night-dark of opium and cocaine and ended a broken man, begging Mrs Chase for a hand-out. Charles James, the impossible American Balenciaga, died penniless and hating. Poor Halston made a sweet little hat for the girl who married the sunlit boy (the same Miss Bouvier who won Vogue's essay prize in 1951) and some tender, woman-friendly clothes before he jumped the tracks and lost hold even of his right to call himself 'Halston'.
Conde Nast himself came to learn the strain of living by panache alone after he lost control of his company in the Crash of 1929. His debt was passed from hand to hand between the money men, who couldn't understand why he refused to lower standards of printing and production, why he went on giving the amazing parties. As the end of his life approached, he kept more and more statistics, fired off salvos of memos in a kind of frenzy. To a woman who visited him at home he showed his scrapbooks filled with famous faces, some already forgotten. He waved at the European objets - the paintings, the mirrors, the ormolu, the boulle, the priceless things around him. 'I used to own all this,' he said.
IRVING PENN and Richard Avedon, the giants of this collection, have most consistently - in two quite individual ways - expressed in their work the mixed feelings of any true artist around the worlds of style and fashion. Fashion magazines made them both. As young men, they started at Harper's Bazaar (Avedon) and Vogue (Penn) in the dynamic post-war New York artistic moment - and by having made room for the shadow side of style, as well as the light, Avedon was probably the most inventive fashion photographer ever, a skilful negotiator in the 'uneasy mix' and the minefield between photographic risk-taking and the magazine's need to 'report the dress'. As his career advanced, his work deepened and darkened through his studies of 'real' people.
Irving Penn has been continuously connected with Vogue for almost half a century, and we may see in this collection an overview of his life's work: the fashion photographs; the compassionate, consolatory portraits; the ethnographic studies; the still lifes. His shots of the Paris couture in 1950 and 1951, often modelled by his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, are cultural icons. They convey a knowledge of history, composition, and form; a respect for the beauty of women and the expressive quality of dress that has rarely been matched. There's a feel for the moment that's almost too intense to bear. Before the gloved wrist, the cascade of tucks, the chef's-toque gathers on a coat sleeve, Penn is like a Zen monk meditating before a flame. As a safety valve, perhaps, he turned to different ways of being, different kinds of style. He went from his first (and last) location fashion shoot in Lima to photograph the mountain people of Peru, including the two dignified, raggedy children seen here - two miniature adults, like a Velazquez prince and princess in a Spanish court. Then he took his portable studio and contemplated other far-flung members of the human family: women in remote Morocco and masked mud men in New Guinea. The fashion world, which prides itself on being knowing, is sometimes shut off by vanity from knowing vital things.
WE DON'T demand of a family album that it document the outside world. We pick up the great events of Vogue's epoch largely through hints and clues. The First World War appears as a social disruption ('There does not promise to be as much yachting at Bar Harbor during the summer') and of slightly less importance than the Ballets Russes. We deduce that women have got the vote by Steichen's modern, best- foot-forward creature (unmarried, unchaperoned, perhaps) out on the town with a man. The hardships of the Depression and the menace in Europe are felt by their absence, by the energy high fashion (and Hollywood, a great influence on fashion) seemed to be expending on opulent surface, on trying to escape. In 1933, Vogue's correspondent went to Rome ('the Fascisti black shirt is starched for evening') and in 1936 she paid a visit to Mr Hitler's country retreat ('a cosy podge of clocks, dwarves, and swastika cushions').
The chatter went on round Lady Mendl's lunch table to the last. Elsa Schiaparelli saying she 'just knew by instinct' that there would be no war. War came. Paris fashion was cut off from New York. (Vogue's French edition was shut down until after the Liberation.) The Vogue photographers did their bit. Cecil Beaton, in the North African theatre, treated it as just that. Steichen (who had left Vogue in 1937, sickened by the way sex was being used to sell face creams in the advertisements) formed a special photographic unit of the US Navy and made high-clarity eight-by-ten plates of young sailors and airmen in images of innocently muscular male bonding that would make Bruce Weber weep. And Lee Miller - Vogue's own Miss Miller, who'd taken herself off to live with Man Ray and learn the secrets of taking pictures - got herself accredited as a war photographer. From the defeated Germany she radioed back artless images straight out of Hieronymus Bosch. For Vogue to have published them then was remarkable, and to reproduce them now can have been no simple decision. In a collage like this, everything gets pulled toward the centre, to a morally neutral terrain of look and style. But the Holocaust is separate. Beside the Buchenwald corpses, there is no other 'edge' the human race can know.
IN THE MAIN, Vogue has been a good friend to women. Many have made their careers there, and the student of women's history will find much to learn from the pages of Vogue,
although much of the evidence is in code and not all the news is reassuring. As women slipped out of the boundaries of home and a small social circle, the move was mirrored by the style and layout of Vogue. Where, at the outset, well-born matrons stared in black and white from oval photographs framed by a trim known as 'spinach', at the end of the era very young, mind-bogglingly rich professional models 'bleed' to the edge of the page in brilliant color. Between the two, like an always-
humming tension wire, stretches the story of modern woman, trapped and free. Beautiful,
vulnerable, in the intimacy of the studio, with a photographer as protector; or out in the world in a thousand risky ways - underwater in an evening dress, mummified in Monument Valley, or with a cyclamen-coloured coat and a Great Dane in rush-hour New York. Here are women draped in pearls, but confined to quarters like Scheherazade, or loaded with diamonds and in a spiritual hell disguised as Monte Carlo. The image of a solitary young woman surrounded by exotic territory and charming natives - with which Vogue was familiar from its fashion shoots that lasted weeks, like colonial safaris - was what came to mind when it tried to cope with the idea of Vietnam, running features on the correspondents Gloria Emerson and Frances FitzGerald.
In exchange for providing a record of women's enormous progress, the camera exacted a price: that women look young and thin, the way they could best serve its requirements. 'Slice the hips] That sag must go]' Beaton would yell at his retouchers. As we approach the end of the 20th century, the fashion in women's faces is, as it has long been, for unwrinkled smoothness; and in women's bodies for a combination of hard, muscular stomach and shapely breasts. Increasingly, women are willing to regard their bodies as photographic images, unpublishable until retouched and perfected at the hands of surgeons. Although many of the most significant women of our age have been heavy-set, middle-aged or even elderly, these types are under-represented in the present visual record. And it has often been observed that the two explosive moments of female emancipation - the Twenties, when women got the vote, and the Sixties, when they got the Pill - produced a feminine ideal - the flapper, Twiggy, Penelope Tree - that was childlike, androgynous, and unthreatening.
From the abundant, idealistic, generous, and violent moment of the Sixties (which ended somewhere around the mid-Seventies), Vogue was left with nakedness. Small boys who had once searched the National Geographic now looked to mother's fashion magazines for information. To some extent, fashion photography has always been about sexuality - with the odd twist that these sometimes voyeuristic images of women in 'private' moments are created by male photographers, often for consumption by other women. In the Seventies, in the increasingly fierce competition for the reader's sated eye, fashion photography began to explore previously taboo images of sexuality, including sadomasochism, transvestism and lesbianism. The photographer Helmut Newton, in particular, regularly upped the ante in Vogue with his obsessive, dark observations of the place where eroticism meets domination, submission, money, and power.
OUTWARDLY, for most of the time, American Vogue seems to believe in a sort of feminine Utopia of ever healthier, more flat- bellied, and thoroughly fulfilled young professionals. Much of the agony of modern urban life is glimpsed only out of the corner of the eye. But fashion is a weather-vane. In the end, there is no dissembling. In recent fashion images, Vogue has shown a face of female rage and fear unimaginable even 10 years ago. Should we side with Mr Dali, and find no meaning in its recent pictures of young women dressed in so much studded black leather? In the suffering age of Aids, gay-bashing, and 'wilding', what must we think of a gang of women in some dark alley with their Harleys, dressed in the costumes of hard-core pornography or a homosexual subcult or the violent, anti-feminist Hell's Angels? Perhaps, out there, shoulder-to-shoulder in their men's jackets and women's skirts, they are fighting back against some nameless enemy.
Top models make unprecedented amounts of money these days - almost up there with the boxer Mike Tyson, 10 times more than the president. Yet there's a haunting Helmut Newton image of a model with long blonde hair seen from the back as she sits on the edge of the bed in a hotel room. Beside her, making her look more lonely, somehow, stand the big black trunks with the clothes she will wear for her shoot. It's Newton showing one of his disquieting truths and also a rare compassion. The young woman is skimpily clad in a spangled dress - a dress for seduction. She waits tensely in this slightly seedy hotel room, a generic working girl, no face. On television, a middle-aged man in a necktie runs the world. Outside, there's the city of Nowhere, and it's dark. She's a beautiful young woman, at the end of the 20th century. Marginal, in spite of all, and more vulnerable than ever. Out - way out - on the edge.
'On the Edge: Images from 100 Years of Vogue', is published by Random House ( pounds 30).
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