Nothing contributed more to the concept of 'image' than the studio system, where a crew of wizards worked to create a unique and bankable personality. Now, fashion and advertising campaigns are once more re-evaluating the alluring focal point of a photograph. No longer just charming women in pretty outfits, these pictures tell stories of scandal and derring-do. The frock has been reduced to just another pictorial element and, as in early Hollywood and the fashion magazines of the Fifties and Sixties, the overriding visual preoccupation is once again with the exalted female image.
Fashion photographers see it as a revival of glamour after a 20-year enforced exile. In the great period from the beginning of the Fifties to the late Sixties, glossy magazines were filled with photographs of effortlessly stylish women in fantasy situations. Then the elements of mystery and 'personality', which formed the essence of glamour, disappeared. The opulence of the Eighties was not the substitute it was advertised to be. Dynasty, for example, was considered glamorous because women wore expensive-looking gowns as they paraded around big houses. But it was imitation, and it came across as grand kitsch. The current attitude goes back to earlier notions of
glamour but expresses them in a modern mood.
IF ONE PERSON is responsible for this revival more than any other, it is the American photographer Steven Meisel, who, in the late Eighties, led the trend to bring back the star model. Drawn to people 'with a history', as he says, he has also revived the careers of several top models from the Sixties, and it was Meisel who started the fashion for 'recreating': Liza Minnelli as Judy Garland, Madonna as Monroe, Claudia Schiffer as Bardot - tributes to glamour and a means of repopularising it.
Peter Lindbergh, who, with Meisel, is at the forefront of fashion photography, has recently made a film and a book, both called Stars, in which he follows a group of top models through a day in New York. His interest in them as personalities, rather than as models, only points up their new superstar status.
In the May issue of the French magazine Glamour, an issue ostensibly devoted to the Cannes Film Festival, Lindbergh chose to recreate the immortal 'Lulu' (Louise Brooks) in the form of star-model Linda Evangelista.
It makes you wonder who will have the greater fame - Louise Brooks, 'the girl in the black helmet', as Kenneth Tynan called her, a cult star for more than 60 years, or Linda Evangelista, the greatest star model at a moment when models rival the queens of Hollywood.
Brooks was a 22-year-old from Cherryvale, Kansas, with a few silent films to her credit when, in 1928, G W Pabst called her to Berlin to play Lulu in Pandora's Box. Lindbergh, a Berliner who lives in Paris, advanced the career of Evangelista, a 19-year-old unknown from Canada; when, in 1989, he suggested that she cut her hair, it made the face that launched a thousand covers.
In casting Evangelista as Louise / Lulu, the photographer pays tribute in several directions at once: to Pabst and to Brooks, also to himself and to Evangelista: the German visionary and his imported muse. And by emulating a legendary actress in her most important role, there is immediate glamour by association. History enhances the present. Lindbergh seems to gain credit for creating Linda and Lulu and contrasting two very different kinds of beauty.
THE NEW glamour mixes its references. The past appears with the present, but it's nearly always a stylised past - the way women appeared in films or photographs. It never allows for the reflections of daily, unrecorded, unglamorous life. Ellen von Unwerth, the model- turned-photographer who created the ubiquitous moody advertising shots for Guess jeans, uses pictures to tell stories, like small films. She is drawn to designing provocative scenarios featuring magnificent women in far-flung locations. For a recent fashion story she struck a small movie set on a pirate ship with a heroine called Angelique, Marquise des Anges (borrowed from the bustier- ripping Angelique books and films of the Fifties), dressed in a way that manages to be both period and alarmingly contemporary.
The model, Shana (a Steven Meisel discovery), is the woman of today with hair piled high, exaggerated eyebrows, pouting mouth, ample breasts and long legs. If her clothes look too perfect for a pirate galleon, they were no less so on the Paris runway - the combination of frilly shirts, tight bustiers and frothy gauze skirts is worn exactly as they were shown at the collections. Shana holds her (sleeping) captive at gunpoint in a silk taffeta skirt and jewelled bodice by Kohji Tatsuno, scrubs the deck in salmon taffeta bustier and pants by Jean-Paul Gaultier, and looks skyward in a white tulle dress under a knotted white cotton shirt by Chanel.
But for all the exaggeration she is, from fashion and the photographer's point of view, absolutely of the moment. She dominates her captors with outlandish femininity, always self-possessed, serene in her grandeur. The image is a photogenic masquerade; fantasy plays a big part in pictures.
CONTEMPORARY fashion and beauty fit easily into life on a pirate ship. In today's market, exaggeration has replaced style. The ample possibilities of reconstructive surgery and silicone have been met with a fashion trend for daring and decoration. Clothing has become merely a backdrop for rhinestones and ruffles, embroidery and applique. The two most influential designers today, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Gianni Versace, have pushed accessories to the point where they have become fashion in themselves: golden accoutrements en masse, at the neck, wrists, waist, ankle; entwining handbags, buckling footwear, hinging sunglasses. The effect is immediately absorbed by fashion editors. The May cover of Italian Vogue features a heavily made-up model with no eyebrows in jeans and a white tank top adorned with four Chanel chain necklaces, two Chanel chain belts, seven Chanel bracelets, and a black quilted motorcycle cap with gold Chanel emblem.
Nudity, not exactly a boon to fashion advertising, punctuates every magazine. (In fact four pages of Isabella Rossellini naked were recently excised from the British and US editions of Glamour.) Fashion has been reduced to underwear, a theme much in evidence in the current home-on-the-range Guess jeans campaign. And the shift dress has become the apotheosis of fashion, something only possible because there is nothing else. Dolce e Gabbana put a hessian sack-dress at the forefront of their spring collection. The gesture was intended to be adorable but, on the contrary, it signalled the desperation of fashion. The American saying 'She'd look good in a burlap bag' has taken on a new meaning. Yet in their recent ad campaign, the bag-dress lady is something else again. She is Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, exuberantly holding centre stage to an appreciative late-night audience. It is the image of the woman that draws (and sells) today, not what she wears.
WHAT THE dream girl has come to be in 1992 has been in the making for some time. Ivana Trump was never praised for her good taste, but when she emerged from her overall reconstructive surgery as an 18-year-old ingenue, she was the female Zeitgeist incarnate. Her media following, a part of her life, helped even greater numbers of women to believe that they, too, could have it all. In the late Eighties, among the most popular women's issues - as visible as abortion rights and breast cancer, though play-for-play more ardently followed - were Ivana's plastic surgery and Oprah Winfrey's diet. (Though Ivana eventually lost the Donald, Oprah eventually regained the weight and both stopped wearing Chanel, the die was cast.)
Amid a flood of rumours, Brigitte Neilsen walked out of her life as Mrs Sylvester Stallone and into a photographic celebration of her unearthly physique. Vanity Fair called a feature on her not-so-lonely single life 'Loving the Alien' and dispatched the photographer Helmut Newton to capture her total nakedness in an eye-popping array of bold postures. The platinum creature with the perfect little nose, colossal breasts, astonishing body and no apparent inkling of modesty created shock waves in a pre-Versace moment. No taste? You bet. Sign of the future? That, too.
Today the super-endowed, surgically altered woman has become a reference point of fashion. In the Italian editions of Vogue and Glamour, the illustrator Thierry Perez draws women in exaggerated feminine splendour somewhere between the Bionic Woman and Cruella de Vil. His work stands as the female equivalent of Tom of Finland, whose homoerotic version of voluptuous masculinity came to represent another cultural vision 20 years earlier. Satire has no part in either case. They represent, in degrees, longings and the prevailing attitude. Fashion has never been more like a cartoon. And it comes directly from today's fashionable idealisation of women.
IF THE Eighties saw the creation of 'mood' advertising, thanks largely to Bruce Weber and his patron, Calvin Klein, then the Nineties is the age of image promotion. In this moment of determined excess, the sophisticated tendency in fashion photography and advertising is to present a type of woman who reflects the way women want to see themselves. Never mind the clothes. The message lies in the presentation of the person who could wear - or better, represent - them. The woman you really want to be is physically intimidating and most often undressed. Today's fantasy of attainable perfection is a tall girl who doesn't age, has a lot of hair, wears distinctive make-up, has a perfect body, and is most comfortable in a push-up bra or nothing at all.
It was the allure of this kind of exaggeration that drew Weber to pay homage to the infamous B-movie director Russ Meyer in his fashion story entitled 'Super Vixens' for French Glamour. In Weber's choice of Meyer's inflated, lubricious style (Vixen]; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; Faster Pussycat] Kill] Kill]), history is manipulated to serve fashion. The vixens, whose nasty doings were immortalised in the Sixties, have been interpreted as models of contemporary stylishness - which, as a matter of fact, they already are.
IN PICTURES (and in politics), the Nineties promise to be a time for women, just as the Eighties were for men, and on the fashion front it has become obvious that it's Steven Meisel's version of female beauty that will succeed Weber's male icons.
Meisel (who collected models' show-cards at the tender age of 10, and still has them all) has directed a personal obsession into a whole new movement. What's more, he sees himself as a sort of visual spokesman for popular culture. 'I am a reflection of my times,' he says. His obsession extends beyond what he can achieve as a photographer. He finds his models, determines their look, their hair and make-up, 'cultivates' or 'trains', as he says, 'the girls'.
In its method, Meisel's approach is not unlike that of Diane Arbus. In the past a fashion photographer has been recognisable by his or her individual style. With Meisel, it's a style, but increasingly it's the representation of a certain type of woman - and, in his case, one that he has personally produced.
In Meisel's current advertising campaign for the American designer Michael Kors, Shana (again) appears twice: washing dishes in a happy kitchen, wearing a bra, a short towel and high-heeled sandals, and, on the opposite page, standing at a window wearing only a striped T-shirt, a dia-
phanous curtain bisecting her body. She holds one hand demurely over a breast and the other tentatively between her legs. The photographs say nothing about Michael Kors's clothes, but a great deal about a woman. With her extravagant hair and full, down-turned mouth, she is a modern beauty. She is also incredibly manipulated, a Stepford wife for the Nineties.
Underlying all Meisel's work is the force of his control. His link with Bruce Weber is that both use exaggeration to conceal their absolute power over the image-making.
Weber's supermen have a facade of innocence; Meisel's near-grotesques are a construction of beauty.
'I think that in some weird way women today are striving to be perfect,' Meisel says. 'It's trying for perfection, to be the ultimate Barbie doll. It's modern because it never happened like this before. I can't think back in history where women have been so plastic. I mean, how many women are going out to have face-lifts and are having their teeth done and are dyeing their hair?
Sociologically, it's definitely a modern thing.'
Madonna, no stranger to riding a trend, hired Meisel earlier this year to photograph her for a book titled X (the 'literary' peg to a film and record launch). Stern magazine captured the session in six pages of pictures: there is Madonna on the beach in Miami, naked except for an enormous blonde wig, sitting on the knees of a reclining man. Meanwhile, her spiritual sisters are out there hijacking a pirate ship and doing the dishes in bra and tea-towel.
Meisel's images of today's woman prevail in international fashion magazines. At a time when fashion is uninteresting, it's a wise player who concedes, as he does, that 'hair and make-up are more important than clothes'. How far can the obsession of one man go to shape popular perception? Ten years later, boys are still being called 'Bruce Weber types'. To whatever extent Meisel is a reflection of the times, his Barbie Dream World is everywhere.-
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