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A Closer Look at "Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography" Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Updated on September 16, 2019
Virginia Billeaud Anderso profile image

Virginia Billeaud Anderson is a Houston-based writer of newspaper and magazine feature and review articles, and on-line essays & interviews.

"...Fashions have a volition of their own. They don’t move with the times, they move ahead, occasionally glancing back, but they keep moving..." Daisy Fellowes wrote in Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s.

Holes In Chanel Suits

Fifty years ago, none of us could have predicted that haute couturiers and high-toned fashion houses would incorporate safety-pins and torn fabric into their luxury clothing designs. (Fifty years ago, none of us could have predicted dyed Mohawks.)

One day we looked up to see that the punk aesthetic had infiltrated fashion, and that utterly common elements had drifted from the streets of London, the streets of New York, the proverbial toilet at CBGB, into the work of Gianni Versace, John Galiano and other designers. In the holy of holies, Lagerfeld constructed holes in Chanel suits. Clearly, fashion no longer ruled the streets, the streets ruled fashion.

Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955, printed 1978. 50 x 40 in. Gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Karen Kelsey Duddlesten in honor of Anne Wilkes Tucker on the
Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955, printed 1978. 50 x 40 in. Gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Karen Kelsey Duddlesten in honor of Anne Wilkes Tucker on the

A History Lesson

Granted, the ultimate purpose of fashion photography is marketing, to rake in the bucks. Fashion photography, on the other hand, documents historical trends, such as the grungy tattered look that was elevated to haute couture. The history of fashion photography is intimately entwined with the history of fashion.

Which, in my opinion, is the reason Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography has the aura of a history lesson. Essentially, the exhibition’s photographic images trace the history of fashion photography from its early-century beginnings to the present.

Cecil Beaton, Eight Charles James Ball Gowns, New York, 1948, Silver dye bleach print, Courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery.
Cecil Beaton, Eight Charles James Ball Gowns, New York, 1948, Silver dye bleach print, Courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery.

Historically, there’s much to be learned. For instance, the emergence of fashion photography in the early 20th century transformed Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from social and literary journals to cutting-edge fashion publications with images by avant-garde photographers such as Edward Steichen and Baron Adolf de Meyer. Further, when Beyoncé Knowles selected 23 years old Tyler Mitchell to photograph her for a 2018 Vogue cover, never before in the publication’s history had an African American shot a Vogue cover.

Fashion Photography's Profound Impact

Even if I wasn’t one of the 900 elites invited to Valentino’s final couture show at the Musee Rodin (2008), or to his retirement soiree in Rome’s Coliseum, I am, like it or not, profoundly impacted by fashion photography. Fashion photography accounts for my charging a Gianni Versace wool suit that I certainly couldn’t afford to my Neiman Marcus credit card, then coercing friends into buying my possessions to get cash. It also accounts for the young me becoming hell-bent on mini-skirts. I can’t remember precisely the year mini-skirts infiltrated my psyche, perhaps 1965, but when it happened, that pretty much settled it. As fast as Sam the Sham could say “watch it now watch it, Wooly Bully,” I was raising the hem of my Catholic school uniform high above my knees. In the same vein, by 1970 you couldn’t dynamite me out of tight denim jeans.

Herb Ritts, Naomi Campbell, Face in Hand, Hollywood, 1990, Gelatin silver print. 19 5/6 x 16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of the Herb Ritts Foundation
Herb Ritts, Naomi Campbell, Face in Hand, Hollywood, 1990, Gelatin silver print. 19 5/6 x 16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of the Herb Ritts Foundation

Gary Tinterow nailed it when he asserted, “Fashion photography has often defined the ways we see ourselves.”

Moments of unspeakable awe have come to me via fashion photography. I recall entering an altered state over an image of Jacqueline de Ribes in profile wearing a pink open-back gown of her own design, accessorized with long Harry Winston diamond earrings. I ripped out the image, and threw it in a drawer, such perfection could never be discarded. I’ve been similarly transported by a photograph of Catherine Deneuve in an Yves Saint Laurent outfit, as well by one of Carolyne Roehm wearing her own design.

Helmut Newton, Sie Kommen – Dressed, 1981, Gelatin silver print. 18 5/16 x 18 3/8 in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Manfred Heiting, the Manfred Heiting Collection.
Helmut Newton, Sie Kommen – Dressed, 1981, Gelatin silver print. 18 5/16 x 18 3/8 in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Manfred Heiting, the Manfred Heiting Collection.

Occasionally the images have me baffled. The frumpy flat-bottom platform boots that many designers are showing, today I saw some by Fendi and Stella McCartny, seem suited to an astronaut, just right for bouncing on the moon. And in my estimation, Dolce and Gabanna gave us enough years of Fruit-Loopy colors, I’m ready for them to shift back to understated classicism.

A show of this type was fairly easy to predict. When I saw the response to the 2017 Oscar de la Renta exhibition, I knew it was inevitable the Museum would continue fashion-themed presentations. The Oscar de la Renta show attracted swarms of young people who naturally wanted to see dresses worn by Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift. I have a feeling it jacked-up attendance.

Fashion Exhibitions Rake In The Crowds

During our tour of Icons of Style, Gary Tinterow admitted that the success of the de la Renta show inspired the Museum’s fashion photography show. I imagine Sir Gary was also inspired by the fashion exhibitions he saw during his reign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met Costume Institute’s fashion shows were so immensely popular, they indicated the viewing public accepted fashion as art and designers as artists. In fact, a few months before Tinterow split New York to be boss-man in Houston, the Metropolitan’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty commanded block buster lines and record breaking attendance, and as I once wrote, anyone who doubts that designers are artists, needs to inspect Alexander McQueen’s manipulation of embroidery.

A few years back Anna Wintour told Calvin Tomkins, “…museums all over the world now want to do fashion shows. They all see this is a way to bring in the audience…”

It’s not my intention to describe the show. I only want to remind readers they have until September 22, 2019 to see Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photograph. And to present a few of the images.

Richard Avedon, Antonella Agnelli, Hair by Kenneth, 1961, Gelatin silver print, 7 9/16 x 7 ½ in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © The Richard Avedon Foundation
Richard Avedon, Antonella Agnelli, Hair by Kenneth, 1961, Gelatin silver print, 7 9/16 x 7 ½ in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. © The Richard Avedon Foundation

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    • Virginia Billeaud Anderso profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Billeaud Anderson 

      5 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Thank you Peggy, appreciate your comment. Your hard work inspired me.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Virginia,

      You are so right in saying that 50 years ago, raggedy holes in jeans and other apparel would not have been considered to be high fashion. Those holes would have been patched and/or the fabrics would have been remade into other items like rag rugs. Remember those? Ha!

      Our Museum of Fine Arts Houston is such an exciting place to visit. Between their regular exhibits and special exhibits, there is always something to admire or pique our curiosity. Welcome to HubPages!

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