Fashion photography before WWII: the history of an art form

Paradigme Mode

Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy is an impor­tant tool for fash­ion brands, but it’s also an art form in its own right. Let us explore the his­to­ry and evo­lu­tion of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in the 20th cen­tu­ry until World War II with the most impor­tant visu­al artists of the time.
The images we choose in the fash­ion indus­try have a major impor­tance in the whole uni­verse of the brand. They car­ry in most cas­es the first impres­sion we have of a prod­uct, of a vibe, of the col­lec­tion, of the sea­son…
Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy has been around for almost as long as pho­tog­ra­phy itself. One of the ear­li­est fash­ion pho­tographs was tak­en in 1856 by Adolphe Braun, who pho­tographed Empress Euge­nie of France in her court dress. This sup­posed only the debut of this art form, and a few years lat­er, in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry it came into his own.

That was the time when pho­tog­ra­phers began to exper­i­ment with new ways of cap­tur­ing fash­ion images. One of the most impor­tant inno­va­tors was Edward Ste­ichen. He was the first pho­tog­ra­ph­er to use arti­fi­cial light­ing, cre­at­ing dra­mat­ic por­traits of cou­ture cloth­ing by design­er Paul Poiret.

Fash­ion study with Mar­i­on More­house and uniden­ti­fied woman. Edward Ste­ichen

In the years that fol­lowed, Man Ray comes as the most promi­nent name of the 20s. Those sort of “crazy” years were a rev­o­lu­tion in all the sens­es. After the trau­ma that the first World War caused, the world turned upside down to intense depri­va­tion, excess and death. There was intense exper­i­men­ta­tion in all types of art.
This con­text feeds the entire artis­tic avant-garde, of which the Dadaists and Sur­re­al­ists were the most hun­gry. Man Ray was born in Philadel­phia to a fam­i­ly of tex­tile crafts­men on August 27, 1890. His real name was Emmanuel Rad­nit­sky and he became a pil­lar of 20th-cen­tu­ry art. His paint­ing marked with Dada did not meet big suc­cess in New York, but rather in Paris where the artist puts down his suit­cas­es to set­tle down. There, he takes inspi­ra­tion from the Dada of Duchamp, Dali, Elouard… Togeth­er the group of artists cre­at­ed sur­re­al­ism, much more accept­ed in Europe than in his natal Amer­i­ca.
He exposed the sen­su­al­i­ty and the expres­sion of human desire in a way nev­er made before. The female body was reimag­ined, not exposed in the clas­si­cal way but beyond, high­light­ing the sen­su­al­i­ty of a look, a ges­ture, of the small detail that makes a con­nec­tion.

History of fashion photography
Man Ray, Les Larmes, 1932, Man Ray

George Hown­in­gen-Huene went to Paris in the 20s as well, meet­ing Man Ray and all the oth­er artists of the sur­re­al­ist move­ment.
In the 40s, he worked in Hol­ly­wood and his por­traits of the film stars of that era such as Ingrid Bergman, Char­lie Chap­lin, Gre­ta Gar­bo, Ava Gard­ner, and Katharine Hep­burn, are some of the most endur­ing images of the Gold­en Age of Hol­ly­wood.

History of fashion photography
Coco Chanel , 1939. George Hoynin­gen-Huene

Cecil Beat­on launched his career in 1926 with a solo exhi­bi­tion in Lon­don. That won him an imme­di­ate con­tract with Vogue, where he worked for the next 30 years.
He has also made suc­cess­ful set and cos­tume design for stage and film pro­duc­tions, such as My Fair Lady (1956). The movie won him three Oscars for cos­tume and art direc­tion.
“Be dar­ing, be dif­fer­ent, be imprac­ti­cal, be any­thing that will assert integri­ty of pur­pose and imag­i­na­tive vision against the play-it-safers, the crea­tures of the com­mon­place, the slaves of the ordi­nary.” Cecil Beat­on The­atre Arts, May 1957.

History of fashion photography
Sir Cecil Beat­on, 1967. Roger Bamber/Alamy

Horst P. Horst was a mas­ter of light and com­po­si­tion and his exper­i­men­ta­tions such as dou­ble expo­sures, pro­duced some of the most icon­ic fash­ion images of the cen­tu­ry.
Dur­ing his career, Horst was intro­duced to many artists, includ­ing oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers like Cecil Beat­on and Hoynin­gen-Huene. By the mid-1930s, Horst had sur­passed his men­tor Hoynin­gen-Huene as French Vogue’s main pho­tog­ra­ph­er. His images fre­quent­ly appeared in the Amer­i­can, British, and many edi­tions of the mag­a­zine.
In the same decade, Horst exper­i­ment­ed with Sur­re­al­ism by pho­tograph­ing the sur­re­al dress designs of his friend Elsa Schi­a­par­el­li and began his work­ing rela­tion­ship with Sal­vador Dalí.
Horst’s most known pho­to­graph is Main­bocher Corset, tak­en in 1939 at Vogue stu­dios in Paris on the eve of World War II. Horst left France the next morn­ing to escape the upcom­ing con­flict and emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States. There he start­ed to work for Amer­i­can Vogue, con­tin­u­ing for the rest of his life.

History of fashion photography
Horst P. Horst, Main­bocher Corset , mod­eled by Madame Bernon, pho­tographed Aug. 15, 1939, gelatin sil­ver print, pub­lished in Amer­i­can Vogue (Sept. 15, 1939), pg.19; pub­lished in French Vogue Dec. 1939. Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um

Lee Miller was the first to be a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and mod­el at the same time, pos­ing for her self-por­traits that have made his­to­ry.
She became a cel­e­brat­ed Sur­re­al­ist under the tute­lage of her lover, Man Ray, and then joined the war effort dur­ing World War II, doc­u­ment­ing every­thing for Vogue.
The world of fash­ion was the back­bone of Miller’s cre­ative devel­op­ment, as well as the effects of war on the lives of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Her pho­to­graph­ic record of women’s indomitable spir­it has remained an invalu­able resource in fash­ion his­to­ry.

History of fashion photography
Lee Miller (Amer­i­can, 1907–1977) The lat­est hat mod­el, Vogue Stu­dios, Lon­don, April 1942

We hope you enjoyed this jour­ney through the his­to­ry of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy with us. Stay tuned for the next part in Par­a­digme Mode.

Written by David Ferrero
November 23, 2022

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