Surprisingly, the Musée Galliera has never been as prolific and creative since its closure. The museum proposes not less than three very different exhibitions these days that all take place in various Parisian institutions. I will talk about all three and I’m starting right away with Mannequin: Le Corps de la Mode (Models: Fashion Bodies), an original and aesthetic exhibition that explores the history of models in the fashion industry, from inanimate mannequins to cover girls and sex symbols, passing through supermodels and girls next door.
Initially created for the annual photographic event, Les Rencontres D’Arles, in 2012, the exhibition met with much success and it was decided it would have a Parisian version taking place in a new dynamic centre: Les Docks – Cité de la Mode et du Design.
Numerous fashion photographies and contextualising objects tell the story of the evolution of the mannequin, of beauty and fashion photography in general within a neat, thematically organised display. A story of how fashion photography has evolved, taking as the starting point neither garments, designers, nor even photographers, but models, looking at their style, personality, body shape, aura and status.
The word “mannequin” in French originally referenced 19th century wicker dummies used to display garments in couture salons and dressmaker’s workshops. Although mannequins /dummies remain, other “mannequins” appear at the end of the 19th century: alive this time. These living models, are made of flesh and blood yet the “inanimate” implication persists. Early professional models wore indeed a black undergarment in rigid silk or satin at times with full-length sleeves so that flesh was not exposed. These black slips often gave the models the undesired appearance of inanimate dummies. Lucile was the first designer in London to abandon the practice of wearing undergarments and who opted for fashion shows and presentations that resembled those of her French contemporary Paul Poiret.
Made of wood, wicker or wax and finally flesh, the model oscillates therefore with ambiguity between object and subject, mannequin and human being. In the 19th century, simple seamstresses and salesgirls pose for photographies that will then be used by fashion illustrators. The model is a manipulable object, similar to the glass window dummy. An ambiguous status that will cross decades and fascinate photographers like Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton or Valérie Belin who erases the boundaries between flesh and wax. The ultimate diversion will be found in Martin Margiela’s provocative “veste mannequin”, a jacket made out of a Stockman bust. Every detail is transferred to the jacket: the body dresses the body.
The model’s body gives life and movement to the garment. The designer cuts and stitches it directly on the body in order to make both merge. Because they make a living of their bodies, the first professional models were disrespected and had to work anonymously. Some 19th century photographies by Reutlinger where the faces have been cut out make us realise that there is not much difference between them and today’s web visuals. One digital screen presents screen-shots of designer e-shops, demonstrating the recurrent headless figures that inhabit the world of e-commerce, perpetuating the desirability of the garment by inviting the consumer to imagine their own face floating above the designer piece. The model has become a simple merchandise in a commercial system.
On glossy pages, screens, in couture salons or under the spotlights, models are observed from head to toe. Their poses become choreographies that enable to show the garment and the body under every aspect. In the beginning of the 20th century, models stay a little clumsy while 1980’s top-models propose a real spectacle. Sometimes, models become mechanical bodies for the purpose of the show! Models’ bodies evolve through time following fashion and beauty’s diktats. In the 1920s, Paul Poiret appreciates American models who are tall and slender. From the 1960s, youth and slimness are the fixed standards.
My mother was a model in the 1980s. Many of my childhood memories are made of catwalks and flashlights, backstage’s excitement and boring photo shoots. Growing up, I developped a mixed feeling concerning this activity: I was obviously fascinated by this enchanted world and would find my mother beautiful but there has always been that little something that would disturb me. The superficiality of the environment, the stress, the sexualisation of my mother’s body I could not bare to observe as child…I have kept all this in mind and still look upon this discipline with an ambiguous feel.
Models have to represent an ideal and this perfection is permitted from the 19th century with the help of photo retouch. In the 1980s, the power-dressing enhances powerful women while the 1990s permit imperfect bodies, a certain vision highlighted by Corinne Day’s photographs of Kate Moss. Still, reality has nothing to do here. Models must make place for an ideal of beauty, youth and aesthetic. Before, there were corsets, now there are beauty products and Photoshop to aid women approach the ideal.
In fashion photography, still life often incarnates a very commercial aspect of the industry. From the 19th century, are published catalogues of fashion products from which the body is removed: quite a poetic abstraction! Today, fashion garments are classified and numbered: they have become nostalgic objects like the a Thierry Mugler blouse made for a model and on which her name is embroidered, demonstrates.
Are models unique or multiple? In the beginning of the 20th century, designers dress all the models with the same garments for a visual and commercial efficiency that dangerously tends to reach standardization. After the second world war, models become more attractive and are the muses of iconic photographers who imagine glamorous “mise-en-scènes”. In the 1980s, appear supermodels that we all recognize by simply pronouncing their first name…Fame at last!
Today like at the birth of haute couture, celebrity is the best means of diffusion of fashion: high society women, singers and actresses depicted the Parisian elegance. Now, movie and pop stars remain model’s most serious rivals!
This exhibition is also a history of fashion photography but through the lens of these women, anonymous or famous. What would have most of these girls been without a Steven Mesiel, a David Bailey or an Erwin Blumenfeld? Fashion is mostly a world of images, not words and these powerful photographers are the centre of the creation of these pictures.
The model and her body crystallize all the contradictions of a system pulled between commercial efficiency and an unreal artistic dimension. The display therefore spans a neat historical timeline of the fabricated dummy, intermingled with the stories of human models and their unveiling from anonymity to stardom.
At the beginning of the 20th century, models were also called “sosie”: they had to resemble the clients, become their doubles and leave aside their own individuality. Today, fashion’s body is fantasized, disconnected from reality but this time also from its clients’ silhouettes.
The exposition does not tend to highlight sociological issues, to analyse the representation of the female body…it is and remains an exhibition about photography. However, behind the history, the glamour, the conceptual…one can observe interesting studies on art, industry and technology.
The exhibition is on until the 23rd June 2013 at Les Docks – Cité de la Mode et du Design
Derrick, Robin and Muir, Robin. Vogue Model: The Faces of Fashion. London: Little Brown, 2010.
Bright, Susan. Face of Fashion. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2007.
You can also read Tove Hermanson’s post about the manipulations of body on this blog.
Hyères International Festival is also a great resource.
There are numerous books about fashion photography and photographers. Here are a few of my favourites:
Angeletti, Norberto and Oliva, Alberto. In Vogue: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine. New York: Rizzoli, 2012.
Avedon, Richard. Avedon Fashion 1944-2000. New York: Harry N Abrams Inc., 2009.
Baron, Fabien and Moss, Kate. Kate: The Kate Moss Book. New York: Rizzoli, 2012.
Beaupré de, Marion and Poschardt, Ulf. Archeology of Elegance 1980-2000. Paris: Flammarion, 2005.
Blanks, Tim and Sloman, Paul. New Fashion Photography. London: Prestel, 2013.
Demarchelier, Patrick and Wintour, Anna. Patrick Demarchelier. Gottingen: Steidl, 2010.
Gingeras, Alison. Guy Bourdin. New York: Phaidon, 2011.
Hershchdorfer, Nathalie. Papier glacé: Un siècle de photographies de mode chez Condé Nast. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012.
Sieff, Barbara. Sieff Fashion: 1960-2000. London: Prestel, 2012.
Sieff, Jeanloup. JeanLoup Sieff. Berlin: Taschen, 2010.
Walker, Tim. Pictures. Kempen: Te Neues Verlag, 2008.