Edward Steichen

In the 1920s, the corseted curves of the Belle Époque silhouette gave way for a new image of femininity. The flapper girl, with her bobbed hair and boyish figure and shimmery, sequined dresses, became an icon of the Art Deco period.

These girls were bold, daring and scintillating. They drank and smoked in public. They kissed boys without waiting for a ring on their finger. They ditched their corsets and revealed their shins. Vogue was their new style bible, and for the first time, fashionable dresses were loose and comfortable. Gorgeously embellished with beads and feathers, these garments often looked extravagant, but they could be slipped on over the head, and they moved with the body to allow freer, swifter movement.

Capturing this thoroughly modern moment on film was Edward Steichen, widely regarded as the first fashion photographer. Long before there was Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz, Steichen ruled the magazine world with his avant-garde vision and masterful instinct for style, snapping images of sleek flapper girls lounging on yachts and dancing in nightclubs. From 1923 until 1938, he was chief photographer for Condé Nast’s two biggest magazines, American Vogue and Vanity Fair. During this time he revolutionised fashion photography, creating the modern fashion shoot that would influence generations of photographers to come.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, on display now at NGV International, brings together over 200 of Steichen’s fashion photographs and celebrity portraits from the Condé Nast archives. Curated by Paola Di Trocchio and Susan van Wyk, this is the first major retrospective of Steichen’s work to be shown in Australia. To bring the gelatin silver photographs to life, a colourful array of Art Deco fashion garments including dresses, evening cloaks, sportswear, shoes and accessories is also on display. Side by side, the images and garments tell an alluring story of the roaring 20s and 30s and the fashions that both reflected and influenced the changes in women’s lives.

If you’re like me, the phrase ‘20s fashion’ conjures romantic images of Gatsby’s lawn parties, filled with girls dressed in glittering, beaded dresses–and the selection of garments on display certainly lives up to the fantasy. Designed with sleek lines, geometric patterns, rich colours and opulent adornments, these dresses were made for dancing. As the wearer did the tango, the foxtrot or the waltz (or the more provocative popular dances of the era, the Charleston and the Black Bottom) dense clusters of sequins and beads would tremble in the light.

To this day, the Art Deco period is the only era in fashion history where the majority of fashion houses were led by women. Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Paquin, Gabrielle Chanel and Callot Soeurs were at the head of the pack, and their clothing began to change the way women could participate in society, allowing their bodies to move with more comfort and ease, whether on the beach or the city streets or the dancefloor. In one 1924 photograph, cabaret and nightclub dancer Lenore Hughes strikes a pose to show the cut and delicacy of the fabric of her skirt, demonstrating the freedom of movement as she does a new dance step.

These early photographs reveal Steichen’s mastery of the Pictorialist style. His soft focus
and gentle use of light creates a smoulderingly romantic feel–just look at his 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson, with her face prettily masked by a lacy scrim. Around this time, Steichen also began to shoot on location, capturing modern women lazing on yachts and by the pool. Bathing suits were making a splash, and sportswear was emerging as a new style of ready-to-wear fashion, made for leisure and relaxation out in the open air. A photo of Olympic diver Katherine Rawls in a men’s-style one-piece shows the daring side of the sportswear revolution; a pair of loose-fitting ‘beach pyjamas’ in duck-egg blue offers a softer, elegant take.

From the late 20s, Steichen’s photographic style became more clean and sharp. Dramatic light, plunging shadows, pared-back studio settings and clear focus became his trademark style. At the same time, after the stock market crash of 1929, the feminine silhouette began to change again. Hemlines dropped and the waistline returned in the form of the fluid and graceful bias cut gown, pioneered by the designs of Madeleine Vionnet. These figure-hugging dresses flowed with Grecian lines, still allowing freedom of movement, but bringing back the curvaceous female form. It was romantic, an Art Deco reimagining of the Classical, and it became a standard in Hollywood costume. Steichen’s photographs capture the garments in movement, showing how the gown flows over the body and moves with it.

Whether fashion is your thing, or you just like a bit of Fitzgeraldian romance, this exhibition should take you right back to a nostalgic world of jazz and champagne–and there’s a whole lot of sequins, and a bit of acid-green monkey fur, to keep your senses tingling while you’re there.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion at NGV International runs until March 2nd, 2014. 

Rebecca Howden is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She blogs about books, fashion and gender at rebeccahowden.com.au.

Her essay Beautiful and Damned: The Myths of Zelda Fitzgerald appears in Issue 15 of Kill Your Darlings