Fashion sub-editor Sophia Hinton-Lever muses on the wonders of fashion photography’s past at the Host exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum
‘Horst understood how light falls on an object.
He saw me as a living sculpture to be projected through his photographs’
– Carmen Dell’Orefice
Horst is famed for his utilisation of lighting to transform a simple black and white colour scheme into effortless marbled beauty. The women within his photography are mythologised through their antiquated poses and the play of light of their skin, which evokes statuesque, precise elegance.
His career ran parallel with the development of photography as an artistic practice, as well as the advancement of pictorial technology. To say that he was at the forefront of fashion photography would be reductive. Prior to Horst, the notion of photography as a means of mass marketing couture was unheard of. High fashion was for the eyes and hands of the wealthy, not for those beneath. The friendship forged between he and Chanel, whom he affectionately termed ‘the star of the circus’, was set to form the foundations of the fashion world as we know it today. Their many collaborations have culminated in the development of the cover girl and the concept of the allure of the ‘see it/want it’ mentality embedded in the consumer culture of today.
The geometric floor patterns of curator Susana Brown’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum perfectly sets off the monochromatic motif of Horst’s work. The thick set black frames hold the muted allure of his photographs firmly, with a delicate touch, which cannot help but to echo way the focal garment in Horst’s famed Mainbocher Corset encases the models delicate body. The exhibition progresses through thin corridors, the first of which begins with his early work, and runs through to his capturing of pre-war Parisian Haute couture. Evening wear was a key element of 1930’s fashion, and so Brown also chose to place mannequins adorned with various garments designed by the likes of Lanvin, Vionnet and Molyneux, whose work is featured by Horst’s photography at the end of the corridor.
The exhibition seamlessly transitions away from these gowns to Horst’s surrealist work, along with his collaborations with noted artist Salvador Dali. Here we see how Horst and Dali explored unique ways of interpreting the world through artistic mediums, and turned to dreams and the unconscious for inspiration. The collection Electric Beauty, a satirical comment in the extreme beauty treatments of the 1930s, seemed to me to be far ahead of its time. It alludes to Horst’s foresight in the world of beauty and fashion, and what it was inevitably to become with the influence of such things as Photoshop and cosmetic surgery.
The third room of the exhibition is adorned with a flood of colour – a visual inconsistency that jolts the dreamlike state that the immersive use of chiaroscuro lulls you into. This said, it is a welcome change in more ways than one. The colour photographs show imperfections in the women. Real, beautiful women are being represented by Horst. Sadly, we can mourn the loss of photographs like this for many reasons – reasons that I take the liberty in assuming you already know. From works like Electric Beauty, we can imagine that Horst saw this coming. However, I question if he also foresaw the gross, unrealistic extent which perfection is taken now days? Probably not.
Neither the less, I cannot help but thank the V&A for displaying such a sensitive and infallible shrine to the past glory days of fashion art and photography, when it was pure, elegant, and truly effortless.
Ongoing until January 4th