“Fashion” can be characterized as many things: a business, a craft, a lifestyle. At its core, though, it’s a visual culture that embodies one very important quality: transfiguration.
The Fall 2014 issue of Aperture Magazine, guest edited by photographers Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin (Inez & Vinoodh), focuses on the theme of “Fashion” and its use of referential tactics to assemble parts into a beautiful whole. Bolts of fabric become resplendent gowns, disparate articles and accessories join together to create a style, mass amounts of inventory and marketing create a brand, models and settings create provocative photography. Fashion is an exercise in bricolage.
The aptly picked cover epitomizes this transformative condition: Richard Hamilton’s Fashion-plate (1969–70), showcasing the collaged visage of a glamorous woman in a photo studio. This patchwork concept of transfiguration is reflected throughout the magazine’s text and subtext, with nods to the past greats of fashion and fashion photography as well as meta-references in interviews and articles to the other content held within the other pages of the issue.
Amidst interviews, like that of Carine Roitfeld replacement Emmanuelle Alt, and photo essays, like a selection of advertisements from the revolutionary Japanese cosmetics brand Shiseido, the Fall 2014 issue of Aperture delves deeply into contemporary fashion and culture. In her article “The State of Fashion” Charlotte Cotton contrasts the worlds of fashion photography and contemporary art photography by noting how these referential tropes are read as different signifiers in each medium. She metaphorizes the realm of fashion photography with the image of a magpie — plucking the shiniest cultural objects and piling them together without hiding their references — whereas art photography, while piggybacking on referents from past artists and culture at large, “frames its referencing gestures as discourse and critique.” Same operation, different outfit, so to speak.
The contrast may indeed stem from the different surfaces each medium covers itself with. The transfiguration of fashion and fashion photography is powered mainly by the concept of glamour which, as she quoted John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, ” … cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” Fashion preys on this class aspect of society and beauty to manipulate, whereas contemporary art typically reacts to and against culture in a less surreptitious manner.
“Fashion is a language made up of a visual code of status symbols,” Inez & Vinoodh write before a portfolio of their choices of iconic fashion photographs and photographers. They are quick to point out, however, that these symbols are just as much subverted as they are celebrated. Especially when we gaze upon the work of Guy Bourdin and his fetishized models, their objectification is so uncanny that it transcends woman as sexual object to a grotesque commentary on the sexualization of women’s bodies since they look so far from human in some shots.
Bruce Weber’s “Gustav, Room 500, Copacabana Palace Hotel, Rio de Janeiro” (1986), also subverts status symbols, feminizing a strapping male model by outfitting him in a sugar pink speedo, dressing the room with ebullient rose bouquets, and having him recline on the bed in a submissively erotic pose. This is contrasted with another selection from Weber’s oeuvre, “Talisa, Bellport, New York” (1982). This portrait shows the young woman in a delicate white silk tank and skirt in satin heels adopting a hypermasculine and aggressive fighting pose, dukes up. This spread of Weber’s photographs speaks intensely to the amount of transgressive experimentation fashion has been allowed to fortify and create from within. Even though the elitist concept of glamour permeates a lot of the cultural production of fashion, it’s also been incredibly avant-garde, while generally engaging in dialogues with mass mainstream audiences to boot.
And of course fashion has countless underground outlets that subvert both the hegemony of the industry and of culture in general. Phil Bicker’s delineation and documentation of revolutionary postmodern street style magazines like i-D and The Face illustrate this nicely. These originally self-published zines allowed liberation from traditional glossies and gave a platform to the instinctive creativity found in their editors’ heads and on the streets of European cities. They supported style, not fashion. Self-expression, not glamour. Shoots would often include second hand clothes, army surplus and other anti-fashion items. They launched and/or celebrated countercultural styles like Buffalo Girls, the New Romantics and other post-punk modes of dress.
The coda to this issue of Aperture are prints from Antonioni’s film Blow-Up (1966), where a fashion photographer may have accidentally documented a murder on one of his shoots. The film is a brilliant commentary on reality and imaging, of what a photograph tells us and what actually exists in life. Like the glamorous transfiguration of fashion photography, bits and pieces from culture come together to create something new, yet illusory and out of reach. As Antonioni said when making the film, “I always mistrust everything I see … because I imagine what is beyond it. And what is beyond an image cannot be known.”