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Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode (Models, the Body of Fashion) - review

Exhibition examining the history of fashion photography is being shown at Espace Van Gogh as part of Rencontres d'Arles festival

A good exhibition often starts with a smart idea. Something surprising, such as telling the 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. Models, the Body of Fashion (part of this year's Rencontres d'Arles festival), does just that with 120 photographs, 10 films and 40 magazines.

My intuitive impression, before seeing the show, was that in the early 20th century the predominant concept was a submissive, anonymous female model, shapely but clothed from head to toe, paid a pittance, and about as charismatic as a coat-hanger. Now, in the glossy pages of magazines we are presented with forceful women, with pencil-like bodies, sometimes surgically enhanced, who undress without a fuss, act provocatively, are as highly paid as stars, and just as important as the clothes they wear.

There is some truth in this, but it is mainly mistaken, according to Sylvie Lécallier, an expert on fashion photography at the Galliera Museum in Paris, who put the show together. She maintains that the difference between the two centuries is not that great, apart from the nudity, which started in the 1960s and has been gaining ground ever since.

Pictures from the late 19th century show apparently wooden models, wearing dresses over black jerkins. The pictures mainly served as a basis for drawings in fashion journals. Typically we see designer Paul Poiret landing in Copenhagen with five women wearing the same striped overcoat, surely a complete negation of personality. As for the women, their trade did not command much respect.

But in 1947 photographer Irving Penn asked the year's most sought-after figures to pose for him. In Henry Clarke's 1955 picture of Dorian Leigh, wearing a dress by Jacques Heim, we see not a model but a defiant women. The shift to stardom culminated in the December 1991 issue of Vogue Hommes, featuring the world's five top female models.

Lécallier illustrates this narrative, in which models have progressed from worker to star-status, but also delights in picking holes in it, citing three examples. In 1900, "singers, actresses, society women and celebrities [...] posed, wearing garments by brands such as Poiret or Lanvin to promote them", she says. Among the professional models there were many Russian aristocrats, exiled in Paris, who were "much in demand and well paid".

The second example is more recent. In 1999 the German fashion photographer Jürgen Teller photographed dozens of young women who, in the course of the year, visited his studio in the hope of catching his attention and gaining a toe-hold in the trade. Here the star was the photographer, not the models, though they did feature in the book Go-Sees.

The exhibition looks at changes in body shape. Early in the 20th century designer Jean Patou started hiring US models. "They were younger than before, tall and slender, with standard measurements [...] People started looking at the model as much as the garment. A trend was set," Lécallier says.

Here again there are again contrary examples, particularly from the 1990s. The Face, a British magazine, once published a dozen black and white photographs of a 15-year-old woman at the beach. It was a fashion feature, but seemed to show a weekend with friends. The model was Kate Moss, she was 1.7 metres tall, her body was far from perfect and she did not pose like most models. She was approachable, laughing loud and showing her feelings. "It's more a portrait than a fashion piece," says Lécallier. Many art photographers subsequently adopted the style.

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode, is at Espace Van Gogh, Arles, France, until 23 September

This story originally appeared in Le Monde © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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