Saturday, 21 October 2017

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own at Fashion and Textile Museum, London

Twins at the Beach, Nassau, 1949. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Collection Staley Wise Galley. ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

Just after I’d seen the Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, I tweeted:

It’s rather a flippant way to sum up a photographer’s career but I think Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s skill is capturing women you’d like to be, in clothes and accessories you’d love to wear and in situations you’d love to be in. Whether it’s luxuriating in the feel of the sun while on a relaxing holiday or groomed to perfection in ultra modern fashion, the photographs' power transcends the intervening decades.

While Dahl-Wolfe has always been on my radar (just search this blog for references, or look at my Pinterest boards), it took seeing them en masse to twig the above, why her work really resonates with me. I’m letting myself off, as this is the first retrospective of her work to be held in the UK. It includes over one hundred photographs, spanning 1931 to 1959. The exhibition features her intimate portraits of Hollywood and literary stars and fashion designers but, understandably, it’s the fashion photography that dominates and which kept drawing me back. Those golden years at Harper’s Bazaar with Carmel Snow as editor and Diana Vreeland as fashion editor, where the magazine succeeded in shaping and selling a new kind of American woman. As Carmel Snow said of Dahl-Wolfe: “From the moment I saw her first colour photographs, I know Bazaar was at last going to look the way I had instinctively wanted.”

Over her 86 covers for the magazine, 600 colour plates, and over 2,000 black and white photographs, she portrayed modern, independent women, with the wardrobes to match. These women looked wealthy, sure, but they also appeared cultivated and interesting – like did something else with their lives rather than simply look fabulous in a dress.

Harper’s Bazaar Cover, June 1953. Jean Patchett Fashion: Shorts and short square jacket by Clare Potter at the Alhambra, Spain. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents. Courtesy: Terence Pepper Collection

They went to places other than a photographer’s studio, in fact much further – to the then far-flung locales such as Cuba, Mexico, Tunisia and Spain, places that zing in Dahl-Wolfe’s colour photography. Fashion was portrayed as another strand of a ‘modern’ lifestyle – something that clicked with me when I saw Jean Patchett posing among Noguchi lamps on the January 1955 cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

The exhibition also notes a subtle shift, the rise of fashion photography as a profession. As Dahl-Wolfe noted, “there weren’t really fashion photographers, just artists like Steichen who just happened to do fashion photography.” As a female fashion photographer, she was treated with extra curiosity, such as in a 1941 Good Housekeeping profile, which claimed to find “out what a Woman Photographer does”.

Of particular interest to me was the show’s focus on the rise of modelling as a profession too. Like the Horst exhibition, models were credited for what they added to the fashion images. In fact, the press bumph for the exhibition argues Dahl-Wolfe was responsible for “arguably creating the first generation of ‘supermodels’”, for her work with the likes of Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett, Barbara Mullen, Mary Jane Russell and Evelyn Tripp. And her March 1943 cover for Harper’s Bazaar was undeniably influential in creating a new star – it’s where Lauren Bacall was spotted for Hollywood. What’s interesting is the longstanding relationships she established with her models: her archive at FIT estimates that Mary Jane Russell appears in roughly 30% of Dahl-Wolfe’s photos; Liz Gibbons posed for many of her nude studies.

Liz Gibbons as Photographer, 1938. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Collection Staley Wise Galley. ©1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.

With her models, her editors and the fashion designs of the period. Louise Dahl-Wolfe cultivated an image of femininity that still chimes. Since seeing the exhibition, I’ve been in my leopard print, bangles (weather has prevented sandal wearing), my finger hovering over flights to sunnier climes. The fantasy of fashion has the power to inspire and to transport you; the reality of fashion goes hand in hand with social change. Its potential is beautifully reflected in this jewel of a show.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe: a style of her own is at London's Fashion and Textile Museum until 21 January 2018. 

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