29 October 2013

Edward Steichen: photography in high fashion

Edward J Steichen (1879–1973) was born in Luxembourg and immigrated to the USA with his parents when he was a toddler. When he was still an adolescent, Steichen began a four-year lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. Next he learned how to paint and how to take interesting photographs.

Like every ambitious man of the arts in the New World, Steichen went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1900. He must have quickly become known as a very skilled photographer and painter. In fact Steichen was the most frequently featured photographer in Alfred Stieglitz's (1864-1946) innovative magazine Camera Work. Together Stieglitz and Steichen opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1905, which eventually became known as 291 after its address. It is interesting that the slightly older Alfred Stieglitz, who was born in the USA to German speaking parents, spent many years in Europe as well. They met in New York during their regular trips home.

The Photo-Secession work proved to be important in Steichen’s career. He decided to create a portfolio of Great Men, going to the homes, offices and studios of artists George Watts, Henri Matisse and Alphonse Mucha; composer Richard Strauss; actors Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, WC Fields and Leslie Howard; dancer Fred Astaire; boxer Jack Dempsey; writer HK Menken, politician Herbert Hoover and many others. Some of these great men, captured at the height of their fame, are included in the NGV exhibition.

World War I made France a dangerous and impoverished place, forcing Steichen to return to the USA permanently. In 1923 he was appointed Chief of Photography for Condé Nast, creating work for Vanity Fair, Vogue and an important advertising agency.

The very gorgeous Norma Shearer moved to the USA in 1919 and became an advertising model and film extra. She began acting for the new MGM Studios in 1924 and was hugely successful by the time Steichen photographed her c1933. 

Whenever the students and I study French Art Deco in lectures, we examine architecture and the decorative arts of course, but also fashion. Nothing says fashion as well as Callot Soeurs, Vionnet, Lanvin, Paquin, Chanel and others. The same for Steichen! As I noted, he had become chief photographer for fashion’s most influential and glamorous magazines, Vanity Fair and Vogue, during the best years of fashion, of Art Deco and of Paris-focused design. His timing was sheer luck but his great eye had nothing to do with luck. He clearly knew how to portray bodies and clothes with texture, sheen, cut and the fold of fabric.

The Melbourne exhibition starts in the aftermath of World War I when fashions changed greatly - rising hemlines and cropped hair styles led to the rather naughty 1920s flapper style. Then from the introduction of a more refined Deco taste, until he left the fashion world in 1938, Steichen continued to create images that documented the history of glamour and style in the inter-war era. His work revolutionised fashion photography, and influenced generations of subsequent photographers.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion is being shown at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne from October 2013 until March 2014. The exhibition includes 200+ black and white photos taken by Steich­en of models, film stars, theatrical stars and other celebrities. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill and George Gershwin all looked stunning.

And equally importantly, the Melbourne exhibition included 30 outfits on dummies, designed and worn in the inter-war period. The clothes were sophisticated, glamorous and very modern. But more importantly for me, the clothes showed (better than the photographs) the typical Art Deco motifs and shapes that took over from Flapper Era singlet dresses. 

I am grate­ful for the photos from the Conde Nast collection, but I wish they were much bigger and in colour. After all, Art Deco's main contributions to the world of design were a] detailed shapes and b] bold colour.

For dozens of beautiful Steichen photographs, see Doctor Ojiplático  and Collecting Old Magazines. Or read Edward Steichen: In High Fashion which was produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis in 2008. The authors are William Ewing and Todd Brandow.


What was the commercial inter-reliance between France and the USA, at least as far as the fashion industry was concerned? Apart from Steichen and his American colleagues taking glamorous photos of French designs, how else did American fashionistas know what was happening in Paris? A book called The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America 1900-1929 has just been published by Yale UP. The author Caroline Evans focuses on the mannequins who travelled by ship, to model the clothes on the runway or in garden parties. And the arrival of Lucile Lady Duff Gordon who opened show rooms in London and Paris, but also in New York and Chicago! Finally she discusses the role of American magazines like Harper's Bazaar in displaying the latest French fashions.


elegancemaison said...

By happy coincidence I viewed some Edward Steichen fashion photographs yesterday at the State Library of NSW in Sydney.I am visiting my Australian family (daughters and grandchildren)and saw that the Library had visiting V&A exhibition. "Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography".

Unlike the Melbourne exhibition - no actual clothes. But some beautiful images and an interesting appraisal of the development of fashion photography to (almost) modern day.

Btw I have also visited a fashion exhibition at The Jewish Museum in Sydney - a wonderful celebration of both the Jewish involvement in the "rag trade" and the role of immigrants in the early, mid-century and modern Australian fashion industry.

Deb said...

The Smithsonian has a Steichen photo of two gowns by Madeleine Vionnet that "reflects the ease of movement for which Vionnet was known". Vionnet was a genius.

Hels said...


your Australian visit has been full of learning and creativity... I am delighted.

The title "Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography" is interesting. Does it matter if fashion images are used for advertising or should they remain a purer art form? Steichen was clear about his position on advertising.

Hels said...


I hope this is the Steichen photo you had in mind: http://tinyurl.com/lr89gmt

The exhibition's thesis was that Steichen was a genius; that HE made the fashions look amazing. But I agree with you - Vionnet was elegant, flowing, timeless. SHE was the genius.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These are wonderful photos, but I'm not sure that they would be better in color. I think the silvery sheen and high contrast of the black and white photos heightens the drama. That said, it might be interesting to see what a really good colorist could do with tinting these photographs.

Hels said...


I would have agreed with you totally, had the exhibition and the book been called "Edward Steichen & Art Photography". This title would have also more easily encompassed his stunning portfolio of Great Men.

But it wasn't. "Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion" didn't tell me much about Deco... and I am an Art Deco fan, in every medium!!

Mandy Southgate said...

As much as I love Art Deco design, I have to admit that I prefer Flapper fashion. It is my second favourite fashion style after the 60s. I often say I should make my own clothes so I can dedicate my wardrobe to the 20s and 60s.

Hels said...


everyone has a fashion period that appeals to them enormously. For me it was the Edwardian New Woman look: long hair piled up, high collar, smart cotton blouse with a bit of lace, slim skirt etc.

You are lucky in that Steichen captured two of your favourite eras - he did the 20s beautifully, as well as Deco.

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Caroline Evans' book, The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America 1900-1929, Yale UP, 2013

Mandy Southgate said...

Very interesting! I can just picture you in that style too.

Hels said...


I have decided to go back to do a blog post on to Jeanne Lanvin; she headed one of the premier Paris couture houses 1910s, 20s and 30s. Even though her feminine dresses contrasted with the slim, androgynous-ish aesthetic of the flappers, you will love her work.