Fashion In an attempt to take a break from hearing about the total destruction of our way of life (or whatever this is) for a few hours, yesterday I travelled to remain-stronghold Manchester for the Vogue 100 exhibition which has toured from the V&A up to Manchester Art Gallery. This didn't quite work. Included in the exhibition is a shot of BoJo sat on a girder in front of the Anish Kapoor piece during the 2012 Olympics. Little did any of us know back then he would help bring about the destruction of Western democracy just a few years later, the fuck. Another visitor took a photo of the mop headed uruk-hai's image. Why on earth would you want to do that?
Despite being a normcore, man at Asda type, I've always had a deep fascination for haute couture and fashion design. Note this does not stretch to me understanding the mechanics of how these dresses are made exactly, but it's always felt like a shorthand way of being able to appreciate history and who we are as a people. Recently fashion feels like it's stagnated, clothing worn on the street a mish-mash of recent decades, but that in and of itself says much about our own times. My #ootd was a red t-shirt sporting the 70s Wonder Woman logo, which is pretty much what I wear all the time, a design classic, I'm sure you'll agree.
Not that this has stretched to buying fashion magazines but I've recently kept an eye on Vogue, led in no small part by watching The September Issue, the expose/advertumentary about the production of the most important issue of the year for the US publication, highlighting the personality of its editor Anna Wintour (who must have been one of the influences for the Cat Grant character in TV's Supergirl). The notion of a magazine which sits slap bang in the middle of promoting artistic expression for the purposes of selling clothes or at least the idea of a lifestyle to people who aspire to at some point being able to buy versions of the clothes in the high street depending on their credit rating.
VOGUE 100 is a celebration of the history of the UK magazine, concentrating on the photographers commissioned across the years and the models who sat for them. Although the fashions are inevitably mentioned, this is not a chronology of clothing, at least not in a definitive sense. It's more about how the magazine sensed trends and portrayed them, and built the careers of photographers and models, highlighting the more seismic shifts and the occasions when the magazine even led those trends, which is more often than not. There are a couple of moments when the only response is "Oh, so that where that came from..."
Boldly the exhibition begins with the 2010s and works backwards across the decades. At first this seems counter intuitive, as you know my usual taste is for a good hard chronology, but it makes sense in this context, to begin with the way we live now and work backwards, demonstrating the key influences and how the structure of fashion photography has or hasn't changed across the decades. Plus it allows for an impressive introduction to the show filled with dynamic images of royalty, surreal dreams of models in bed with crocodiles or dreams of their fighter pilot boyfriends manifesting in their front lounge.
The key revelation for me is that in Vogue and other fashion magazines we're seeing the modern replacement for the paintings of the Renaissance, baroque and Victorian eras, of women in allegorical and narrative poses. Even designed as they are for consumption in magazine form, none of these photographs, even the more genetic portraits, feel out of place or over elevated within a gallery space. They're often as startling, exciting or surprising as those masterworks and although the production time is far shorter, the inspiration and creative process mirrors them in a number of crucial ways. There's little ephemeral about this supposed ephemera.
There's Kate Moss in her first shoot for Corine Day back in 1993, entirely unpretentious launching a career in some high street clothing shot against a cheap carpet, like a Sundance movie taking on the Hollywood might of the supermodels, Kristy, Naomi, Cindy. The original print of their collective cover is displayed nearby and they're ravishing, commanding, a collective sisterhood of dragon mothers ready to rule the galaxy. The exhibition is strong on marking how our connection to these figures has changes across the years. It wasn't until the 1940s that the "average" model was anywhere close to being a household name.
Vogue has also had a strong editorial undercurrent. When the magazine began, fashion drawings were accompanied by a rich seam of articles about culture, music and art and literature, initiated by editor Dorothy Todd who published a couple of hundred articles by the Bloomsbury group amongst other things. Her interests were unpopular and there was a drop in circulation, but nevertheless later editors recognised how useful this balance could be, with Lee Miller's reporting from WWII and more recently articles about the plight of the homeless and other social problems. Perhaps one of the frustrations of the exhibition is that the example articles aren't presented in their entirety.
The other frustration is me not really being the audience for this. Although I've heard of some of the designers, my knowledge of who they are or what they do is minimal. I envied the visitors who pointed amongst their friends, perhaps picking out the kinds of clothes they've worn or would like to wear. Eventually I realised it was ok just to enjoy looking at the photos and it is one of those exhibitions where there is no filler. You might disagree with the subjects on display, although I understand why Thatcher's here, but it's never boring. I gasped numerously. There are plenty of images which wouldn't look out of place at the Liverpool Biennial.
But however many shots of by Bruce Weber of Matt Dillon there are, men's fashions remain incredibly boring and rarely beautiful in the same way as an Alexander McQueen or Coco Chanel dress. Hell, even the average Marks and Spencers top is more interesting than what men have to wear no matter how metrosexual the cut is supposed to be. Even as a teenager I was moaning about how women have so much more choice and that stands, we have no equivalent to the halter top or little black dress. Sarongs do not work. There was a lot of envy being thrown about yesterday afternoon, and no a velvet jacket is not the same.
A couple of things to note in case you decide to visit. At the entrance to the show is a video demonstrating the shift to online presentation of the fashions through moving image which has an incessant, repetitious piece of what I think is trance music underneath which can be heard throughout the exhibition so you'd be well to bring some music if you haven't company. I worked through both Taylor Swift's 1989 album and the new All Saints both of which seemed apt for this material. Taylor does not appear in the exhibition itself which relies more heavily on actresses, Gwyneth, Salma and Uma before she was famous. Each is provided with a context explaining film had just been released.
The show also has an audio guide, something which I didn't realise until half way round when it was pointed out to me by an invigilator after I asked why one of the labels featured a wifi logo. "Did you not read the text before coming in?" he asked before dragging me outside to show me the URL to this page which necessitated me going through the 70s-2010s all over again adding half an hour to the visit. Narrated by Dervla Kirwan, it's more like an audio commentary featuring the curators of the show explaining their curatorial processes, which can be a bit dry. There's a solitary piece of interview with Lily Cole about the photography process and I would have liked much more of that.
After having had to double back, I think I was in the exhibition for about four hours not including the break in the middle for lunch, and it still didn't feel like enough. I savoured a lot in here, awash and absorbed by all of the beauty. The curators say they designed the exhibition to partly mimic the experience of reading a magazine, but despite everything Vogue on paper fulfils the utilitarian requirement of advising readers on fashion trends however artistically, whereas in a gallery context, the role is reverse and they become art objects in and of themselves and on that basis I'd recommend it to anyone.
Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2016