Beauty undeniably lies at the core of fashion photography. In spite of numerous attempts to branch out into unconventional forms – think Heroin Chic of the 1990s – it is the universally accepted notion of beauty that fashion photography ultimately keeps coming back to, and, arguably, what keeps people coming back to fashion. This should not come as a surprise, really, for something fundamentally built upon the aspirations of the haute bourgeoisie to reflect an idealised and classical beauty (Shinkle 2008, 29). In fact, fashion imagery throughout history has proven time and time again that the practice often relies upon the beauty of a model to provide credibility to an image, and to have it accepted by both the fashion and consumer world alike. That’s right – we, too, are guilty of readily accepting something simply because it is endorsed by beauty. Which is exactly why American photographer Cindy Sherman – whose work actively subverts the false reality depicted in fashion photography – is so refreshing.
In her Chanel 2010-12 series, Sherman put together a collection of images which saw the
photographer assume the identity of the high-fashion models we’re accustomed to seeing in the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But the work, which showcased clothing from the Chanel archive – ranging from pieces designed by Coco Chanel herself in the 1920s to contemporary pieces by Karl Lagerfeld (Davi-Khorasanee 2012) – is a far cry from the glamourous and carefully-styled images we expect from these high-end magazines. Dressing herself in unpleasant combinations of the luxurious garments, Sherman poses uncomfortably against backdrops from Iceland and the Isle of Capris; resulting in images that are intentionally unattractive and, in some cases, even verging on comical.
Every aspect of this series seems to highlight the frequent absurdity of editorial fashion photography, and how we, as consumers of fashion imagery, so willingly accept it just because it is spread out across glossy pages in a magazine. Sherman’s posing, which “awkwardly mimics the dramatic poses of fashion editorial models” (Cavallo 2012), makes the expensive clothing look uncomfortable and bizarre; disrupting the fashion photographers’ principal goal of making clothing look desirable to consumers. The nonsensical locations, which Sherman is completely alienated from, are also references to editorials, which often place models in completely unrelated environments to which no connection can be drawn. So what is it about these images that make them so unappealing and – let’s be honest – amusing? Don’t they follow the normal conventions of fashion photography; expensive clothing, awe-inspiring backdrop, and dramatic posing? What’s different? I’m willing to suggest that a lot of it comes down to the fact that the model within the images isn’t young, beautiful, and impossibly well-proportioned.
If that is the case, then Cindy Sherman’s work is refreshing not only in the way that it brings our attention to the meticulously-constructed false reality within fashion photography, but also in the way that it questions the notions of accepted beauty as endorsed by contemporary fashion and, arguably, ourselves.
Untitled 2010-12, Cindy Sherman. Metro Pictures NY.
Cavallo, Sofia. 2012. “Chanel Girl: Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures.” Opening Ceremony Blog, December 31. https://www.openingceremony.com/entry.asp?pid=5606
Davi-Khorasanee, Gabriella. 2012. “Cindy Sherman Photographs Chanel.” La Chanelphile Blog, May 1. http://www.lachanelphile.com/2012/05/01/cindy-sherman-photographs-chanel/
Shinkle, Eugenie. 2008. Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images and Fashion. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.