On the eastern fringes of Paris, there’s an old industrial warehouse overlooking the Seine called the Cité de la Mode et du Design, and nicknamed Les Docks. It’s the unlikely home of one of the biggest fashion museums—the site of last year’s popular exhibitions on Cristóbal Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, which attracted large crowds.
Now it’s the home of the latest of Paris’s Musée Galliera off-site show, Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode (Models’ Bodies: The Crux of Fashion), which features the work of renowned photographers including Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Corinne Day, and Guy Bourdin. The show includes 120 photographs, fashion videos, magazine clippings, store-window mannequins, and dressmakers’ dummies.
“For once, I wanted people to have a different look at fashion photography—that is, by taking models as the starting point, instead of always focusing on the apparel or on the photographer,” says curator Sylvie Lecallier. “We underestimate how much models embody society’s feminine ideals of beauty and youth and how their impact has gradually transcended the world of fashion.”
Lecallier explains that the ideal of thinness in fashion modeling is not as recent as one might expect. The trend, she says, began as early as 1924, when Paris couturier Jean Patou called in tall, slim American models “with no hips and narrow ankles.” She explains: “Photoshop wasn’t the instigator of manual retouching—models were already molded by makeup and retouching from the late 19th century.”
Pointing at Juergen Teller’s 1996 picture of Kristen McMenamy in the nude (with the word ‘Versace’ painted on her chest) and Corinne Day’s portrait of topless 15-year-old Kate Moss, Lecallier argues that nudity is one of the most pivotal evolutions in the history of fashion photography. Stemming from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the cult of nudity entered its golden age in the 1990s. “There was this idea at the time that fashion had to shock in a more sexual way in order to get people’s attention,” she says. “The problem is that nudity matters more now than fashion itself. Fashion photography is being over-eroticized.”
The show also examines models’ progression from anonymity to stardom since the birth of haute couture. In the early 20th century, Paris couture houses’ it girls were none other than socialites, singers, and actresses—including Nelly Martyl, a Parisian opera singer in the 1910s—featured in a series of black-and-white photos published in Les Modes and other old fashion publications.
At the time, modeling was considered a shameful profession, and it gained more prestige only after the end of World War II. Sifting through old issues of Vogue, Lecallier says that the relationship between the photographer and the model took a turn in the 1980s, when Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel invented supermodels. “Models used to be considered as ‘objects,’ entirely subjected to the photographer’s desire,” she says. “Some of this still prevails today, but now the model can also be a muse and a celebrity.”
Asked about the current state of fashion photography, Lecallier says: “Nowadays, photographers tend to put their creativity aside and give priority to a brand’s commercial needs. As a result, fashion photography is more predictable and less daring. But I’m optimistic, and I’m looking forward to a bolder, more creative future.”