Once considered a lesser medium due to its commerciality, fashion photography has finally risen to the status of museum curated artwork. For four months, The J. Paul Getty Museum will showcase the evolution of fashion from 1911 to 2011, featuring over one hundred and sixty photographs and an extensive collection of costumes, illustrations, magazine covers, videos, and advertisements. Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum, explains their newfound interest in this modern art form: “Fashion photography is now recognized as having produced some of the most creative work of the twentieth century, transcending its illustrative function to yield images of great artistic quality and sophistication.” This exhibition portrays the generational changes in fashion, recognizing that this aesthetic has a discernible history and a distinct progression of style based in political and economic changes in society.
The exhibition begins in 1911, when women’s fashion began the shift from tight, corseted dresses to looser, more practical clothing. Potts notes that women’s fashion changed particularly during the Great Depression and the Second World War due to political and economic distress at home; as women entered the workforce, the need for practical clothing only grew. Ironically, fashion magazines responded by increasing the luxuriousness of the clothing they photographed. It represented a respite for overworked women, an escape from the realities of the Depression and the war. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did male fashion enter the public view. Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani integrated male sexuality into their designs by portraying handsome, well-built models, forever altering the history of male fashion photography.
The primary goal of the Icons of Style exhibition is to recognize fashion photography as a legitimate art form via its aesthetic evolution and economic significance. Paul Martineau, the exhibition’s curator and associate curator of photography, says, “My hope is that this sweeping introduction to fashion photography will not only educate and delight our visitors, but also inspire new scholarly inquiry. Long overlooked, the gradual integration of fashion photographs into museum collections will make it easier for these pictures to be evaluated in terms of the larger history of the medium of photography.”