Review of Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast, City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Coming into Fashion – a unique glimpse into the most sparkling and striking of images from the international Condé Nast archives- is both a history lesson in glamour and an ode to scintillating, beautiful photography. Spanning the decades and the stream of cover girls from across Condé Nast’s infamously stylish publications, including Vogue, Glamour and Vanity Fair, curator, Nathalie Herschdorfer, creates of the exhibition a linear stroll along emerging and ever-changing elegance and allure, both in photography and ideals of femininity.

In the beginning, around 1911, the innovators of this new fashion photography, spotted by Condé Nast’s quick eye for talent-scouting, make their mark with works of mystical, and even coy, beauty. Aimed at a primarily female readership in the wake of haute couture and the rise of the department store, these images from the likes of first Vogue fashion photographer, Adolf de Meyer, sing with the roaring spirit of the jazz age. Waif-like, androgynous creatures, cloaked in feathers and lace, swinging and dancing in the shadows alongside exotic beauties of little plumage and flourishing grace, are the early ancestors to nearly a century of future models to come.

And as the thirties roll along, women step right up to the lens and experimental shots begin to filter into the mainstream. Horst P. Horst replaces the body with a suggestive selection of sunhats for Vogue’s May 1935 issue, and emerging artist Cecil Beaton causes a stir with his decisively derisive Vogue November 1936 shot, where four robed clerical figures obstinately turn their backs to the camera.

Bolstered with physical copies of Vogue and Glamour magazines and scrawled letters between British and American Vogue, the second exhibition section captures all the heady success of the Golden Age of the 1950s-60s. Stepping right into modernity is Constantin Joffé‘s 1945 work, where rogue lipsticks, hugging dresses and fuzzy hats, shout out a herald to the new era of sophistication.

Even entering into the New Wave of 1960s-1970s and moving into the more recent decades of supermodel stardom, what quickly becomes apparent is this exhibition’s potential to shock the feminist-savvy contemporary audience, with almost every image presenting women in only partial or hidden form: a head turned away, just a leg or torso on show, bodies constantly made to perform synecdoche. Herschdorfer also certainly likes to create striking juxtapositions, as exhibition sequences highlight glaring controversies and discrepancies within decades: sensual bronzed bodies sandwiched between modest black and white prints or glaring political images squeezed in between bathing suits and all flesh a-hoy.

All set to a soundtrack of Hollywood movies, it is the last section that is the most recognisable, glaringly bold and sexual, with works from the likes of Sølve Sundsbø and Mario Testino. From an alpha-female imitation of The Beatles to almost Pynchon-esque works of colourful postmodernity, the exhibition hangs on a note of vibrant, dynamic performance in photography that is a very obviously warped, but in principle, identifiable descendant of those early pioneering works, just a floor below.

Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast, 15 June until 8 September, City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DE.

Katharine Wootton


1. Albert Watson, American Vogue, May 1977. Courtesy City Art Centre
2. Solve Sundsbo, Love, SpringSummer 2011. Courtesy City Art Centre