History of Fashion Photography

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Taking pictures is a way of creating art. Creative people have known this since the beginning of fashion photography. You will learn about the exciting history of fashion photography by following a timeline of noteworthy events in this movement.

The Beginning of an Era

Many may believe that the history of fashion photography began when a culture fascinated by clothing collided with the invention of the camera. The result? The first photos of individuals wearing the latest fashion emerged. But perhaps more contributed to the evolution of fashion photography. For instance, when did photographers begin to focus on the artistic beauty of fashion--the wearing and modeling of stylish beautiful clothes? By studying fashion photography's history, one can learn the photographers, magazines, designers, and models who created a cultural movement that still exists today.

A Photo of Virginia Oldoini by Adolphe Braun

In the court of Napoleon Bonaparte in France in 1856, the concept of fashion photography originated when Adolphe Braun published a book that featured the photographs of Virginia Oldoini. Known as Countess di Castiglione, Oldoini was a Tuscan noblewoman who posed wearing the fashion of the day and became the first model of her time. But it was not until the 1880s that American fashion design blossomed. Magazine publishing and the retail industry grew, as the fashion business matured, spawning international exchange of ideas and ready-to-wear lines.

Early 20th Century

One photographer important in fashion photography's history was the well-known Edward Jean Steichen from Luxembourg. He popularized the practice of photographing the same model on a variety of sets. In 1911, Steichen took the job of fashion photographer for 'Art and Decoration,' a magazine. His images drew attention to his models' glamour. Moreover, he developed studio lighting by incorporating side lights on the photography sets and became known as the inventor of the modern fashion photo shoot.

Preparing a Fashion Model before a Shoot

Due to the progress of printing processes during the early 20th century, fashion magazines such as 'Vogue' and 'Harper's Bazaar' became capable of combining fashion photos with print. Accordingly, fashion illustrators who drew clothing lines for the magazines were replaced by fashion photographers. It was during this period that photographer, Man Ray, created a style based upon the surrealistic ideals made famous by the great painter Salvador Dali. Surrealism was a cultural movement spawned in the early 1920s that contrasted the dreams of the subconscious with reality in strange imagery. By altering the lighting used in his photo shoots with models, Ray explored the individual's subconscious.

Another practitioner of early fashion photography was Baron de Meyer, who was known as the 'Debussy of the Camera.' De Meyer used unique soft backlighting and complemented each model's sensuousness with formality. Further, he experimented with Art Nouveau style by making each model reflect fantasy elements. Men's fashions were just as popular during this period; however, the male models were not photographed as often as their counterparts.

Mid-20th Century

Following World War II, fashion photographers left behind their passion for classic lines and developed photography that focused on themes of uninhibited spontaneity and glamour. Working with designers, photographers began collaborating with designers seeking to launch successful clothing lines. For instance, designer Christian Dior created a new look for his models in which the curve of the hip was accentuated with clothing that was tight at the waist and voluminous below. His 'New Look' was extremely popular in North America and abroad.

A Dior Model Posing for the Camera

By the 1960s, fashion photographers began to focus on free-flowing women's fashion that symbolized a freer culture. Also, clothing was bolder and brighter due to exciting, contrasting patterns and colorful designs. Who can forget the photos of the English model Twiggy in her short dresses? This change from classic to trendy was an inspiration for the hippies' look. Through the 1970s, photography of women's fashions emphasized femininity and sexuality.

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