After the frantic pace and colors of New York, London, Milan, and Paris fashion weeks, a glance back to the enduring elegance of past decades is welcome. With Hamiltons Gallery’s upcoming show in London’s West End, we are invited to travel back through the lens of iconic photographer Horst P. Horst, to the salons and studios of the cities that continue to define what to wear and how to wear it. To cast our eyes over the shapes and silhouettes that characterized not only the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—as the fashion market expanded and the Condé Nast offices burgeoned with camera-flashing activity—but that also marked out the strong style and composition of Horst’s output.
If you’re not already familiar with the name, Horst sits next to Richard Avedon and Irving Penn as a major figure in 20th century fashion photography, having collaborated with such artistic contemporaries as Salvador Dalí, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel. Focusing on a collection of rare prints produced for Vogue, both fashion-oriented and figurative, “Horst Vintage” coincides with a wider retrospective of his oeuvre at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Horst: Photographer of Style.” His portraits are the antithesis to austerity, emitting the luxe and exuberance of an industry in full bloom.
The arrangement of the studio itself was something Horst took very seriously, treating it as an elaborate set in which models, art directors, stylists, and light technicians all played a role. Through this choreographed approach, he was able to reproduce the recurring plays on light and dark that Vogue editor Anna Wintour has described as “that signature chiaroscuro, those dramatic shadows”—effects that are clearly evident in this collection of black and white works. Within such highly orchestrated sets, the undulated edges of a pair of hips or of a harp, the curve of a waistline or the long length of a limb, a boxy volume of fur or a tightly fitting skirt, are each positioned with the utmost grace, to be elevated to the platform of art.
These images reflect much more than simply fashion, their aesthetics are aligned with eternal ideals of beauty. For as the photographer remarked in the ’80s (around the time Hamiltons began to represent his estate): “Fashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again.”
Visit “Horst Vintage” at Hamiltons Gallery, London, Sept. 24th–Nov. 24th, 2014.
“Horst Photographer of Style” is on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, through Jan. 4th, 2015.