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In Terry Richardson’s fashion story for The Face in February 1997, a blonde model was featured in one image, her one-shoulder Yves Saint Laurent dress riding up her leg to reveal a pale, bruised thigh. She clutches at her arm, her face turned in a swoon. The sophistication of her black dress is tarnished by the smudgy shininess of her made-up face and the tacky shine of the polythene covering the armchair she sits upon. The image refers to a souring of fashion’s glamorous allure; but such photographs have also been interpreted by fashion commentators, as well as by the American president, as representing the throes of a narcotics rush.
Perhaps these images are the result of a sense of lack of control, displaying a defiantly imperfect body and world-view, as a reaction formation to the feeling of vulnerability and anxiety in a society that sets so much store by appearance. The image refuses to accept traditional codes of health and beauty that frequently go unchallenged as “common sense,” the only rational way to view the body, to chart our attitudes to it.
In Chalmers’ words, “Play with the body, as opposed to the labor of making it fit, has been at once a sign of oppression and of the subversion of that resistance” (Chalmers 1989: 152). When there is a feeling of loss of control, people often turn inwards, reclaiming the body as the only thing they can control, and demonstrating this power through acts that are self-destructive and defiant. These images short-circuit our expectations of the fashion image as representing a submissive femininity. We seek validation from media representations in images that are projections of desired selves. In these examples, though, we are denied our aspirational voyeurism, and given only images of human frailty; and this is profoundly jarring and unsettling.
This questioning of stable meanings was a strong element of seventies fashion. In Helmut Newton’s famous photograph of Yves Saint Laurent’s smoking of 1975, the ambiguities of the city are echoed in the sleekly androgynous silhouette of the model. The deep grays of the crepuscular street present her as an expressionistic figure, at once masculine and feminine, her black suit and nonchalant stance offset by a delicate Georgette blouse. Her face seems gaunt, her hair slicked back in a mannish style; she is alone and yet watched, caught in the camera’s gaze, but refusing to confront her spectator’s. The dangerous glamor of seventies style was redolent of decadence, proving once again that the desire to project an image of conspicuous waste and disregard for contemporary morality is nothing new. In the 1970s designers such as Halston and Yves Saint Laurent played with notions of pleasure, excess and death in their luxurious designs, shot in sleazily glamorous settings. They played with the same visions of ambiguous gender and sexuality that we see in the 1990s, and it is significant that they have been used by contemporary image-makers as a source of inspiration. There is, though, a more sexualized exoticism to much of the seventies imagery. In Yves Saint Laurent’s autumn/winter 1967/7 collection, the opulence of Russian style recalled the exoticism of the “other” that is apparent in nineteenth-century orientalist paintings. Jewel-colored fabrics and extravagant pattern hint at sensual pleasures, at a giving in to the senses, unlike the contemporary imagery, which bears the mark of a melancholy and asceticism closer to the desexualized Absinthe Drinker.
It is also worth noting that there was a similar cross-over between the fantasy of the images and the reality of the designers’ lives. Both Halston and Yves Saint Laurent lived in decadent excess. Yves Saint Laurent modeled himself on the drug-hazed nineteenth-century romantics, who also sought intensity through the emotional extremes of narcotics. Saint Laurent and Halston were part f a hedonistic glamor that centered around the twilight world of nightclubs like Studio 54. Their decadent image, woven with tales of excess, was epitomized in the launch of Saint Laurent’s heady oriental fragrance, Opium, in 1978. A Chinese junk was the setting for the party on the East River in New York. The explicitly drug-infused image that was projected dripped with references to the spectacular self-indulgence of the opium-eater. It called to mind the nineteenth-century aristocrats who went slumming in drug dens, expressing a nostalgie de la boue, in defiance of sneered-at conventional morality. This sense of lazy glamor is lacking in contemporary photographs, which depict a drug culture that is cold and impoverished. They lack the sense of distance, of entering the world of exoticized, eroticized otherness from the outside. However, some have viewed fashion in both eras as too self-absorbed, too omnipotent, and drunk on its own success.
High fashion has continued to toy with the etiolated, androgynous forms of heroin chic. When Calvin Klein employed the style in his advertising the FBI began an investigation into his company. The images depicted skeletal prostrated models in the sleazy artificial environment of a cheap motel. There were accusations of child pornography, drug abuse and the encouragement of anorexia. The media was once again fascinated by its own repulsion, the glossy context of these images lending them a certain glamor, even though it would be difficult to say that the images themselves are glamorous. Klein added a frisson of edgy danger to his brand, which is itself quite simple and, ironically, given the deathly bodies that the advertising featured, sportswear-based.
This is where the image is at its most controversial, when it is harnessed to blatant commercialism, and used by designers to add a contemporary feel to sell their product. It is here that it gains greatest circulation too, when it leaves the indulgent confines of the fashion world. It is also significant that it is when magazines like Vogue, which stands for the older generation’s more traditional morality, use the style that there is the greatest outcry. Corinne Day’s images for British Vogue in June 1993 caused a similar outcry to the Klein shots. The sight of Kate Moss in skimpy underwear in the by-now familiar confines of a tatty flat were jolting when set against the pomp and luxury of much of the rest of the magazine. While the pictures were mild in comparison with the visions in The Face or Dazed & Confused, they seemed inappropriate to the ethos of the glossy pages of more “grown-up” publications.
Some labels like Prada were able to translate the style more convincingly to high fashion. Prada’s advertising campaign for autumn/winter 1996 used the bruised coloring of heroin chic and the claustrophobic containment of the picture within cramped interiors. The murky purples, cold blues and touches of olive green added a dissonance to the delicacy of the nostalgic slip dress, its soft eroticism further undermined by the thick, dark woolen tights that mask its transparency. The crop of the picture added a further jarring note. The models used were androgynous; one in a car coat looked awkward at being scrutinized, her arms clasped behind her back, her face turned away, avoiding the glare of the camera.
The principal domain of these images was, however, the style magazine. These youth-orientated magazines, which hot-housed heroin chic, represent the negotiation of new compromises in morality, where ideas of deviance become fluid as new identities are continually experimented with. They lack a belief in the one “morality” that the mainstream still seeks to assert, defying overarching ideas of acceptability in representations by blurring boundaries and challenging the norm.
These negotiations were already in full swing in the 1960s, when drug use became the norm within youth and popular culture. Images like Bob Richardson’s for French Vogue in 1967 projected a similar feel to those of Corinne Day, providing snapshots or stories of young people’s lives, intensifications of their experiences. The pictures showed an aching melancholy which had been rare in the fashion image. They are imbued with an uncertainty: in one a model holds her necklace to her lips; a tear stains her face. They speak of a carefree youth culture that has soured, a belief in the possibility of change and revolution that has been undermined. This sense of loss, and their hints at the brutality of life outside the image, was to be made more explicit in Richardson’s later work.
Christopher Booker felt that fashion itself expressed an “exhibitionistic violence” during the sixties, assaulting the onlooker with its harsh styles and the careless attitudes it reflected. He wrote of a culture that had become disinterested and cold, saying that the “hard uniforms were curiously impersonal, like the expressionless stare that so often went with them or the throwaway generic terms–‘birds’ or ‘dollies’–that were used to describe their wearers” (Booker 1969: 264).
His fears of a society that is brutalized and oblivious to the import of its words and actions may undercut the usual image of the sixties as a period of carefree fun; but his sentiments have been repeated in the criticism of contemporary fashion. The sixties had seen popular culture successfully challenge traditional identities by undermining the cool elitism of couture and drawing on an ever wider range of reference points. This fragmentation opened up opportunity; but it also produced an unease at the lack of security it instigated. Violence and brutality became more prominent features of the fashion photograph, which now reflected fears and hidden desires, as well as luxury and glamor.
In Bob Richardson’s photograph for Nova of 1972 the seedy hotel room familiar in nineties fashion imagery has become the site of what looks like an overdose. The prostrate model conforms to many of the usual sexual tactics assigned to the fashion image: mouth half open as if in sensual delight, slim body posed to increase the amount of flesh revealed. However, this easy reading has become dangerously subverted: the model appears dead, pills emptying from a bottle clasped in her hand, her body limp beside her open clutch bag, which reveals her passport and other personal effects, the envelope propped on the bedside table completing the image’s dark narrative.
The “postures of anxiety, insecurity and sexual uncertainty” (Jones 1997: 7) that Dylan Jones saw in the photographs of the 1990s were rehearsed in the 1960s and 1970s. The French photographer Guy Bourdin brought danger and deathliness to notions of glamor. He used vivid color photography that emphasized the artificiality of make-up and fashion, rather than attempting to make it seem “natural.” In his advertisements for Charles Jourdan shoes, the product becomes secondary to the unsettling image he has created. He uses the double-page spread to construct a disquieting image that calls into question fashion’s, and by extension Western culture’s, desire for the young, female body. In his work that fetishized body shows its frailty, its mortality: violence is hinted at, but no fixed meanings are obtainable from the various signifiers that inhabit the troubled interiors. We are not allowed the satisfaction of spectatorship: the reassurance of being outside the image looking anonymously in is pulled from us, as our voyeurism is made uncomfortable. As in the 1990s pictures, we seem to be witnessing private scenes that are themselves ambiguous, crystalizing silent fears that reinforce the sense of lack that pervades consumerist culture, instead of providing comforting visions that welcome our gaze.

-Arnold, R. Fashion Theory 1999


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