Op-Ed | Why Do We Take Pictures of Clothes?

Cadre Noir by Helmut Newton, 1980 | Source: Osborne Samuel

NEW YORK, United States — I once began a fashion meeting at French Vogue in Paris with a question to the rest of the team: “Why do we take pictures of clothes?” Everyone just gave me that look and said “Debra!” I know it probably seemed crazy for a fashion editor to say this, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves the question and I think now is a great time to revisit this topic.

Franceline Prat, an editor at French Vogue and a mentor to so many of us, always reminds me that the most important work she did for the magazine was less often inspired by the clothes themselves than by the great stories that she and many of the forces in fashion’s creative ecosystem pulled directly from their own life experiences.

As Franceline said herself, “always remember the great characters you meet in your life, they will inspire you later on and you never know when.” Our own life stories will always be, for fashion, the strongest and most powerful reference of them all.

An example she often cited was the shoot she did with Helmut Newton, inspired by a young lieutenant belonging to the Cadre Noir de Saumor, the elite French mounted cavalry which was stationed not far from where she grew up as a young belle of Nice society. The lieutenant had loved her from afar.

Many years later, trying to think of an idea that would please the very difficult Mr. Newton, she remembered the Cadre Noir and the young lieutenant, the beautiful black horses and the magnificent black uniforms, which were a particular fetish of the photographer. So, 20 years later she called up her young lieutenant (then a colonel!) and said, “Do you remember me? I want to come and do some photographs with you!” Luckily for the history of fashion photography, he agreed.

But today, fashion creatives just don’t seem to be pulling from these kinds of personal stories, neither at the shows nor in the pages of magazines. Collections are hailed for having great “pieces,” but if this becomes the focus, it leaves the rest of fashion’s creative ecosystem starving and unbalanced.

Magazines, like great absurdist theater, whether operatic or minimalist, tell only vague stories, made from carefully art directed still images that leave a lot of blanks for the reader to fill in. Who didn’t want to run off to Greece after seeing Bob Richardson’s romantically gorgeous editorial in French Vogue, a tear running down the girl’s tanned face as she ends her summer romance in the final spread of the editorial? This is what makes storytelling so important. It allows us to fool ourselves into believing that if we purchase the following list of items, or wear our hair a certain way, we too would be jetting off to Greece in no time. And if we just head over to Bergdorf’s, we too can have that life.

Why did this all start to change? Maybe it was because of the rise of celebrity in fashion. Or the focus on “behind the scenes.” Or the practice of referencing upon referencing. Maybe it was the focus publishers put on cross-marketing film and record releases. Or perhaps it was the their relationships with merchants, because, the truth is, for the most part, we now take pictures of clothing in order to optimize merchandising.

It was not so long ago that fashion enjoyed a rich period of more personal storytelling, starring creative forces like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang — and boy did they put on a show! All of these designers found tremendous inspiration in their own life stories. Then the teams that make up the rest of the ecosystem — from hair and makeup artists to shoemakers, jewelers, set designers and music producers — all contributed to the “mise en scene.” There seemed to be a balance then, between the vagueness that allowed us to dream and the more informational “where can I get that?’ aspect of it all.

While watching The September Issue, the documentary about the making of American Vogue’s September 2007 issue, at first I was honestly perplexed by Grace Coddington’s insistence that Galliano’s costume drama collection was her focus for the season. With all due respect to Mr. Galliano (for whom I do have a great deal of respect), it hardly seemed appropriate that in 2007, he would be the key reference point for the creative director of American Vogue considering the radical change we have seen in the way designers, editors, and photographers work today.

But upon further reflection, it made sense. Ms. Coddington comes from the era of fashion storytelling, which was like a beautiful dance between the couturiers, the models, the art directors, the editors and the photographers. They all lived and waltzed through the same world, where Monsieur Saint Laurent fell in love with The Ballet Russes; where Anna Wintour became enamoured with Mark Morris; where Diana Vreeland herself turned the whole of Vogue into a work of theatre both on the magazine’s pages and in its offices. Ms. Coddington was just going back to what she knew was the best way to tell a fashion story.

Luckily, we do have some great fashion storytellers today. So let’s give credit where credit is due. The Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte bring their hard style ballet costumes to Chelsea art galleries. Scott Sternberg refers to himself, not as a designer, but rather as someone who “makes content.” Thom Browne disrobes flying nuns to reveal exquisite clothing which launches a thousand new ideas on how to present clothing, not just in his theatre, but also how to present them in-store, how to present them in the context of a magazine, and, of course, how to present and use the pieces in the theatre of life, as Daphne Guinness, Anna Piaggi and Anna Dello Russo are more than happy to do. It’s much needed oxygen for the industry.

Who do you think are today’s best fashion storytellers?

Debra Scherer has worked at American Vogue, French Vogue and Italian Vogue, where she is currently a contributing editor. She is co-founder of The Little Squares.

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6 comments

  1. It’s not just about telling a story, it’s what kind of story. Many fashion spreads sell us the glamour, the vacation in exotic islands, the fantasy story. And that’s all well and good but like the title asks, what’s behind the clothes? They are visually beautiful but what’s their story, the story of the designer, of the trend, the fabrics, what emotions do they transmit… these are all opportunities to create content. The personal is lost in fast fashion and that’s a shame. We can only hope it finds its way back and that it doesn’t disappear altogether.

    Susana A. from Lima, Lima, Peru
  2. I read recently that Phoebe Philo found it odd when people came rushing backstage after a show to ask her what the collection meant, claiming that she’d already said what she wanted to say through the clothes, that it was up to the audience to interpret it as they saw fit. This really struck a chord with me, as I’ve always seen the editorial as a way to show different perspectives on fashion. The most impressive editorials for me have always been those which presented a style which I would never have believed I could wear, or that would never be suitable for the kind of life I lead and proved me wrong. An editorial has to give a story and a bit of whimsy but should also make the clothes relevant to the reader. It has to present a fantasy that can be realised.

  3. For me, “the end of fashion” photography was quite simple…I had been living in Paris and Milan for several years, growing and learning the art of fashion photography…training my eye to really see the big picture as well as the minute details. Upon moving to NYC in 2001, my first job was shooting a campaign for a designer. I entered the meeting with arms full of art history books, post-it notes poking out, and other materials to storyboard my ideas…it was within 5 minutes that the head of the fashion group that owned this label/designer looked at me and said…”what the fu*k is all this…(referring to the art history books, etc) …take the shoot to a studio and shoot her on a white wall and be done!…we don’t have time or money for this!” Sadly this is where the art of storytelling has gone, to what is cheap and fast.

    Darren from Miami Beach, FL, United States
  4. Thank you for the breath of fresh air … as you say fashion was and in my opinion still should be a dramatic or theatrical dreamscape where creative imagination plays the dominant role as it was in the days of Diana Vreeland … who was a true fashion editor working with that extinct breed of real art directors !!! … but now as you mention we live in an overwhelmingly comercial world where fashion has simply become a marketing tool or the fast fashion catalogue much like the fast food eateries that are not concerned with the need for a white linen tablecloth !!! … the haute culture has left town and been replaced by the mass marketing machine that is dragging us into that infinite black hole of mediocrity where homoginization of taste and desire is the goal of the marketeer !!! where is Oscar Wilde when we he’s needed !!! … haha

  5. I still remember the first time I saw the fabrics designed by my grandfather. Pink birds on Emerald Blue Silk. Green tones in Batik. Colorful flowers. To me these were not simple patterns, or creations based on an age old tradition. They were stories, told to me by my grandfather from the time when he still lived in Indonesia. I was allowed to play with the fabrics, and while I wrapped them around me, I imagined being a princess in a far away land, a magician in a magic cloth, or a pirate sailing the seven seas. Fabrics, the art of dressmaking (my mother was a seamstress for ateliers in Europe) and storytelling became inseparable in my imaginative world and this combination became the main reason why I fell in love with the fashion world. Something Diana Vreeland introduced and captured. Something I see in the idiosyncratic style of Iris Apfel. Unfortunately fast fashion has replaced “haute” storytelling with “haute” marketability and a “whowearswhatontheredcarpet” – mentality. The collective over the individual. The credo: Démodé or Dress alike, think alike. I’m waiting for the return (or resurrection?) of fashion storytellers who understand fashion as the art of creative expression, and who dare to create content (whether in words or images) which shows their interpretation of fashion through unique and ingenuous stories, triggering imagination. Because good ‘Once upon a Time’s’ and great ‘Happily ever Afters’ are always in style.

  6. its such an awesome feeling to look back to the times when fashion was the one sweater your grandmom knitted for you..or that one scarf your mom has given you before leaving home so that u can escape from cold breeze…but now fashion has took a new face..People are running after things simply for de fact everyone around is wearing..They has simply over grown the fact that fashion is something inherited in you..its wat makes ”YOU” who you are…so it cant be following anything blindly..Rather it has to be something with your own touch..something with which your soul can connects and .that can only come out of your personal story.!super like de article above……..:))

    Swati garg from New Delhi, Delhi, India