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Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion

NGV is embarrassing the 1920s with the perfect combination of fashion photography and art deco

Words by: Helena Michalak
Photography by: Helena Michalak & NGV

I fear this post may just explode into run-on sentences of gushing, so let me attempt to rein it in. I attended the opening of the Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. It promised to “showcase the glamour and modernity of the Art Deco period through the work of fashion’s most influential photographer, Edward Steichen, and stunning Art Deco fashion garments and accessories”. And promise it did!

American 1879–1973, emigrated to United States 1881, worked in France 1906–23
On George Baher’s yacht. June Cox wearing unidentified fashion; E. Vogt wearing fashion by Chanel and a hat by Reboux; Lee Miller wearing a dress by Mae and Hattie Green and a scarf by Chanel; Hanna-Lee Sherman wearing unidentified fashion 1928 gelatin silver photograph Courtesy Condé Nast Archive © 1928 Condé Nast Publication

Now, I love Art Deco and fashion and art and the 1920s (hello current season of Downton Abbey) but I really didn’t know much about this Edward Steichen fellow. How much I have been educated in the last 24 hours! Most people considered him to be the first modern fashion photographer.

Born in 1879 in Luxembourg (one of the coolest countries in the world where everyone speaks multiple languages) he and his family immigrated to the United States a couple of years later. Most notably known for his photography, he has also been a painter, graphic designer, furniture designer, and art gallery and museum curator. After serving in the US Army in World War I and contributing photographs to the military, he moved into a lighter-hearted topic – fashion.

This stunning NGV exhibition features almost 200 of Steichen’s original vintage photographs, borrowed from the Condé Nast archives. Steichen was the chief photographer for their most prestigious magazines – Vanity Fair and Vogue during the 1920s and 30s. His photographs are featured alongside more than forty amazing Art Deco fashion pieces from the NGV and private collections.

Steichen photographed so many of the high fashion and pop culture stars including Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill and George Gershwin. In a talk by Susan van Wyk (Curator of Photography) and Paola Di Trocchio (Curator of International Fashion and Textiles), it was interesting to note that in the 1920s there was no professional fashion models. Clothes were worn by socialites and it was only in the 20s that modeling became an actual profession.

CHANEL, Paris (fashion house) 1914–39, 1954– Gabrielle CHANEL (designer) France 1883–1971 Dress 1924 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

While Steichen’s photographs line the walls, the centre of each room is taken up by some of the brightest and most sparkly fashion of the period with over forty garments and accessories by leading designers of the day including Chanel (I could spot her LBD a mile away!), Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Paquin and Callot Soeurs. My favourite fashion pieces were the newly acquired Chanel little black dress and the beyond gorgeous cream, black and hot pink beaded flapper dress.

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion is on display at NGV International from 18 October 2013 to 2 March 2014. It’s well worth spending an hour or two pouring over the photos and marveling at the intricate beading of each dress. I also left feeling a bit sad that we no longer dress up as beautifully in our daily lives as I’d like to wear sequins every day!

Open 10am–5pm, closed Tuesdays. Admission fees apply: Adult $12 | Concession $10 | Family $30.

For more information about Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion can be found here

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Food in pictures

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