John French

In the 1950s, fashion photography was much more sedated and unassuming than it is today, with the special effects, gymnastics, and deformation that computer programs and ever-improving cameras offer photographers. In the immediate post-war years, fashion gave a breath of fresh air (if sometimes forced) into a war-ridden Europe that was just beginning to emerge from the austerity of the war. Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look was both a controversy (Full skirts? Lace? Corsets? We still have bread lines!—some said) as well as an invigoration into society of the femininity and traditional female figure that was lost in midst of the war. Photographers played as important a role as designers in this period by bringing images of new Paris fashions to the masses through fashion periodicals and newspapers. They projected a lifestyle of ease and romance that women—and by extension, the men who viewed them—longed for. Fashion was then, as it is today, a fantasy through which citizens escaped their mundane lives. John French was one of the premiere photographers in this era. Not only was he the first to introduce bounced light (surrounding his models with the soft, white light that was his signature), but he was also the first to really use newspapers as a medium for printing fashion photography.

For example (more photos after the jump):

John French’s photographs were always purposefully elegant, extremely well posed and pristine. In contrast with current fashion photography in which grunge (codeword for messy, ripped up clothing and models who look like they are perennially lacking sleep) and sex appeal are most common, the elegance of French’s photographs are truly from another era.

Fashion and photography of the 1950s truly emphasized the ‘woman,’ both in the beautiful manner they were dressed as well as in the constricting role they played in the home.

Below is an excerpt from a paper I am currently in the midst of writing:

Just as much of Britain was attempting to return to normalcy after 1945, fashion photographers and writers returned to their peacetime roles of reporting on clothes and seasonal fashions—seemingly trivial subjects in a nation that was still besieged by the aftereffects of war. The truth was that the reaction to the austerity of WWII was an intense longing for luxury: “When the tide of war passes, we escape into other realities. While governments force us into drab economies, films and couture conspire to meet our appetites for visions of exotic beauty and extreme fashion” (Howell, 8). After having ‘won’ the war, Britons questioned why were there still bread lines, rationing, and a faltering economy. They struggled with the juxtaposition of national pride in winning the war, and the economic difficulties of rebuilding their war-torn nation.

[…] By focusing on ultra-feminine styles such as the New Look, citizens escaped their insecurities by escaping into an obvious nonreality in which women returned to their prewar roles as ‘objects’ of beauty and desire. Though the goal of the post-war years was to return to normalcy, Britain was a bankrupt government with national shortages and a battered populace that would take until the mid-1950s to make something of a recovery. Yet while bread lines formed and social problems troubled the still-recovering Britain, women began to spend their time wearing cinched corsets, long dresses and skirts made from excessive yards of fabric. The square-shouldered ‘man-tailored’ suits of the war years were suddenly deemed unacceptable. Flowering, romantic attire that emphasized womanly curves were a reaction to the sexless wartime dress and the austerity of the home without men.

I can’t really put up too much more of the essay right now, but it’s an ongoing process. Maybe in a couple of months I’ll have the full document up. Check back!


~ by robinlam on December 13, 2009.

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