It makes me unspeakably sad that Dundee gets such a bad press. The wonderful city which built RRS Discovery, a ship which made its way to the icy ends of the earth, is often dismissed among St Andreans as the place you’d end up if you miss the stop for Leuchars. But Dundee is getting its bite back, and in 2015 will see the opening of a new V&A sister museum, right on the River Tay. The project will showcase some of Scotland’s finest designers, and celebrate their contribution to the global scene. And if you can’t wait until then, you’re in luck – because in the meantime, the V&A has teamed up with The McManus to display some of the world’s most glamorous, exciting and downright beautiful fashion photographs.
The exhibition title, Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography, is a reference to one of fashion’s most insightful yet charming quotations. While working at Vogue, photographer Irving Penn claimed his job to be “selling dreams, not clothes”, a statement which has a strong resonance in the industry. For fashion is an art form, not merely something to cover your skin with; a dress can change how people see you, how you see yourself and how you see the world. The job of a fashion photographer is to capture this complexity, and transfer it into paper and ink.
For such a small space (and it is a small space), The McManus’ showcase is highly effective in distilling such a vast art form into just 60 images. In fact, the exhibition is saturated with information about each image, informing you of inspirations, intentions and reactions to each piece. Selling Dreams explores the genre from its early days to the present, charting not just changing trends, but also changing social conventions and attitudes towards women. The Bath House, by Deborah Turbeville, is a simple image of women in their bathing suits and was highly controversial in 1975, yet is now considered iconic. Similarly, Rankin’s 1995 work, Hungry?, is a playful yet astute observation of the growing concerns over eating disorders among young models.
Of course, the exhibition is not without the fashion greats – we have images by Helmut Newton and David Bailey, and the sublime features of Twiggy and Lilly Cole. But for me, it was the unknown faces who really captured my interest; the model asleep under the carousel in Le Manège Enchanté #4, and Jurgan Teller’s shot of a wannabe model in the doorway to his studio, fawn-like in her shyness. Great fashion photography tells a story, and Selling Dreams gives us an epic.
Selling Dreams runs at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum until 6th January 2013
Image: Erwin Blumenfeld, Model and Mannequin, American Vogue Cover, 1 November 1945 © Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld / Victoria and Albert Museum, London