Many scholars cite the emergence of modern fashion photography to the April 1911 issue of Art et Decoration, which features the designs of couturier Paul Poiret as photographed by famed photographer Edward Steichen.
Certainly, these images are not the earliest fashion photographs—our department contains examples from La Mode Pratique dating to 1892—but the presentation of garments in these is largely straightforward, in the tradition of the fashion plate, which for centuries had provided illustrations so detailed one’s dressmaker or tailor could recreate the look down to the last button. Poiret broke new ground in fashion illustration in 1908 with his collaboration with artist Paul Iribe on Les Robes de Paul Poiret, a deluxe album of Poiret’s couture designs. Iribe’s illustrations concerned themselves less with line-for-line renderings and instead focused on conveying the spirit or mood of the dress, for, in Poiret’s words “A garment is like a good portrait—the expression of a spiritual state and there are robes [dresses] that sing the joy of living as others that herald tragic ends.”
In a similar vein, Steichen’s photographs of Poiret’s designs are moody and atmospheric. They evoke a certain mode of being and lifestyle—a modern, artistic approach to the presentation of clothing that seeks to obfuscate the inherent commercialism of fashion photography.
Following the rarely-seen spread featured here, Steichen would not make another fashion photograph for another ten years. In 1922, he accepted the invitation of American publishing magnet Condé Nast to join the staff of both Vanity Fair and Vogue, where he replaced another of fashion photography’s legendary forefathers Baron Adolph de Meyer.
Thank you to Antoine and Nicolas of Diktats for hand-delivering this issue to us from Paris!