The faces of fashion

Two photo exhibits celebrate the beauty and intrigue of the model

“Twiggy in Yves Saint Laurent’’ (1967), photographed by Bert Stern, from “The Model as Muse’’ exhibit in New York. “Twiggy in Yves Saint Laurent’’ (1967), photographed by Bert Stern, from “The Model as Muse’’ exhibit in New York. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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NEW YORK - In 1997, Britain’s Arena magazine described Kate Moss as “the face of the ’90s, the face that reminds you your optimism was misplaced.’’

It was an inspired piece of copywriting, one that instantly opened up the whole intoxicating realm of glamour, lust, beauty, and the strange way fashion has of never giving us quite what we paid for.

Models, of course, have long played a leading role in this game of dashed illusions - a game that keeps the whole fashion industry ticking. But was it ever thus?

Not really - or at least not in the way to which we have become accustomed, the way which culminated in the ascendancy of models like Moss.

“The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion,’’ a wonderful show organized by Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, argues that the model who somehow captures or personifies her time didn’t really have currency until around 1947, when Christian Dior’s New Look pushed professional models to the forefront of fashion.

Before then, models were anonymous, utilitarian clotheshorses usually employed by a single designer. (“Do not speak to the girls, they are not here,’’ said the French couturier Paul Poiret to a reviewer of one of his live-model fashion presentations in 1920.)

Photography gradually replaced the ink-drawn fashion sketch in the marketing of women’s fashions. But in those days it was society matrons, demimondaines and, in the ’30s and ’40s, movie starlets rather than professional models who gave fashion photography its frisson.

A few models rose to prominence. But it wasn’t until after the Second World War that things began to change.

“Model as Muse’’ traces the evolution of the fashion model over 50 years, from 1947 to 1997, by which time the supermodel era was coming to a close and fashion houses were once again turning away from star models, opting instead for either Hollywood starlets or anonymous, interchangeable-looking models.

Coinciding, and in some ways overlapping, with the Met show is a superb exhibition of Richard Avedon’s fashion photographs, “Avedon Fashion,’’ at the nearby International Center for Photography. The earliest works are from the 1940s and ’50s, the period generally known as the Golden Age of Haute Couture, and they remind us that the creativity of great photographers like Avedon, Irving Penn, and - later - William Klein, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, and Steven Meisel played as important a role in establishing the phenomenon of the iconic model as the models themselves.

Avedon craved respect for his mannered portraiture. But his fashion work was his best. His dynamic photos - flamboyantly theatrical, yet somehow grounded in everyday realities - were instrumental in marketing Dior’s New Look. Avedon had a way of setting his subjects off against uniform backgrounds - an eggshell sky, a gridded pavement or simply a studio wall - in order to give them as much graphic immediacy as possible. Often the result of leaps, larks, or laughing embraces, the sculptural poses of his favorite models - Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh, and Dovima - expressed a marvelous optimism in those postwar years.

Making Paris seem romantic was easy, I suppose. But only Avedon could make it seem so lively, so unlike a museum. Looking at Dovima, in Balenciaga, sitting bored beside a huge and ardent-looking dog in the Café des Deux Magots, or at Carmen in a dress by Patou, turning with sultry eyes to face the viewer as a man aims his billiard balls at her backside, you smile at the conceits; but you also succumb to the spell of being there, with that girl, in that location.

A huge cutout of the figure of Dovima, taken from Avedon’s famous photograph that costars two elephants from Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver, graces the entrance to “Model as Muse.’’ And Avedon’s photographs play a leading role in the early sections of the show, which establish the iconic status of models like Dovima, Leigh, Parker, and Sunny Harnett.

Parker is all but ubiquitous, in both shows. But I had a hard time figuring out what she actually looked like. Was her beauty especially malleable? Or did photographers in those days subordinate facial expression to dynamic, eye-catching poses?

Perhaps a bit of both. But certainly, things changed.

They changed in the ’60s, when fashion designers found new ways to express newly liberated bodies, and models like Twiggy, Veruschka, and Peggy Moffitt expressed spiky idiosyncrasies of personality that previous fashion photographs had tended to smooth away. And they changed again in the ’70s, when certain naiveties about sexuality were replaced by new forms of political awareness and female self-assertion. (Newton’s portrait of Lisa Taylor leaning back in a couch, her legs insouciantly apart, sizing up a shirtless man in white slacks, epitomizes the change.)

Then, in the late ’80s, came the supermodel phenomenon, which saw highly individual, often bizarre-looking beauties such as Linda Evangelista, Kristen McMenamy, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, and Claudia Schiffer become an unprecedented global phenomenon. Championed by photographers such as Meisel, they reversed old hierarchies and became extraordinarily powerful, both in the fashion industry and in the culture at large.

On the one hand, this seemed like something to celebrate - or at least admire.

Less edifying, perhaps, was the way, as boys and men, girls and women, we fetishized, drooled over these women. It was the era, let’s not forget, of power-dressing, conspicuous consumption, Michael Jackson, the triumph of capitalism. All these phenomena shared the stage with the supermodel era. It was inevitable that disillusion would set in.

It did, and it affected clothes - where grunge and minimalism became the norm - as much as it affected our embrace of the supermodels and what they stood for.

Why did Moss, in this new context, become so iconic, so important? How did she become “the face of the ’90s, the face that reminds you your optimism is misplaced’’?

Moss is shorter than the supermodels that preceded her. Her beauty is weirdly tremulous: She is never more than an inch or two away from being characterless and plain.

She is still associated by many with the early photographs of her in run-down interiors taken by Corinne Day between 1990 and 1993. These were embroiled in controversy when people accused fashion photographers of peddling “heroin chic.’’

But the photographs by Day, and by others like Juergen Teller, were never intended as a glamorization of eating disorders or drug abuse. They were instead expressions of a reaction against the supermodel era. They were part of a search for new notions of beauty, informed by street wear and real lives (including an acknowledgment of real life’s disappointments) instead of an impossible ideal imposed from above by the multinational fashion corporations.

Personally, I find everything about Moss - including her allegedly irresponsible lifestyle - wonderful. But I don’t know how to describe her beauty. All I know is that she often reminds me of Manet’s bar girl in his late painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.’’ Not in looks, but in spirit: Present but absent. There for you, but not really there at all.

She is brilliantly versatile - a photographer’s dream - but there is something mercurial, bored, louche, and possibly self-destructive in her typical expressions. An expression of cultural optimism? Maybe not. But full of promise, really.

THE MODEL AS MUSE: Embodying Fashion

At: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Aug. 9.

AVEDON FASHION, 1944-2000 At: the International Center for Photography, New York, through Sept. 20.