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A Queer Look at MFAH’s ‘Icons of Style’ Exhibition

Discover the LGBTQ folks who shaped fashion and fashion photography.

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John Dyer, Selena, 1992, chromogenic print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Texas Monthly and the artist. © 1992 John Dyer, All Rights Reserved.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has unveiled its latest summer blockbuster, Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, which continues through September 22. The exhibition’s trove of 200 ravishing images of trendsetters—from silent-film siren Gloria Swanson to Diana Ross to Beyoncé and beyond—is sure to captivate a wide audience.

The Museum’s press release states that the exhibition “traces fashion photography’s trajectory from niche industry to powerful cultural force, and its gradual recognition as an art form.” The exhibition also serves as a vivid chronicle of the seminal role that gay men played in the development of fashion photography and 20th-century fashion.

Icons traces the arc of fashion photography’s development from queer pioneers in the early twentieth century like Baron Adolf De Meyer and Cecil Beaton to contemporary masters such as Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. Integrated throughout the exhibition are stunning pieces from the MFAH Costume Institute—works by the some of the greatest gay and bisexual designers of the last century, including Charles James (1906–1978), Yves Saint-Laurent (1936–2008) for the House of Dior, Ossie Clark (1942–1966), Calvin Klein (born 1942), and Gianni Versace (1946–1997).

The exhibition opens with several beautiful works in the Pictorialist style by Baron Adolf De Meyer (1868–1946), considered to be the Annie Leibovitz of early 20th-century America. He served as Vogue’s first staff photographer from 1913 to 1921 before returning to Paris to work for Harper’s Bazaar until 1931. De Meyer shot the glitterati of the era, from silent-film stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish to actor John Barrymore to King George V and Queen Mary of the United Kingdom.  British photographer and theatrical designer Cecil Beaton praised De Meyer as “the Debussy of the camera.” Some critics have hailed him as the father of modern fashion photography.

His 1913 portrait of the fashion plate Rita de Acosta Lydig showcases the strengths of his work, highlighting the socialite’s lovely profile and sensuous back, elegantly attired in a black-and-white gown. Also noteworthy is a 1925 image of the young Coco Chanel, whom he met by chance in 1923 and whom he praised for “her brilliant mind—precise and accurate, absolutely original.”

George Hoyningen-Huene, Bathing Suits by Izod, Paris, 1930, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Geoffrey and Barbara Koslov Family, the Manfred Heiting Collection. © Condé Nast

Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) makes the first of several exhibition appearances with a black-and-white print from 1928 titled “Debutantes–Baba Beaton, Wanda Baillie Hamilton, and Lady Bridget Boulet.” Shot while he was still in his early twenties, the meticulously staged, highly theatrical portrait of three British society beauties captures the spirit of the Bright Young Things, the bohemian aristocrats in 1920s London whose exploits captivated the tabloid press of the day.

Beaton was friends with the Russian émigré George Hoyningen-Huené (1900–1968), one of the great fashion photographers of the 1920s and 1930s who went on to become a celebrated Hollywood portraitist. He is represented in the second gallery by his iconic image “Bathing Suits by Izod, Paris 1930,” featuring two sleek divers, one male and one female, seen from behind, looking off into a gray middle distance. Although the picture seems to be set at a beach, it was actually shot on the roof of Vogue’s Paris studio. The male model was Hoyningen-Huené’s hunky assistant, Horst P. Horst (1906–1999), who was also his apprentice and lover.

Just four years later, Horst would rise to become one of the most prestigious fashion photographers of his era, thanks in part to the entrée made by Hoyningen-Huené at Vogue’s Paris offices. Horst is represented by several works in the exhibition, including the quintessential image “The Mainbocher Corset, Paris 1939.” In this celebrated photo, a blonde model is seen from behind, her back sensuously enveloped in the titular corset with the ties draped across the bottom half of the shot. The image is erotic and cerebral, imbued with a surreal mystery.

During the making of the photo, the German photographer was anything but cerebral as he prepared to flee the impending Nazi invasion. “It was created by emotion,” Horst recalled of the famous image. “It was the last photo I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4:00 a.m., went back to the house, picked up my bags, and caught the 7:00 a.m. train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. The photograph is peculiar for me. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”

Another aspect of Horst’s artistry is featured in his archetypal 1942 portrait of the German film star Marlene Dietrich, spectacularly attired in a black suit and wide-brimmed hat, and brilliantly lit from below as she leaned over a chair, radiating a cool Teutonic beauty.

Writing Horst’s obituary in 1999, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times observed, “The people he knew, the clothes he photographed, conjure up a world where elegance and manners still mattered, and indeed Horst was himself a specimen of prewar savoir-faire, with blond hair and a trim, muscular body. His settings were often highly stylized, and he preferred to work in a studio where he could use artificial light to impose an unreality on his subjects, elevating them to a glamorous ideal.”

A high point of the show is Cecil Beaton’s 1948 technicolor image “Charles James Ball Gowns, New York 1948.” In this work, the talents of two gay tastemakers at the top of their respective forms converge. The tableaux vivant features eight models in an array of different positions that seem casual, yet were deliberately staged to showcase the varied shapes of the ball gowns by the Anglo-American couturier. One of the most influential designers of the 20th century, James was renowned for the revolutionary mathematical and scientific construction of his evening gowns. (Don’t miss the magnificent 1947 teal gown by James, positioned dramatically at the entrance to the exhibition.)

By the 1980s, gay photographers such as Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts broke new ground in making male sexuality commercially appealing. Weber’s iconic 1982 image “Tom Hintnaus for Calvin Klein, Santorini, Greece,” features the stunningly buff and tan Brazilian Olympic pole-vaulter in Calvin Klein underwear, evoking the perfection of a Greek god.  When the huge image was displayed in Times Square, it stopped traffic.

Irving Penn, Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), New York, 1950, platinum-palladium print, the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Irving Penn. © Condé Nast

Malcolm Daniel, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham curator of photography at the MFAH, offers an interesting analysis of the synergies needed to produce such a powerful image. 

“Many of the photographs in this exhibition resulted from a complex collaboration between the designer and the photographer, not to mention the model and the client—a balancing act meant to simultaneously display the fashion, express a unique pictorial vision, and entice the viewer to become a consumer,” he observed.

“Some images have become iconic because of their subject’s fame, some because of their groundbreaking fashion, some because of the photographer’s novel approach to the medium. And in the very best, all of that came together,” he commented.

One section of the exhibition is devoted to the emergence and influence of the late-1980s “supermodel,” and the photographers who helped power their rise to fame.

One of the most affecting images of the exhibition is Herb Ritts’ “Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood 1989.” It showcases a bevvy of the supermodels from that era nude, cradling themselves lovingly in each other’s arms as they peer out of the frame.

“You knew you were going to look gorgeous,” model Cindy Crawford told a reporter at the time. “The way Herb Ritts photographed you was the way you wanted the world to see you.”

Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and was curated by Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the Getty Museum. This presentation has been adapted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition is on view through September 22, 2019.

This article appears in the August 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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