Fashion ICONs

By Joanne A Calitri   |   August 9, 2018
Icons of Style exhibit panel presentation at the Getty Museum with three supermodels representing firsts in modeling [from left]: Beverly Johnson, Cheryl Tiegs, and Patricia Velasquez, with interviewer Booth Moore [2nd from right]

When I worked at Bloomingdale’s, to say my world was fashion is an understatement! My supervisors gave me free artistic reign to design the selling floor with each new clothing arrival, while they shopped in vintage stores for clothes. We mutually admired one another’s fashion plate. The art of fashion, after all, is a choice. My monthly ritual was pasting fashion magazine photographs on my bedroom walls. We were openly addicted to this subculture. 

When women’s hemlines followed the economy down from our dieted hips to our ankles, all we could talk about was should Ralph Lauren jeans be paired with Frye boots till those hideous maxi-midi’s go away? As faculty at Brooks Institute of Photography, I taught the students how modeling started in Paris by a tailor who had his “fit” models waltzing through outdoor cafes in his latest creations to entice clients to his shop. The class studied in detail the photographs of Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Albert Watson, Ellen Von Unwerth, Herb Ritz, Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Man Ray, and others who created art from the fabrics of designers with creative camera angles, lighting, locations, and props in an interplay with the human form. Line. Shape. Emotion. Suggestion. A new group of “supermodels,” those rare few who added their ideas to the image, became part of the process.

The art of fashion photography is the J. Paul Getty Museum’s newest exhibit titled Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911-2011, by Paul Martineau, associate curator, Department of Photographs. It was Paul’s inimitable hand who culled the Mapplethorpe exhibit there two years ago [Montecito Journal, Our Town, May 19, 2016]. Here we have 160 photographs, with a brief selection of designer clothes, illustrations, magazine covers, videos, and advertisements. The photographer list is extensive: Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, George Hurrell, Edward Steichen, Dora Maar, Man Ray, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Herb Ritts, Lillian Bassman, Sarah Moon, Hiro, Sheila Metzner, Neal Barr, Helmut Newton, Philippe Halsman, Francesco Scavullo, Ellen Von Unwerth, Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, and dozens more.

Q. How did the concept of culling the fashion photographs into an exhibit happen for you?

A. I took stock of the museum’s holdings and thought about what I needed to add to properly tell the story. The research phase included a review of the state of current scholarship and visits to galleries, museums, archives, and private collections in four countries. I stopped looking at new material after I had assembled a list of six hundred images and began the slow process of editing them down to the one hundred-sixty-one photographs in the show. Editing forces you to make the difficult choices that are essential to a focused and impactful exhibition.

What is it that speaks to you personally about fashion photography, and when did fashion photography come into your view as an art form? 

I did not really think about it until I became a curator. There are certain fashion photographs that were imprinted in my brain from an early age, and I started to wonder why a few were memorable and thousands of others were not.

As you look back on the exhibit, what would like to add or remove from the body of work?

There was one photograph that I would have loved to include, but by the time I tracked it down, it was too late to bring in on loan – the iconic image of Lisa Fonssagrives hanging off the Eiffel Tower by Erwin Blumenfeld. [Note: Photo for Vogue Paris in 1939 with Ms Fonssagrives unharnessed wearing a Lucien Lelong dress, to celebrate the tower’s 50th anniversary.] 

Any mentions for the “A” list who have viewed the Icon exhibit? 

I love it when A-listers visit the exhibition. And the show seems to be drawing a younger and more diverse group of visitors than usual; it is poised to break attendance records.

The best take-away you would impart about the world of fashion from the model’s panel on August 1 at the museum?

You must have confidence in the gifts you were given and share them with the world to the best of your ability.  

True. The sold-out panel discussion at the Harold M. Williams Auditorium on August 1 did not disappoint. The models were Cheryl Tiegs, our own California supermodel-businesswoman-philanthropist icon; Beverly Johnson, the first woman of color to be on the cover of American Vogue [1974] with a full career path; and Patricia Carola Velásquez Semprún, the first Native Indian-Latina-queer fashion super model-actress. All three timeless.

Discussion ensued about Tiegs’s unprecedented cover photo for Time Magazine [1984] that Beverly said finally credentialed modeling as a real job. Johnson further talked about her current work against ageism: “Aging in America is hard enough! I am about ageless beauty! When I made the cover of Vogue, I didn’t know about the injustices in the world and my own heritage. It set me on a course for life that has led me to this stage with you this evening.” 

Velasquez talked about being a top model dealing with designers prejudice against her curves despite being the perfect model weight. All three praised Eileen Ford for being the first woman they met with her own successful and respected international business, the Ford Modeling Agency established in 1946. Ford held a hard line to protect, pay, and feed her models. Her sage advice: “Save half of everything you earn, you’ve only got four years in the biz… 99 percent of you leave broke.”

Booth Moore, the Hollywood Reporter‘s style and fashion news director, led the panel with fairly routine inquiries and hoped for deeper disclosures when she inquired, “You’ve all led jet-set lives, tell us the dirt.” Beverly joked, “Oh, just read my book! I once went to Studio 54 for three days and told Andy Warhol that his soup can wasn’t art.” Tiegs added, “This is hard work. My son was worried about me falling down as I aged, and I told him you’re talking to a woman who ran on hot lava in stilettos! You have to be in great condition physically to do the job.” 

Further lauds went to Velasquez, who took the opportunity to publicly apologize to Tiegs for firing her on the Celebrity Apprentice TV show in February 2012: “I haven’t seen Cheryl since and I wish to apologize.” To which Tiegs said, “Oh my, you’re going to make me cry. It’s okay, you actually saved me from being on the show, which I decided I did not want to be a part of.” After the panel, Tiegs graciously stayed on for fan autographs and photos.

Seen at the event: Patty Sicular, owner of NYC Iconic Focus Modeling Agency; Brian Maillian, Johnson’s fiancé; model Anansa Sims; Lidella Semprú, Velasquez’s mom; Dr. Wendy Roberts; and John Giurini, assistant director of the J. Paul Getty Museum who provided the introductory remarks.

411: Icons of Style exhibit, now through October 21,


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