A review of the V&A’s Selling Dreams: 100 years of fashion photography

“WHEN I die I want to go to Vogue”. As David Bailey spontaneously expressed his dying wishes, not only did he treat us to one of his many irreverent witticisms but he successfully encapsulates the true essence of his work, “selling dreams, not clothes”. If the arts are the most satiable form of escapism, fashion photography is no exception. But why is flicking through page after page of deliciously glossy editorial spreads the ultimate indulgence? The V&A’s current touring exhibition is conspicuously enlightening the nation. Each shot goes far beyond the simple promotion of “frocks and rocks” and instead displays an inherent power to transcend the material world and transport us to a thrilling yet elusive idyll. Or in Bailey’s view, pure heaven.

To celebrate a century of iconic fashion photography, “Selling Dreams” flaunts an exclusive archive of fashion history’s most decadent and outrageous memories. As the exhibition charts the rise of this medium (from its genesis to present day), we are given a privileged insight into its fascinating evolution. The darkened gallery walls boast an array of captivating images, all carefully selected to reveal the most pivotal movements of this elite world. As the show progresses, its changing mood reflects wider social changes and the historical value of such a collection becomes unmistakable. Fashion photography witnessed some of the most profound and dramatic shifts, documenting everything from World Wars and female emancipation to rising commercialism. Never existing in a vacuum.

The exhibition is organised (almost) chronologically in a circular formation across two adjoining rooms, giving an essential flow and cohesion to such a diverse collection. But perhaps the most valuable outcome of this arrangement is the stunning and dramatic dénouement it provides. As we move full circle, the viewer is left with the first and last image lying on adjacent walls. A spectacular juxtaposition ensues. With Lily Cole and Lisa Fonssagrives vying for the viewer’s undivided attention, they instantly become symbolic of this incredible photographic revolution. Where Tim Walker’s whimsical and elaborate aesthetic is utterly dazzling, Irving Penn’s harlequined-beauty exudes pure simplicity. To finish, the curator (Susanna Brown) initiates a compelling debate. As it emerges that Walker’s pouty muse is strutting all over the type of image captured by Penn, we question if these elegant and monochromatic images have now been consigned to the “creative floor”?

Where Tim Walker’s whimsical and elaborate aesthetic is utterly dazzling, Irving Penn’s harlequined-beauty exudes pure simplicity.

Featuring transgressive works from Edward Steichen’s New Objectivity to the gritty realism of Corinne Day, “Selling Dreams” conjures allure and innovation. Whilst successfully redefining the reputation of this underrated art form, it illustrates the enduring influence of fashion photography. In constantly pushing boundaries, its evolution soon became inevitable. But one thing remains the same; the emotive and transformative power of the lens. Selling dreams indeed.