HERB RITTS (American, 1952–2002), Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989. Gelatin silver print, 46.8 × 50.3 cm (18 7⁄16 × 19 13⁄16 in.) Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum. Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation, 2011.18.28. © Herb Ritts

AND what in the end is the purpose of fashion photography? It can’t just be to sell clothes. If that was the case every issue of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar would look like an upmarket Boden catalogue.

No, it has always been more than that. Fashion photography is a desire engine, a vision of frozen motion, a reflection of the world around us and a fantasy of how it might be better. It’s craft and art all wrapped up together. “I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes,” Irving Penn once said.

To look through the pages of Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, a new book from Getty Publications, is to see those dreams in action. Page after page offers a reflection of who we were and who we wanted to be. In this fashion, is like the movies, like music, like football, like any cultural endeavour you care to name. We are our dreams.

Based on an exhibition currently being held at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Icons of Style is a book that brings together images from across a century of dreaming.

But that’s not to say that dreams don’t contain truths too. The story of 20th century fashion photography on show here is the story of increasing democratisation. From haute couture to high street, from high society to low, from aristocrats to a barmaid’s daughter from Croydon. (Hello Kate!) It’s the story of an artform that fed on everything around it – from absorbing the avant garde in the 1920s and 1930s (indeed, the surrealist artist Man Ray made most of his living between the 1920s and the 1940s by taking pictures for Vanity Fair and French Vogue) to becoming part of the youthquake of the 1960s by hiring models like Twiggy and commissioning young, photographers such as David Bailey and Brian Duffy to show us the new world.

To look at the photographs in this book is to see through a slightly warped lens the way our attitudes to class and sex and fame and leisure and the body have changed over the decades.

All of which said, flicking through the page of Icons of Style you will also see plenty of fashion too. As Freud probably didn’t say, sometimes a dress is just a dress.

FASHION

“FASHION,” Dame Vivienne Westwood once claimed, “is about eventually becoming naked.” And it’s true that fashion photography has often cleaved to that line. “I mean, I preferred the girls to the frocks,” David Bailey told the Sunday Herald in 2015. “I was never really interested in the frocks unless they were by great designers.”

And yet in many ways capturing clothing is the ultimate challenge for the fashion photographer. How do you represent colour, texture, craft and movement in a still image?

Here, Victor Skrebneski’s vision of Givenchy gives us one possible idea. Because, in the end, fashion is, whatever Vivienne says, also about dressing up.

THE BODY 

HeraldScotland:

HERB RITTS (American, 1952–2002), Fred with Tires, Hollywood, 1984. From the Body Shop series. Gelatin silver print, 47.1 × 38.6 cm (189⁄16 × 153⁄16 in.) Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum. Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation, 2011.18.25. © Herb Ritts 

Fashion photography is an interesting test case for male gaze theory. It is, after all, made up of countless images of women made to be consumed primarily by women, some of them even taken by women.

Not all of course. At the height of porno chic in the 1970s fashion magazines were full of heated images from straight, male photographers such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. And yet they were made to be seen in women’s magazines.

All these images do beg a question. Is voyeurism only a male trait? Are women conditioned to desire what men desire when they look?

Can they look and desire in a more complex way? Or can it be as simple as reacting to what they see in front of them?

This particular Herb Ritts image speaks to the complexity and simplicity of desire. It’s a beautiful image of a beautiful man. You can say full stop there and leave it at that.

But then look again and recognize that this is a photograph taken by a gay man who grew up in California surrounded by a culture steeped in the idea of the body beautiful.

By 1984, of course, a big disease with a little name was wrecking chaos throughout the gay community in America and beyond. Ritts himself lived with HIV for many years before his death from pneumonia in 2002 at the age of 50.

In that context what does this photograph represent? An image of male beauty, yes, but an image, too, of almost inhuman perfection at a time when many men were finding out just how all too human they were.

SUPERMODELS

IN these difficult days it’s easy to be nostalgic for that moment in time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers; a moment that was not short of wars, danger, pain and loss, but was also full of hope and largesse, excess even.

The supermodels – those Amazons who dominated the fashion industry at the turn of the 1990s – were symbols of all of that.

“We have this saying, Christy and I...” Linda Evangelista told Vogue back in October 1990. “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,”.

Evangelista isn’t in this famous Herb Ritts photograph. But “Christy” – AKA Christy Turlington – is, along with Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patiz and Naomi Campbell.

It’s an image that speaks to fame and the body beautiful, of course, but isn’t there a hint of vulnerability here too? Look at us, it might be saying, we’re not so very different than you. Whether you believe them, though, that’s for you to decide.

AUTHENTICITY

EVERY action has an equal and opposite reaction. What is true in physics is true in pop culture too.

And so it was in fashion photography when the supermodels gave way to a new look, one less monied, less stylised, more “real”.

At the start of the 1990s grunge was in fashion in both music and in modelling. Photographers such as the late Corinne Day took fashion photography into the bedsit.

Dirty sheets, just-out-of-bed hair, images that were made up of people deliberately not being made up.

Heroin chic some accusingly called it, a glamorisation of taking drugs and being thin.

That’s not how all its creators saw it. “We were poking fun at fashion,” Day said in 1997, referring to an image of her favourite model Kate Moss in a 1993 Vogue shoot featuring the then teenage Moss in a pair of baggy tights, an image that prompted claims of child sexualisation and exploitation. But to look at most photographs of Moss in the early 1990s is to see that her appeal was about something else. It’s on show in this Glen Lurchford image from 1994.

It’s a photograph that speaks to youth and novelty and a girl-next-door freshness. Inevitably we get older and grow up and change. These days Moss is a lion-maned Amazon who reeks of rock and roll. She has become what she initially took the place of.

CELEBRITY

FASHION has always had a jones for a famous face. From Gloria Swanson (famously photographed by Edward Steichen) to Jennifer Lawrence (cover star of American Vogue’s lauded September issue in 2017), actresses have always been popular with fashion magazine editors and fashion advertisers.

HeraldScotland:

JEAN-BAPTISTE MONDINO (French, born 1949), Miss M, negative, 1988; print, 2011. Chromogenic print, 40.6 × 31.8 cm (16 × 12 1⁄2 in.) Los Angeles, Courtesy of M+B Gallery and the artist. © Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Pop stars too. Here is Madonna in 1988 as captured by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Some five years into her public career and she has already transformed herself from the crucifix-and-chains look to a sleek, toned, triumphalist advertisement for herself. By 1988 Madonna was no longer a street kid. She was pop royalty.

But in some ways the things that made her name – the blonde ambition, the wilful display of her sexuality (look at that bustier) – are still front and centre. Fashion takes what it is given and amplifies it.

This is Madonna with the style turned up.

Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography is published by the J Paul Getty Museum.  http://getty.edu/