In 2005 the fashion photographer Tim Walker drew up a list of what he required for one of his forthcoming shoots. It included 80 white rabbits, 20 ballerinas, 17 “mirrored geese”, 250 ostrich eggs (with the additional stipulation they be sprayed gold), one box of “giant hands”, and 20 Christmas trees. Oh yes, and a Rolls-Royce. Just the one though. Well, there is no need to really go over the top, is there?

“Fashion is such a fairy tale, and it is such a fantasy,” the designer Marc Jacobs once noted. And, as Walker’s wish list suggests, nowhere is this notion more apparent than in the pages of fashion magazines. It’s an idea at the heart of a new book Vogue Fantasy & Fashion.

In its pages, models in beautiful clothes find themselves in alien landscapes and in surreal situations, as if they had just stepped into a story by Hans Christian Andersen or Angela Carter.

On one spread Keira Knightley can be seen playing Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, red slippers and all (red stilettos in her case, actually), on her very own yellow brick road, accompanied by the artists Jasper Johns as the Cowardly Lion, John Currin as the Tin Man and Brice Marden as the Scarecrow.

On another, model and actress Mia Goth lolls on a sofa in a room full of flowers, as if the natural world has invaded her home.

The truth is, fashion (and, as a result, fashion photography) is so often a dream state. A communal, consensual fantasy.

It was ever thus. In December 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War, with rationing still very much a fact of life in the UK, American Vogue published its Christmas issue.

The cover story, photographed by Irving Penn, was entitled Fables Untold. Within, those familiar fairy stories Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Snow White were reinvented for a post-war world. The author and wit Dorothy Parker was cast as one of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters. American socialite and style icon Babe Paley appeared as Cinders’ fairy godmother.

Almost 50 years later, in 1991, Vogue returned to the theme of fairy tales with Bette Midler as Little Red Riding Hood. Linda Evangelista became Peter Pan while the model and actress Beverly Peele became Snow White. (Rapper LL Cool J was one of the Seven Dwarfs.)

“The world needs fantasy,” the late Alexander McQueen once said. “We have enough reality today.”

That’s a line that applies at any time, you could say. It’s certainly one fashion often cleaves to.

Indeed, in his own fashion designs, McQueen never shied away from fantasy, often of the darker variety. His was an imagination as Gothic as Mary Shelley’s or Bram Stoker’s.

Still, as Laird Borrelli-Persson editor of Vogue Fantasy and Fashion, notes, “fantasy is fashion’s ultimate, most optimistic expression.

What fashion designers and fashion photographers often share, over and above a dedication to craft and technique and an eye for detail, is a sense of playfulness.

Now and again that playfulness is carried out on a huge scale. Talking of the fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz in the book’s foreword, designer John Galliano says: “I love walking into one of her shoots – it’s like walking onto the set of a Cecil B DeMille film.”

Vogue’s dedication to fantasy has extended beyond just reinventing fairy tales. Between the wars the magazine was beguiled by the emergence of surrealism and commissioned Salvador Dali to create cover images. It also became a patron of Jean Cocteau and Giorgio De Chirico.

The real world can provide the fantasy setting now and again. In 1964 Vogue sent the photographer John Cowan up to the Arctic Circle to shoot a story on winter whites. Sometimes, utilitarian impulses have taken over, however. In the 1970s the magazine was more restrained. “Vogue in this period became less like a dream book and more like a manual for living, dressing and seduction,” Borrelli-Persson notes.

But it didn’t last. Fantasies and fairy tales returned to its pages in the 1980s and have never really gone away since. However, fashion changes. It remains a form of dreaming, whether that entails fabric and thread and construction and 35mm film or digital imagery.

And that is as true now as it was in 1946. Elsa Schiaparelli, the fashion designer who perhaps responded most to the surrealist art movement – indeed, she collaborated with Salvador Dali on the infamous “lobster dress” – once stated that “in difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.”

Which begs a question. In this, the age of coronavirus, how long before the outrageous makes another appearance?


Vogue: Fantasy & Fashion by Vogue editors (Abrams, £75)