When it comes to female rights and freedoms, it’s a familiar song: we recall the suffragettes in the late 19th century and a couple waves of feminism that have risen since then. As we ride the fourth wave’s social media activism, perhaps it’s worthwhile to reconsider the more implicit ways in which these ideas began to manifest itself and when the free independent woman was truly championed. Louise Dahl-Wolfe is one of those pioneers who fashioned this female persona we’ve come to embrace and embody ourselves, somewhat unthinkingly, besides making a breakthrough with colour and fashion photography during her career at Harper’s Bazaar.
Currently at Fashion and Textiles Museum, her first major retrospective, Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own takes a closer look at her seminal works at the American fashion publishing house and her more personal explorations. Hallmarking her time at Harper’s Bazaar, the exhibition begins with 6 Harper’s Bazaar covers dating between 1920s and 1950s. Curled hair, thin brows and a red lip defined the á la mode of those years, as these non-glossy, sixty cents worth of pages ushered in a new fashion idiom for many. Together, they serve as a little precursor to who Wolfe was: self-assertive, open-minded and uncompromising. But one soon discovers the experimental nature of her expansive oeuvre goes beyond these neatly framed magazine covers, and later influenced prominent photographers we’ve come to celebrate, including Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
As one who originally studied design, Wolfe stumbled into photography by serendipity. When she met Ann Briggmans in 1921, Wolfe teamed up with a group of friends to do a series inspired by Briggmans and her photography journey took flight. With an astute eye for composition, Wolfe captured the domestic in her early explorations. Twin pictures of various still life (calla lilies, apples and eggplants) are tightly framed, highlighting the contours of her subject contemplatively to near abstraction. A similar nuance is understood with her portraits of couples between 1933-57. Rather than explicating the cliché and affectionate in an ostensible way, Wolfe left her subjects to be together yet individual, encapsulating an ineffable chemistry and eccentricity shared in the relationship.
From the ordinary to the famed, neighbours to artists, poets and Hollywood stars, Wolf photographed many people in her lifetime, which have made her well-adept to revealing the human sensibility. There is something naturalistic about her portrayal of people as they are, in spite of the poses, that communicate a certain sensitivity. A strikingly serene Mrs Ramsey (1931) sitting in her Tennessee home; a young Yves Montand (1946) with palms outstretched, heading gleefully towards the sun; or a dreamy Lisa Fonssagrives (1945) dancing in a diaphanous dress by the pool – all seem utterly familial to us through Wolfe’s lens.
But amongst the numerous personalities she came to know, Liz Gibbons and Mary Jane Russell were two important muses in Wolfe’s career. In her early years, she photographed a series of nudes with Liz Gibbons that might be comparable to our contemporary understanding of the ‘female gaze’ – overturning the stereotypes of female sexuality. Without asking Gibbons to be overtly sultry in her poses, and many of which had her back turned towards the lens, Wolfe managed to evoke a more ambivalent sensuality of the female body. Turning to an earlier edition of Harper’s Bazaar behind, opened to the pages of an article titled “Milk and Honey”, we trace the evolution of girlhood. “Milk and Honey” speaks for the au naturel – the supple, radiance of youth, which doesn’t seem too far from recent beauty trends, albeit an era later. Yet, might we ask, what defines the girlhood of today?
Immensely adept in playing with natural light to sculpt the mood of her subject, Wolfe became the forerunner in experimenting with outdoor location shooting at Harper’s Bazaar, innovating a new language that set fashion photography in a fresh direction – a convention to any fashion editorial nowadays.
Traversing the world across America, to the Middle East and Europe, Wolfe’s photography narrates the liberated woman’s crusade to the ends of the world. In the high-summer of 1943, we find her in a cotton pique dress on the beach of St Augustine, Florida; to sun-bathing in the vast undulating terrains of Mojave Desert in California, 1948. A decade later we see her amid the cityscape of romantic Paris, strolling along the banks of the Seine.
With the re-emergence of interest in female photographers, questioning the “gaze” (whether male or female) and a call to action for greater intersectionality in the feminist march, Wolfe’s photographs invoke a renewed appreciation for the independent, carefree woman, and fashion photography as equally ground-breaking as its peers.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own
Fashion & Textiles Museum
20 October 2017 – 21 January 2018
By Keoy Wan Hui