A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Gloria Swanson
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and last installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, and the Duchess of Alba; or click here for all posts in the series.
Steichen and the Starlet
Edward Steichen already enjoyed an international reputation as an artist/photographer, when, in early 1923, he was offered the most prestigious and lucrative position in photography’s commercial domain, that of chief photographer for Condé Nast’s flagship magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Over the course of the next 15 years, on assignment with Vogue, Steichen established the look of fashion photography that still influences the way fashion is shot today. (Consider what the work of George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber would have been without Steichen’s trailblazing.) In the process, he swept away the pre-War fussy and fuzzy style of fashion photography replacing it with a crisp, detailed and highly-theatrical presentation that would better serve the emerging modernist couturiers. Unlike Man Ray or Erwin Blumenfeld, the two other art photographers of the period who lent their talents to the fashion and glamour industry, Steichen eschewed high-art stylistic features in his commercial photography, preferring a pragmatical approach that wasn’t overly high-art.
In many respects Steichen’s images of “Hollywood” for Vanity Fair are not altogether different from his work as a fashion photographer. And why wouldn’t they be? Celebrities, like haute couture, function on some level like luxury goods, visually consumed at least by lovers of fantasy. Steichen’s approach to celebrities was also detached and slick, not unlike Art Deco, the reigning style of the time.
Vogue was not Steichen’s first foray into fashion. In 1911, he had produced what may have been the first series of fashion shots—gauzy images of Paul Poiret couture for an article in the French magazine Art et Décoration. They are pure Steichen of the period, perfectly in keeping with the Pictorialist style, for which he was then famous. But Vogue propelled him to a an entirely new stylistic pinnacle as the first truly-effective communicator of the essential (and largely unattainable) glamour embodied by haute couture.
In the wake of WW1, the integration of industrialization into all aspects of life was profound. With mechanization came high-rises and urbanization, consumerism and mass market advertising. The glorification of the machine had ramifications throughout the fine and decorative arts; most underwent radical transformation. The stylized floral motifs of Art Nouveau became the hard-edged and pseudo-erotic Art Deco. Cubism, Futurism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus were all inspired by notions afloat in the “Machine Age. “ Steichen was at the forefront of the transformation in photography.
By 1914, when he was commissioned as first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, Steichen had already abandoned the Pictorialist style so emblematic of the pre-War era. Throughout his war career, he would favor greater realism, which he expressed through strong light-dark contrasts, attention to detail, and sharply-focused effects. When he resumed his own photography after the war, he pursued this new direction.
Edward Steichen, Across the Salt Marshes, Huntington, 1905
oil on canvas
(Toledo Museum of Art)
In regard to his fashion work Steichen recognized the need for greater realism: “My first contribution to the fashion photograph was to make it as realistic as possible…I felt that, when a great dressmaker like Vionnet created a gown, it was entitled to a presentation as dignified as the gown itself, and I selected models with that in view.” (Edward Steichen—A Life in Photography) Given the studio circumstances under which he shot and the constraints inherent in reproduction at the time, this meant a move to artificial lighting, which required large assisting crews. Steichen was no longer a single artist, he was an enterprise.
In a break from existing norms of fashion photography which featured the couture in the limelight, Steichen staged his models in elaborate scenarios. Their fictional personalities took center stage; the lines and contours of their bodies artfully set off by pieces of furniture or accentuated by the backdrops. The actual costumes were often treated as a secondary detail.
Steichen had always recognized the value of networking. He started his Great Men series in the early 1900s and continued making portraits of well-placed people—business- and statesmen—for much of his life. His assignments for Vanity Fair in Hollywood opened a different, and in many ways, a more important door for his career. In the early years of his contract, Steichen traveled annually to Hollywood, where he networked with an entirely new group of celebrities, stars who were recognized by millions of people. Steichen was already well-known as a fine-art photographer; Vanity Fair would introduce his work to the masses.
In these portraits, Steichen established the visual language of glamour that is fused to this day with celebrity. Not surprisingly, he utilized the very same techniques that he had developed to so effectively sell fashion. The theatricality of dramatic lighting and poses reinforced the fantasy that was emblematic of Hollywood—men were dashing; women liberated. Here too his legacy lingers. Consider Annie Liebovitz.
By 1924, Gloria Swanson was a leading screen actress. On screen, Swanson cultivated the image of an exotic, mysterious, and, at times, slightly dangerous, woman. Off-screen she was stunningly frank, outrageous, and a shrewd business women. In all her worlds, Swanson was the embodiment of the modern, liberated woman. Though “different,” Swanson always connected emotionally with her audience, a key reasons for her long run in Hollywood.
The actress was Hollywood’s first “clothes horse,” and audiences flocked to her films to view her wardrobe as much as her performance. Her fashion ensembles, hair styles, and jewels were legendary (her annual budget for jewels was reported to be $500,000). The actress had been oft-photographed, mostly in full costume for studio publicity shots. Steichen’s was not the the first formal portrait of the actress. But it must surely be the most provocative.
The session that produced this portrait was a long one, with numerous changes in costumes and lighting. At the end of the session, Steichen seized a piece of a black lace and hung it playfully in front of Swanson’s face. The actress grasped the concept immediately. She instantly dilated her eyes and became the leopard camouflaged by leafy shrubbery, watching her prey.
With its dark foliage perfectly aligned against the triangle of Swanson’s eyes and forehead, the lace veil is central to the provocative effect of the portrait. One can’t imagine that such an arresting effect —the mysterious, the lethal, the glamorous and the savage—would have emanated from a portrait without the veil. Was the portrait a covert statement about what Steichen really saw in Swanson—in Hollywood? (Curiously, though the one aspect of all his other portraits missing here is overt glamour, though perhaps this is exactly why the picture, among Steichen’s many celebrity shots, connects so well with the viewer.)
Given the date of the portrait, unless the piece of lace Edward Steichen held up in front of Gloria Swanson’s face was antique, it was most-likely machine-made, perhaps by a company such as Quaker Lace (now defunct). And in this, the Swanson portrait is emblematic of the final chapter in our history of lace—mechanization.
Lace making machines existed as early as 1805, when Joseph Jacquard (of mechanized loom fame) made important adjustments to the “lever machine.” Jacquard paved the way for full-scale mechanization of lace production. The actual death knell was sounded in 1841, when further improvements allowed lace—both gimp and motifs—to be made entirely by machine. The market was soon flooded with inexpensive lace, which was well-within the purchasing range of the middle-class. Drawing widely on the fine and decorative arts of past ages, some of the better machine lace producers replicated hand-made laces exceptionally well.
Demarkersvan Studio, Chain Link fence inspired by Quaker Lace Company design.
The advent of machine-made lace at first pushed hand lace-makers to come up with more complicated designs beyond the capabilities of early machines. Eventually, however, it pushed them out of business almost entirely. Further, on the consumption side, by the 1920s, the traditional cultures that still made lace by hand were disappearing in the wake of increasing urbanization. As the demand for handmade lace ornamentation on traditional costumes and haute couture died out, the textile was relegated to household goods, such as napkins, table cloths, and curtains. And even then machines provided the bulk of the production.
Though nearly extinct by the early decades of 20th century, today hand-made lace endures in small pockets largely in Europe. With the exception of a tiny amount of high-end couture, the customer base for hand-made lace is predominantly the curious tourist, purchasing a tablecloth or set of napkins.
Though a decorative ornament, lace has left an indelible mark in the world of fine art. As this delicate textile has jockeyed its way through the annals of fashion, its use has been captured and preserved by many a prestigious artist. From its origins as a luxury good, enjoyed by the privileged few, through the mechanization of its production and resulting dissemination to a mass consumer market, lace is inextricably intertwined with the march of human civilization. A just legacy for a textile made by the intricate twisting of threads.
Tord Boontje, Grass Hair piece inspired by Quaker Lace Company pattern (©Tord Boontje studio).
Edward Steichen: High Fashion
Lace in Transition (contemporary designers interpret Quaker Lace Company patterns)
Patricia Johnston—Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen’s Advertising Photography
Decorating with Lace
Pat Earnshaw—How to Recognize Machine Laces