Dressing Up: Through the Magnum Archive
Rosalind Jana considers the imagery, intimacy and transformatory nature of the act of dressing, through the photographs of Magnum photographers
In the fourth installment of her series delving into the Magnum archive, exploring its decades of documentation of vernacular style around the world, fashion writer Rosalind Jana here focuses upon a process, rather than an item. Having previously reflected on the evolution of denim, the cultural highs and lows of leopard print, and the revolutionary impact of nylon hose, here Jana considers the act of dressing up itself – a process both private and performative.
Dressing up is a strange process. One that takes many possible forms. It can involve a rapid change – daylight uniform swapped for something more evening-appropriate, complete with a quick smear of red lipstick or dab of eye-shadow applied last-minute on the bus. It can be an elaborate procedure, taking slow, languorous hours as hair is washed, skin moisturized, outfits chosen, and finishing touches meticulously put in place. It can be a complete transformation of image, involving costuming or elaborate disguise.
Whatever iteration, dressing up involves a thrilling touch of metamorphosis. To dress up is to inhabit a very particular version of self: enhanced, formalized, altered, perhaps totally changed. The words themselves call to mind childhood play, evocative of that imaginative realm where another life might be assumed with the aid of little more than a cape or some broken costume jewelry. They also suggest elevation – a heightening of image, whether the results dwell in the realm of crisp-collared formality or brashly glamorous display.
In the Magnum archives the little rituals and practicalities of dressing up are found everywhere. Through the eyes of numerous photographers we are ushered backstage and into bedrooms, witnessing performers, brides, bullfighters, and children in their Sunday best. Women fix their hair. Soldiers adjust uniforms. Clowns create comical eyebrows. Drag queens check their appearance. Many of these photos linger in the midst of things, focused on the active, ongoing process of dressing – appearance put together with the aid of clothes, cosmetics, and other accoutrements.
"We are ushered backstage and into bedrooms, witnessing performers, brides, bullfighters, and children in their Sunday best..."
In Eve Arnold’s work, we see actresses readying themselves for the parts they are about to play. Vanessa Redgrave sits at a dressing table on the opening night of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1966: contemplating herself before her modern ‘60s clothes and bouffant hair are replaced with Brodie’s sharply elegant ‘30s silhouette, then doing her eyeliner with a small, round mirror held close to get it neat. They are quieter photos than Arnold’s portraits of Hollywood royalty Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe, also framed by mirrors. The former is refracted, her macaw-blue gown and headpiece seen from multiple angles. The latter raises a champagne coupe, her crew crowded behind her into the neat square of lit dressing room mirror. In these photos Crawford and Monroe play up their awareness of the nearby camera. They contrast with other passing glimpses of these two stars, Arnold observing the beauty rituals and behind-the-scenes preparations leading up to time on set.
"These photos linger in the midst of things, focused on the active, ongoing process of dressing – appearance put together with the aid of clothes, cosmetics, and other accoutrements
Dennis Stock provides a similar array of famous faces: Grace Kelly attended to on the set of High Society; James Dean pulling at a lock of Geraldine Page’s hair while she fixes her face; Katharine Hepburn in full lacy regalia for the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In all instances, we bear witness to a literal transformation – visual markers of character put together step by step.
In this context, dress up is serious business – one that we, as viewers, are offered a privileged insight into, allowed to momentarily peer behind the curtain at the work taking place there. Elsewhere, Arnold fixes her attention on different kinds of performers and public displays: dancers in Cuba doing their lipstick, opera actors with intricate face paint, models in a Harlem fashion show in a deconsecrated Abyssinian Church getting changed (her 1950 photo is echoed in a 1966 one of Redgrave dressing as Anne Boleyn – wearing a headpiece, stockings, garter belt and nothing else). This latter image in Harlem, part of the photo-essay series that helped to launch her career, is characteristic of Arnold’s approach to those she photographed: typified in the title of her later 1976 book ‘The Unretouched Woman’. Through Arnold’s eyes we see the unvarnished, largely unposed world of women in motion. They are documented just as they are, smiling as they roll down underwear or squeeze in and out of skintight outfits.
Unremarkable as it might seem now to be afforded these candid insights, at the time they were a refreshing riposte to a photographic establishment more interested in static, glossy editorials – prioritizing the finished image over anything that felt especially real. The results are joyous, speaking not only to the sheer, gorgeous fun of dressing up, from backstage camaraderie to the rush of posing for the crowd, but also something more serious. Here dressing up had powerful potential, allowing the segregated community of Harlem to establish an alternative cultural space. One foregrounding and celebrating black models, designers, and modes of beauty.
Throughout Magnum’s archives, the places of preparation have varied meanings and value. In Werner Bischof’s explorations of 1950s Tokyo striptease clubs, the dressing room becomes a place in which make-up is done and dancers, away from punters’ eyes, can relax. By contrast, his photograph of dancer Anjali Hora depicts a usual place of rest – a cast-iron bed – as the site for getting ready, Hora’s dark hair cascading down her back as she kneels.
Martin Parr’s photos from the Annual Review in Chew Stoke, Somerset, sees a kitchen – likely that of a village hall – repurposed as a makeshift dressing area, a mirror propped up on a drying rack, palettes and hairspray scattered around the sink. Chien-Chi Chang’s photo from the 1995 Miss Gay Maryland pageant sees a ruckus of shoes, mannequin heads and wigs on carpeted steps between the stocking-clad feet and stuck-on body padding of contestants: dressing up, of course, taking on another kind of charged potential for queer communities seeking alternative, subversive modes of visual expression.
In nearly all of these images the mirror is a strong presence. Unsurprisingly. They are a prime tool sought out by those dressing up, both practical and powerful in their ability to throw back and confirm an image. Even when a mirror is not being looked at directly, ghostly versions of those in the vicinity run across its surface. In the mirror the cumulative stages of dressing up are framed and held, from first touch of an eyebrow pencil to last glance over one’s shoulder – whether before going on stage to an expectant audience or taking a deep breath as a social gathering kicks off.
We explicitly see these glances in Marilyn Silverstone’s 1959 portrait of a young bride before her wedding, the gloom throwing focus onto the single flash of light on the edge of the glass, the bride staring deeply at her own reflection. It’s there too in Parr’s 2008 photo of a girls night out in Bristol, everyone observing themselves as they touch up their lip-gloss in tandem – the raucous energy of getting ready together an absolutely crucial part of the proceedings.
"See, although dressing up can be a solitary endeavor, many of these photos focus on more communal aspects of the experience. To dress up is also, sometimes, to rely on the generosity of others"
See, although dressing up can be a solitary endeavor, many of these photos focus on more communal aspects of the experience. To dress up is also, sometimes, to rely on the generosity of others. David Hurn’s 1996 series of a wedding in Wales dwells on one family member having his necktie fixed before they leave. As this last photo reminds us, dressing up is so often ceremonial too – a careful question of what is appropriate to the occasion. Elsewhere, David Alan Harvey’s 1998 photo of a girl in Cuba preparing for her quinceañera captures her sat perfectly still in her white shiny dress and matching shoes, her mother (we assume) in motion as she checks something small – perhaps a stray hair or earring.
Here, in all these photos, we see both the magic and the quotidian realities of dressing up. It is a professional necessity, a playful activity, a careful ritual. In The Waves Virginia Woolf writes of a flickering figure named Jinny (who incidentally can’t stop looking in mirrors) gathering herself just before a party. “The stones of the necklace lie cold on my throat. My feet feel the pinch of shoes. I sit bolt upright so that my hair may not touch the back of my seat. I am arrayed, I am prepared. This is the momentary pause; the dark moment. The fiddlers have lifted their bows.”
Many of these images exist in a similar space. One of pauses and processes, of clothes carefully chosen and everything, eventually, “arrayed”. They too dwell in the moments of readying, anticipation growing before the music plays and it’s time to step out and be seen.