“From the perspective of a curator and archivist the introduction of the body to fashion is normally seen as harmful”, Shonagh Marshall explains to me. As a curator of numerous renowned exhibitions, including 2013’s ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’ at Somerset House in London, she normally deals with the body in the form of mannequins, which, as she points out, come with limited variations. It was her work for the exhibition ‘Hair by Sam McKnight’, with one of fashion’s most outstanding hair stylists, that put her in the mindset of thinking about the body: “Hair is a direct extension of the body, unlike fashion which is something we add to the body”. Her recent collaboration on a three-part project with the photographic director of Wallpaper magazine, Holly Hay, which investigates the changing role of the body and its pose in contemporary fashion photography, seemed like a natural progression to her previous work.
The project included a London based exhibition in November 2017, a film commission with Coco Capitán, and finally Posturing, a book that presents snapshots of the editorial work of 21 contemporary fashion photographers, “who use the body and its position to tell new stories in new ways”. The 59 photographs presented in the book do not depict the body as optimally positioned in order “to present the garment as desirable, but rather appear as sculptures, twisted and contorted, on which clothing is used as draping”. As a cognitive psychology researcher, who is interested in the way that fashion is linked to the body and its behaviour, I couldn’t help but wonder how this new presentation of the body within fashion photography was influencing the way fashion was read, so I sat down with Shonagh Marshall to discuss.
“The way in which the clothing was placed on these bodies in haphazard positions — kind of surreal, incidental, odd — it was making us read the clothes in a different way...
…no longer are we seeing this gown or dress and appreciating it for its cut, silhouette and print. In many of these images, you’re not entirely sure what the garment is. Sometimes its a t-shirt worn as a turban, sometimes a dress – I’d assume its a dress – is over the head and she’s wearing a leotard, and people think its a mannequin but it's not, it's a body.” — S.M.
According to Shonagh, just as the body was moved “from prop to plot detail”, so the clothing was also becoming “a plot detail and not the main event”,
making the whole approach to the garment “much more narrative-led.” When I asked, what kind of stories these photos were telling, she explained:
“I feel like its a snapshot really that you are privy to. The very nature of it is you buying into this woman, this world; I want her life, I want to look like her. I think that’s where the story comes from. When you see these amazing images from the 1990s, the glamour and the excess – the models are styled by Sam McKnight, and they are on a beach and having cocktails – you want to be there, you feel it. It's potent. But that’s so different from the images in this book.” — S.M.
From a psychological perspective, Shonagh’s observation makes sense. Research has shown that the same neurons are fired in our brain when we are watching someone perform an action as when performing the action ourselves, which is perhaps why stories are such a powerful tool. Stories that can transport us into the reality of the story and help us experience the events of the story as if we were actually experiencing them ourselves. “So why are these photographers choosing to include humour in their stories?”, I ask her.
Shonagh also tells me how they opened the exhibition that preceded the book with Lena Emery’s photo for an editorial in The Gentlewoman:
“It’s a fantastic one-liner. Here we are, we’re going to talk about pose, here’s a body in a yoga pose with zero clothes in the image...
Of course, I have no idea what Veronica Ditting, art director of The Gentlewoman, was intending to say when she commissioned this photo, but in my mind, it is the culmination of the “Posturing” movement, because it undeniably puts the body at the centre of fashion. If these photographs are indeed a “lens through which to see new ways of thinking about race, age, gender, politics and even the economics of a global industry”, then maybe making the body central to fashion photography is an outcry on behalf of a society desperate for a move away from cold commercialism towards more humanity in fashion. Perhaps they represent a generation’s desire not only to be represented by the models wearing the clothes or to identify with the stories within these images, but also for more humanity in the clothes themselves, whose primary function should be to serve the needs of the body, whatever postures this life requires of it.
Many thanks to Shonagh Marshall for sharing her insights with me. The book can be purchased here.
‘Posturing: Photographing The Body In Fashion’ by Shonagh Marshall & Holly Hay
‘Grounded Cognition’ by Lawrence W. Barsalou
‘The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers’ Narrative Transportation’ by Tom van Laer, Ko de Ruyter, Luca M. Visconti & Martin Wetzel