In Conversation With Shonagh Marshall: Embodying The Fashion Pose

“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.

This observation is interesting in the light of psychological theory on embodied cognition, where research by linguists on metaphors pointed away from the traditional beliefs that held that thinking happens in our brain and is separate from our body. Embodied cognitions theorises that our brain uses resources and stimuli from our body and environment to make sense of the world. Psychologist Lawrence Barsalou uses the concept of a chair as an illustration; to fully understand the meaning of a chair, one has to access all the physical and sensory information stored in the brain, such as the action of sitting on a chair and the sensations associated with this action. In the same way, our brain makes sense of clothing by simulating the physical movement of putting on a garment and sensing the texture of the fabric on our skin. So what kind of information was this new kind of fashion photography feeding our brains through bodily simulation about the concept of fashion?

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.

In contrast, the images in “Posturing” are less “glamourised and sexualised and beautiful”. Quoting Emma Wyman, one of the photographers she interviewed for the book, Shonagh goes on to explain that perhaps this new woman is the type of woman who goes to the grocery store dressed in Couture Vivienne Westwood, adding, “I can imagine that woman and maybe she is the same age as Emma’s model, the photographer Brianna Capozzi’s mum.”

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.

“Sometimes you look at these images and think, ‘What the hell is that person doing?’ It's comical. But the images are very expensive to produce. The garment for sale is probably really expensive. So in these times when you know people are forced out of their war-torn countries to migrate to other countries, you’re making this fashion image, and I wondered if it’s perhaps because we’re living in these times where we’re very engaged? Perhaps because of that, it seemed sort of frivolous, foolish, expensive, ridiculous to make these images where you were wearing couture in this country home. Maybe that wasn’t right, that fantasy.” — S.M.

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 ...

… In the introductory panel, we talked about the fact that where the clothing credits would have been, had been replaced with the Sanskrit in English of the yoga pose — so the idea of removing the garment from the image. Although there are actually clothes in there, they are over the back of the chair, but they are not credited.” — S.M.

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.

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