Although Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography was first displayed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles last year, the latest Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition is hardly a repeat.
Sure, MFAH curators Malcolm Daniel and Lisa Volpe were impressed by the original, but, according to MFAH director Gary Tinterow, the duo concluded that the collection of predominantly white models and photographers “didn’t look like Houston.”
Their mission became diversifying the collection with more photographers of color, to showcase subjects from a wider range of backgrounds. All told, roughly half of the final MFAH version consists of new additions, creating a show that is reverential of the past while still feeling bold, vital, and apace with the current pulse of fashion, photography, and combinations thereof.
The first several sections tell of the medium’s progression from simple commercials and high-status signaling into more creative, avant-garde expressionist portraits influenced by the popular Surrealist movement of the 1920s and ‘30s.
There are also examples of the so-called Golden Age of fashion photography of the 1950s, marked by the glamorous post-war aesthetics of designers like Balenciaga and Dior. Case in point: the famous 1955 photo Dovima with Elephants, in which Richard Avedon captures his subject in a stunning black and white Dior gown, gracefully posing before elephants at the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver.
Not far away, museum visitors arrive at the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements that were hallmarks of the 1960s and ‘70s. Both inspired the powerful Black is Beautiful section of the exhibit that highlights the push for increased black representation within the fashion world. Some of the best work comes from visionary African American photographer Kwame Brathwaite. One image shows a handful of black women wearing natural hairstyles, all posed like defiant statues.
The rise of supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, the birth of the NYC streetwear and Seattle grunge movements, and the advent of MTV, which made so many musical artists fashion icons in their own right, are all on display.
One standout is John Dyer’s iconic photo of Selena for Texas Monthly. You know the one; the Tejano legend strikes a confident pose in a bedazzled black bra, hand on hip. Curators knew this piece would be a fan favorite, so they recreated the black and white linoleum and red curtain backdrop to encourage patrons to capture their best impression of the pop star as an Instagram souvenir.
Several H-Town heroes are showcased, including Beyoncé’s history-making 2018 Vogue cover shoot taken by Tyler Mitchell, which marked the first time the work of an African American photographer graced the magazine’s cover. Other local favorites: Solange as shot by Daria Kobayashi Ritch; James Harden photographed in luxurious repose by Erik Madigan Heck; and Simone Biles in careful balance on a cliff face, captured again by Madigan Heck.
Icons of Style concludes with a brand new multimedia presentation from renowned French photographer and artist Jean-Paul Goode. Created specifically for the MFAH, Goode’s piece is an enchanting, frenetic video collage set over a lively classical tune that’s been remixed with contemporary touches like drum machine percussion hits and warbly digitized audio soundbites. It makes for a thrilling conclusion to the exhibit, and an exclamation mark on an exciting journey through the past and present of fashion photography.
Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, June 23 thru September 22. Tickets $23. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main St. 713.639.7300. More info and tickets at mfah.org.