Louise Dahl-Wolfe isn’t a household name, which shouldn’t be the case. Having worked for 22 years as a contributor to Harper’s Bazaar, the American photographer is widely regarded by those in the fashion industry as one the most influential creatives of the 20th century. And yet, like so many visionary women from that era, her name hasn’t been imbued with the same iconic weight of some of her peers. But a new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum has committed to change the narrative, with the first retrospective in the UK of the women who influenced some of fashion’s most legendary artists.
A leader of post-war image making in fashion, Dahl-Wolfe brought a fresh eye to the sometimes stilted and conservative way in which European fashion had historically been documented. Her new approach married a knack for creating colourful, punchy compositions with organic, natural compositions of her subjects.
Throughout the American photographer’s work is a sense of innate femininity; candid without being raw, Louise Dahl-Wolfe offered a relaxed and intimate approach to her subjects that set a strong precedent for the likes of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
This new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile museum is long overdue, and welcomes audiences to explore the full canon of Dahl-Wolfe’s work over three decades. Particularly powerful are the juxtapositions of her fashion images with the portraits that Louise took during the great depression, and early works which chronicle the struggles of black Americans in Nashville.
Against these striking documentary portraits is an extensive overview of fashion photographs. Alongside her work for Harper’s Bazaar, Dahl-Wolfe documented major houses at the time – most notably Chanel, Balenciaga and Dior – as well as young, innovative American brands such as Claire McCardell and Clare Potter.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe was also paramount in cultivating the careers of models such as Suzy Parker, Jean Patchett, Barbara Mullen, Mary Jane Russell and Evelyn Tripp. In doing so, Dahl-Wolfe pioneered the idea of the supermodel, injecting aspiration and glamour into a career which had traditionally rendered women mere clothes horses.
Fittingly, the exhibition contextualises Dahl-Wolfe’s career against the evolution of fashion more generally. When she began working, the idea of a career as a fashion photographer was unrecognised, as Louise noted: ‘there weren’t really fashion photographers, just artists like Steichen who just happened to do fashion photography.’
At a time when the female gaze is lauded in fashion, celebrating the work of one of the first pioneers of this narrative in fashion couldn’t be more timely.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own is at Fashion and Textile Museum on October 20 to January 21, 2018