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Pollock in Vogue: American Fashion and Avant-garde Art in Cecil Beaton’s 1951 Photographs

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Why does Cecil Beaton choose Jackson Pollock paintings as backdrops for his fashion shoot for American Vogue in March of 1951? Beaton’s photographs represent a special, highly ambivalent moment in the development of an American aesthetic identity in and through Vogue. His clearly “European gaze” instrumentalizes Pollock’s paintings for his own purposes and highlights the long-lasting ideological conflict between European design and American identity. A close examination of the role of the magazine in shaping the self-image of America’s upper classes, as well as of the function of these images within the parameters of the magazine itself and of abstract art within the series, offers an enriched understanding of the relationship of art and fashion in Vogue. These notorious images become the occasion for an analysis of the relationship between America’s avant-garde and Vogue, the integration of their works into the structure of the magazine and their function therein.

Situating the photographs within the socio-historical context of the magazine offers insight, as well, into Beaton’s photos as a factor in an internal conflict at the magazine arising from the clash of Vogue’s orientation on European and French fashion and lifestyle and its identity as a magazine for a specific, American upper-class audience. While Beaton’s pictures incorporate the “strength” of American creativity, these images do not assert the equality of American with French design. The issue is no longer a fundamental legitimization of American design; much more, the newly reestablished dominance of the French as a creative force in fashion after the introduction of Dior’s New Look had to be balanced with American reality. Beaton’s images attempt to stage the newly reborn longing for a “feeling of Frenchness” and to integrate it with an essentially-American creativity in the New World through the use of Pollock’s paintings.

Keywords: American fashion; American identity; Cecil Beaton; Jackson Pollock

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175174109X381346

Affiliations: Email: aenne.soell@web.de

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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