New Year – New Look. So 2015 is all set for a re-run of the Seventies: maxi skirts, soft suede jackets, squidgy hats, drooping hair and fringed shoulder bags.
Defining a decade by one single fashion has not made sense since independent women shrugged off diktats about this season’s “look”. Tolerance is now the watchword as both sexes decide how they want to put their wardrobes together.
If this New Year 2015 is supposed to be an ode to hippy deluxe glamour, what better way to start challenging that fuzzy vision than a look at Guy Bourdin’s sharp eye on the period?
I have been twice to the London exhibition Guy Bourdin: Image Maker (at Somerset House until March 15).
And each time those legs, living dangerously as they disappear over the edge of the photo or disembodied as they lie across a train track, create a frisson of danger and seduction.
A protégé of the surrealist Man Ray, Guy Bourdin is the master of edgy, unvarnished fashion fantasy (except that nail varnish plays a powerful roll in his images.)
We have seen many of these photographic works before, especially the ads that the photographer made for Charles Jourdan. The campaigns for the French fashion house from 1977 to 86 dominate the opening of the show, just as this work put the French shoe company on the fashion map.
In fact, Samuel Bourdin, the photographer’s son and keeper of the flame, can be seen in the exhibition as a kid following his father on a road trip, while the lenses focused in each place on those legs and feet.
The erotic, unnerving images of high-heeled shoes walking, disconnected from the body, along beaches or across industrial wasteland are in contrast to other sexually charged photographs for French Vogue.
Glossy magazine models, sprawled across satin sheets or half hidden under furniture, show Bourdin as the signature fashion photographer of the period. His work for French Vogue was far more than snapper-of-the-moment. An entire room at the exhibition shows his detailed and controlling work on layouts and picture choices.
But it is the disembodied legs that are the focus of Alistair O’Neill who curated the Somerset House exhibition with Shelly Verthime – even though they have some newer revelations such as early fashion films made during on-location shoots.
“There is also the relationship between Bourdin and Helmut Newton and his close relationship with Francine Crescent,” says Alistair, referring to the long-serving editor of French Vogue from 1968 to 1987 and the competition between the two photographers to create an erotic and edgy view of twentieth-century woman.
What do we learn at this exhibition about the Seventies? The primary response is that there was far more fashion variety in that period than the hippy deluxe that grew from Woodstock and the Summer of Love.
My main feeling about Guy Bourdin’s work is its perfection, especially the immaculate sheen of make-up and luscious scarlet lips. And this was in a period when society was leaning towards the careless and casual.
But mostly I thought about how fashion never comes back the same, in spite of the efforts of designers to re-vamp a period. Each decade is multi-layered: like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaïa, and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel – all significant and simultaneous contributions to the Eighties. In Italy, Giorgio Armani’s minimalism and Gianni Versace’s extravagance battled it out, followed by Prada’s “ugly” aesthetic against Tom Ford’s seductive Gucci.
One thing struck me about the exhibition: We think that shoes and colourful hose are something we own now in 2015. But one glance at those Guy Bourdin pictures – especially the 1970 images of three rope-bound legs, in lilac, buttercup and vermilion-red hose, lying on a railway track – proves that nothing is new in fashion. But Bourdin’s presentation was totally original in his day.