Changing faces: a review of the National Portrait Gallery’s Women in Vogue exhibition
By Rosalind Moran
Attending the National Portrait Gallery’s Women in Vogue: Celebrating Sixty Years in Australia felt like an inherently ‘meta’ experience. At its most base level, the exhibition invites the visitor to look at pictures of pictures of people, as well as to take pictures of oneself with the pictures of pictures of people. Walking into the exhibition gallery, one is immediately presented with a selfie wall: an enormous curved display featuring every Vogue Australia cover of the last sixty years multiple times over. It still feels novel to me to enter an exhibition where the visitor is immediately placed front and centre, as though on the cover of a magazine themselves. Strike a pose!
Indeed, the exhibition – a collaboration between the gallery and Vogue Australia for the latter’s 60th anniversary – effectively begins advertising its product right from the start. That said, I’m not criticising this: I’d expected nothing less from one of the world’s most successful magazines. Besides, all gallery spaces technically market a narrative, from the pieces they select for display to the way they present them.
Nevertheless, the business model underpinning Vogue perhaps led to me being more aware of the strategic marketing inevitably associated with the commemorative exhibition – and more curious about what it was trying to say – than I might have been for other collections. It’s not every day the National Portrait Gallery unveils a wing where every image and item on display is affiliated with Condé Nast.
All this meant that right from the start, I was asking myself two questions: what did this exhibition want me to see, and what message was it putting forward about Vogue Australia?
From page to gallery
First of all, the very fact that images from Vogue Australia – along with four items of clothing and two videos – have been turned into an exhibition in a national gallery shows the publication is positioning itself as high art as well as a cultural touchstone. And that’s fair: photography is a creative, accessible, and informative art form, and fashion can be an eye-catching indicator of cultural values and historical moments.
What is perhaps more interesting about Vogue Australia embracing an art gallery’s interactive nature, however, is that its exhibition effectively invites readers and fans inside Vogue’s pages – and aspirational images – in a way that cannot be made possible through its magazine form. Surrounded by photos of covers and magazines artfully opened to their most curious spreads, the visitor steps through the looking glass and becomes – at last! – a Woman in Vogue; herself a butterfly on an eye-popping background.
On this note: it is interesting how museums and galleries have themselves become a backdrop for – in some cases – our own self-conscious performativity; performing art appreciation and spectatorship as much as simply appreciating the artworks. If I were to place a speech bubble over the Vogue selfie wall, it would say Take a picture of me looking at the pictures. I wonder if galleries increasingly consider people on both sides of the glass, as spectators centre themselves in the experience of viewing art objects – and as, indeed, I am doing now with this review. How did I feel about it? How did I fit within it?
Of course, this observation of Women in Vogue’s selfie-friendliness is not to lambast a gallery decorated with beautiful photos of supermodels, or to deride those who visit it. Women in Vogue is an enjoyable visual exhibition, and it would be superficial to criticise something because it caters, in part, to the stereotype of the modern social media influencer. Women who love fashion and know their own beauty are forever targeted for having fun and looking good in public. Arguments about consumerism and privilege aside, I’d rather gripe about those who critique them than the women themselves.
…Which brings us back to the exhibition.
Past, present, future
I enjoyed looking at the photographs and seeing how the focus of Vogue Australia had evolved over time. What began with a woman in swimwear sitting on a beach while holding a kangaroo on a leash gradually morphed into covers with Cate Blanchett, Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman, an imperceptibly older Cate Blanchett, Elle MacPherson, Mia Wasikowska, Cate Blanchett again, and eventually members of a “new generation of beauty” such as Indigenous model Samantha Harris. Indeed, the final third of the exhibition was dedicated to one of Vogue Australia’s more recent covers and editorials from April 2018, which showed four Australian models with very different backgrounds representing the changing face of Australian society, fashion, and perceptions of beauty.
It’s not hard to see what Vogue Australia is doing here. It’s a tough time to be a print magazine and the only way to stay relevant is to move with the times – which means choosing what one stands for and marketing it actively, such as through a gallery exhibition. Celebrating diversity is in no way risqué in 2019 (not that it ever should have been), so mainstream publications finally feel safe in jumping on a very welcoming, largely destigmatised progressive bandwagon.
I’d like to note that I’m not writing this out of lack of support for Vogue’s progressive values. Rather, I think it’s important to acknowledge that historically, some publications pushed progressive values while others followed only once mainstream sentiment had shifted. Nevertheless, it’s still valuable when big publications like Vogue Australia indicate a marked departure from a less inclusive era. And this marked departure is exactly what is being signalled through the Women in Vogue exhibition.
On the April 2018 cover, for example, we have models Fernanda Ly, Akiima Ajak, Charlee Fraser, and Andreja Pejić. Aside from simply being a beautiful cover, it also represents – to use the words on the museum label – an embodiment of “current dialogues around issues of diversity and inclusivity”. Indeed, Ly is of Chinese origin, Ajak is from South Sudan, Fraser is of Awabakal heritage, and Pejić is a transgender woman. It’s wonderful to see that Vogue Australia now considers them to be every bit as representative of the face of Australian womanhood as Cate Blanchett or Nicole Kidman (who have at least seven Vogue Australia covers between them).
The exhibition also went further in celebrating its new generation of models by displaying a three-person photoshoot involving Ly, Fraser, and Pejić in outfits that offered a snapshot of diverse fashion styles that can be associated with womanhood. I really loved this series of images: in my opinion, it gently riffed on negative stereotypes surrounding women’s fashion and gender presentation, and helped reclaim these. One photo showed the three models dressed in masculine styles and looking androgynous; one showed them dressed in a way that could have them labelled ‘frumpy’ – but they were rocking it; and the last one showed them dressed in traditionally feminine clothing with glitzy flowers, but with the added subversion of eccentric accessories and unconventional dress cuts. Such stylistic decisions helped convey a sense that the women were dressing for themselves rather than to adhering to ‘style rules’– and together, the photos communicated a powerful message about the different ways women are sometimes perceived based simply on the style of their clothing.
The exhibition also ended on a high note through its focus on Adut Akech, a 19 year old South Sudanese-Australian model. Half a room was dedicated to photos of Akech and her family, accompanied by a video of her describing her passion for modelling and the differences between her suburban Australian life and her fast-paced job as an international model.
I liked that emphasis was placed on her connection to her family: the photo series’ blend of family portrait photography and high fashion was eye-catching as well as thought-provoking. Whether one has a model in the family or not, why should we instinctively perceive these two worlds as separate? The contrast between fashion glamour and Australian suburban life seems stark, but it doesn’t need to be: fashion can be a form of play and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t proudly dress up for your own surrounds, whatever they are. Akech and her family radiated confidence as well as playfulness in their photos and it made for a beautiful blurring between the everyday and the fashion world. The photo series also avoided the power imbalance that can sometimes come of blurring these worlds when, for instance, one muscles into a small community in a remote location to model ludicrously expensive high fashion. The power dynamic was different here – and more empowering to the subjects of the photos – not least because the photos were being taken in and around the subjects’ family home and community.
Indeed, perhaps that’s what stood out most about these photos: pride. A sense of pride in family and in one’s home, as well as a strong sense of belonging – not least because these photos were given pride of place in an exhibition gallery. Sure, Vogue Australia is not being subtle about its new direction or about its discovery of diversity’s marketability. If, however, this new direction includes a greater diversity of Australians as well as empowered attitudes and playful, subversive ideas, it’s absolutely one to celebrate.
The National Portrait Gallery’s Women in Vogue exhibition is on until Sunday 24 November 2019.