Book Review: Elegance
You know how there are some books that you could almost literally sink your teeth into (if it wasn’t for the fact that bite marks on pages are always ugly)? Well, Elegance: The Séeberger Brothers and Birth of Fashion Photography is just such a tome: a juicy, fat, shiny book, oozing gloss…
Gorgeous glove detail…
In a time before the Sartorialist and Facehunter had made street fashion photography just about the coolest thing on the planet, three brothers, Jules, Henri and Louis Séeberger (and, later, Louis’s sons Jean and Albert) were lurking about Society’s playgrounds With Intent. They’d take photos of the very latest fashions on Society beauties, and sell them to magazines– magazines who were beginning to realise that readers wanted more than the traditional staged “fashion portrait” that was the norm. Instead, readers wanted to know what the world’s most fashionable women were wearing, and where they were wearing it.
I want those shoes! And the sweater. And that belt looks pretty good, too..
The Séebergers apparently worked extremely hard, and saw their work as a Job, rather than Art (which means they remained little-heard-of…). But they did leave their collection of over 60,000 negatives and prints from 1909 to 1977 to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France– a fascinating documentary of couture fashions, the women who wore them, and their glamorous, elegant, oh-so-desirable world.
Elegance features around 300 of these images from 1909 to 1939– and no one sums up the experience of viewing them better than Xavier Demange, one of the book’s authors: “Ladies who had slumbered for years awaiting the slightest signal to rouse from their long sleep leapt from the surface of the plates, little windows behind which they had been unjustly imprisoned…”
This is indeed a gorgeous book (unfortunately out of print, but available second-hand on Amazon Marketplace). Perhaps I should warn you not to expect a full size picture on each page: there are often four smaller pictures (which has the advantage that more of the Séebergers’ work can be shown). For this is a book where the text is every bit as important, as integral, to the reading experience as the images. Various chapters give an insight into the hotspots of the fashionable world, the inhabitants, and the couturiers (rapidly becoming celebrities in their own right, rather than just suppliers of clothing). There’s discussion of the evolution of fashion photography and fashion journalism, and rather a neat little whistle-stop tour of the major changes in fashion reflected the Séebergers’ photos.
What makes Elegance a must-have for me is the “street” aspect of the styles– these are candid shots of some of the world’s most stylish women out and about, rather than carefully groomed for magazine photoshoots. These are women confident with taking style risks, with mixing things up and pushing the envelope…
And some of the images start to seem timeless, and serve as inspiration for developing a personal style today.
If I’d have been around in 1939, I like to imagine myself as looking as stylish as this: