Collection Spotlight: Models in Gowns by Madeleine Vionnet, Edward Steichen

Artist: Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879‒1973)
Title: Models in Gowns by Madeleine Vionnet, for Vogue
Date: 1930
Medium: Gelaton silver print
Dimensions: 10 x 8 in
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Richard and Jackie Hollander in memory of Ellyn Lee Hollander, 2019.29.27

Models in Gowns by Madeleine Vionnet is an example of Edward Steichen’s modern approach to fashion photography. The photo is one half of a two-page spread showcasing evening gowns by designer Madeleine Vionnet, originally published in the Oct. 27, 1930 issue of Vogue. With its sharp lines, minimalist background, and deep shadows, Models in Gowns epitomizes Steichen’s distinctive sleek style.

On the left, model Marion Morehouse wears a black velvet gown with an ermine-trimmed hem.[1] Eyes averted, hands clasped, and body angled sideways to the camera, her body language matches the simplicity of her gown. With her black dress placed against a lighter background, and pearls gleaming at her wrists and ears, she commands attention beside her flashier counterpart. 

On the right, an unidentified model leans towards the wall, facing the camera to display the full detail of her clothing. She poses in a sleeveless white dress, with a panne velvet skirt and a crêpe bodice.[2] Despite standing still, her skirt blows away from her body dramatically: “to prove how gracefully [the dress] breaks into a flare at the slightest breeze, Mr. Steichen has used an electric fan,” boasts the Vogue editorial accompanying the image.[3] Capturing the dress in motion, Steichen draws the reader’s attention to the garment, where each fold and highlight of the fabric is revealed. Its bright white color stands out even more against the simple black background.

Figure 1: Jeanne Eageles, for Vogue, Feb. 1, 1921. Photograph by Baron Adolph de Meyer.

Models in Gowns’ sleek, high-contrast look recurred throughout Steichen’s work during his fourteen years as chief fashion photographer at Condé Nast (the media conglomerate that included magazine giants like Vogue and Vanity Fair). This style was a significant departure from fashion photography’s previous era, defined by the work of Steichen’s legendary predecessor Baron Adolph de Meyer. De Meyer’s fashion work closely emulated Pictorialism, a movement that emphasized proving photography’s potential as a fine art. In pursuit of this mission, Pictorialist photography almost mimicked painting, with soft lighting and atmospheric effects.[4] For instance, de Meyer’s 1921 photograph of actress Jeanne Eageles utilizes misty backlighting and a blurred background. Propped against a table and gazing dreamily at an illuminated bouquet, Eageles’s delicate pose obscures much of her dress—contrasting with Models in Gowns’ straight-postured figures and emphasis on the clothing’s details. The image’s glowing, dreamlike quality differs from the stark boldness that would characterize Steichen’s photography.

While Pictorialism’s soft, elegant images proved (to art critics and the public alike) that photography deserved its seat at the table of fine arts, the medium was also capable of producing clean lines, stark lights, and dark shadows. Recognizing this, Steichen emphasized boldness and minimalism in his work, putting both the clothing and the photographic medium on display. His style ushered in a new, modern era of fashion photography, permanently altering the industry.

–Contributed by Madie Giaconia (RTVF, Art History ’24), Block Museum of Art 2021–2022 Curatorial Intern


[1] “Fashion: The Straight-Hanging Flare,” Vogue, October 1927, 43.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Steichen, Edward, William A. Ewing, Todd Brandow, and Carol Squiers. “Edward Steichen at Condé Nast Publications,” in Edward Steichen: In High Fashion: The Conde Nast Years 1923–1937. FEP Editions, 2008, 109‒112.

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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