Here’s a look at how designers and photographers have fed off each other over the course of fashion history.
Fashion Month is about to kick off in New York. Soon, designers will showcase their Spring 2024 collections for buyers and editors from around the world.
After New York will be London, then Milan, and finally Paris, where models will walk the runways of the world’s most successful and influential fashion houses, such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, and Miu Miu. Photographers snap pictures and send them ricocheting across the globe in seconds.
License these images via Pat English/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Ken Towner/Evening Standard/Shutterstock, Ken Towner/Evening Standard/Shutterstock, ANL/Shutterstock, Guy Marineau/Condé Nast/Shutterstock, Guy Marineau/Condé Nast/Shutterstock, Conde Nast Archive/Condé Nast/Shutterstock, and Guy Marineau/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.
The relationship between designers and photographers hasn’t always been this way, though. Let’s take a look at how runway photography has influenced high fashion’s output, and vice versa, over the decades.
Designer Dupes Have Always Existed
For most people, photos are the closest they’ll ever get to owning a high-end designer’s piece of wearable art. They’re also the closest many of us will get to attending a fabulous runway show.
This runway photography will be used to disseminate the ideas presented by fashion houses to the world at large, providing brands with much-needed publicity.
They’ll also allow fast fashion companies ample time and visual references so they can knock off the trendiest looks before they turn stale.
The tension between publicity and counterfeit items has always been at the core of runway photography. Turn of the century fashion parades—as the earliest fashion shows were called—often prohibited photography for fear that the designs would be stolen.
Indeed, many of the early American fashion shows were staged by department stores for their wealthiest clientele. They’d feature looks shamelessly appropriated from the most popular and expensive designers in London and Paris.
These early shows were rigid, formal affairs. Their purpose was to sell the garments on display to the people sitting in the room at the time.
Models Make Their Way to the Runway
Live models were first introduced in the 1850s or ‘60s. British designer Charles Frederick Worth began hiring young women to display his clothes in Paris.
Worth’s shows were simple affairs, without music, raised stages, or many of the more theatrical elements synonymous with modern fashion shows.
License these images via Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock, Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, and Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
The first real fashion show likely took place in 1901, when English designer Lady Duff Gordon presented her latest collection.
It took place on a raised stage complete with scenery, special lighting, and live music. Her models glided across the stage, executing simple choreography and posing for the gathered buyers.
French Fashion Takes Off After WWII
It was only after WWII that fashion shows really took off . . . and runway photography along with them. A new crop of Parisian designers, including Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy, sought a return to opulence and femininity, and to revitalize the French fashion industry.
License these images via Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, and Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
They actively pursued the attention and patronage of international audiences by putting on lavish shows and courting the fashion press.
Although their early shows were still quite formal affairs, often simply staged in their own studios, their embrace of the press made their brands and designs famous.
High Fashion Leaves the Runway
It wasn’t until the 1960s that fashion shows, and fashion photography, finally broke free of the studio and entered the world at large.
Pierre Balmain presented his Spring 1965 collection in a Paris wine cellar. Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne showed their designs outside, along the banks of the Seine, and at the Crazy Horse Saloon, respectively.
Suddenly, any location could be the site of a fashion show. Of course, photographers were there to document the clothes in situ.
Supermodels and Super Spectacles
In the 1980s and ‘90s, fashion shows transformed from mere tools of commerce to entertainment. The top models—Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford—were celebrities in their own rights.
Photos of them on the runway were reprinted in magazines and gleefully consumed by people of every socioeconomic background.
The shows themselves also became more lavish and highly produced throughout the ‘90s and beyond. Designers like Gianni Versace spent millions to put on fully-realized fashion spectacles.
Fashion shows were no longer just about displaying clothes. They now created an entire world on stage. Such shows included Alexander McQueen’s underwater chess board. Chanel featured a melting ice world.
No matter the scene, runway photographers were there to document it all.
License this image via Jason Szenes/EPA/Shutterstock.
Minimalism in the ’90s
In America, minimalism reigned supreme in the ‘90s. Shows were often more straightforward, especially after the formalization of New York Fashion Week in 1993, when the majority of the show’s tents moved to Bryant Park.
In this new format, models walked down simple runways, past rows of buyers, editors, and celebrities, toward a wall of waiting photographers at the catwalk’s end. They posed, turned, and went back the way they came.
When the show was over, the designer, their team, and all the models left as a new designer took their place.
Efficient though this format was, it robbed fashion shows and runway photography of much of its specialness.
This style of show has waned significantly in recent years, as designers have sought more unique spaces to showcase their collections.
The invention of smartphones and the rise of social media turned every person into a runway photographer and fashion commentator. For better or worse, professional runway photography began to decline in the 2010s.
At this time, attendees began live-streaming what they saw to millions of followers. This practice shared runway collections with them in real time.
License these images via Action Press/Shutterstock, Action Press/Shutterstock, Action Press/Shutterstock, Zabulon Laurent/ABACA/Shutterstock, Nataliya Petrova/NurPhoto/Shutterstock, and JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Still, high-quality runway photos remained an important tool of the fashion industry. They became a formal document of an extremely expensive moment in time.
Professional photos could be carefully edited and curated by brands. Fashion media could also disseminate photos around the world for months—or even years—to come.
Haute Couture in a Post-Quarantine World
When COVID-19 shut down fashion shows in 2020, people wondered if this signaled the end of live runway shows altogether. Many brands turned to producing look books and digital presentations in place of traditional runway shows.
As the pandemic progressed, those who returned to the runway soonest often doubled down on theatrics. These designers saw a far greater return on their investment, in terms of social media impressions, than those who chose to keep things small.
License these images via Sergii Khandusenko/Shutterstock, Daniel Pier/NurPhoto/Shutterstock, Daniel Pier/NurPhoto/Shutterstock, MAST IRHAM/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, and Bagus Indahono/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
The fact is, people love runway shows. Runway photos are alive and honest in ways that look books—even those that seek to recreate the look of the runway—never can be. They show the clothes in motion and make them feel simultaneously fantastical and accessible.
These shows allow people to luxuriate in the worlds the designers, models, and photographers have created together. Runway shows do more than merely sell clothes or raise brand awareness . . . they are historical documents.
They’re also just really fun to look at.
Looking to add style straight from the runway, direct to your designs? Shutterstock has you covered!
With Shutterstock Flex, you’ll have all-in-one access to millions of creative assets, along with the FLEXibility you need to create runway-ready content.
Plus, see what other stock photos fashion lovers are searching for.
License this cover image via Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.