These days, photographers are just as likely to snap people attending fashion shows as they are to shoot the shows themselves. How did we get here?
Photographing people who go to fashion shows with the same alacrity as those modeling in fashion shows has become a routine part of fashion weeks around the world. With Fashion Week nearly underway, photographers are flocking to the models, editors, influencers, buyers, and celebrities milling and mingling outside picturesque venues like the Grand Palais, as though this is how things have always been.
Yet, in the history of fashion shows, the focus on fashion week street style is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought on by the rise of digital photography, a fascination with influencer culture, and the daily content needs of digital media brands.
Here’s a look back at how we got to where we are today.
The Early Days of Fashion Shows
At fashion shows in the forties, fifties, and even the early sixties, clothes were targeted to women in their thirties or older, who shopped twice a year, for fall and spring. Attendees included American buyers who purchased front row tickets and, in exchange, received a dress pattern for replicating a design to sell at their stores.
Also in the audience were editors and fashion illustrators, who, in absence of photography, sketched the clothes and then sold the drawings to publications.
Although urgency around covering fashion shows increased after Christian Dior launched his “New Look” collection in 1947, exciting people over the notion of what fashion could be, there was no urgency to disseminate renderings of those in the crowd.
The Swinging Sixties
In the sixties, fashion underwent a sea change, as designers began targeting young people with clothing regarded as somewhat scandalous. The transformation was seen on the streets of Swinging London, where women chopped their hair into bobs and snatched up miniskirts and high boots.
Biba was one of the most influential boutiques of this period. Its founder, Barbara Hulanicki, understood the power of fashion on the streets, worn by exuberant, beautiful young people.
She hired a slew of chic, young women to staff Biba and, when her business expanded and the store needed to move, staged a public spectacle involving her stylish staff packing up a moving truck in the street, looking cool as ever while doing it.
Photographers, who didn’t tend to lug around extra film and normally had to save it for capturing the collections themselves, were starting to snap more shots of the sidelines of fashion shows.
The Rise of the Supermodel
As the ease and sensuality of seventies dressing gave way to the glitz and ostentation of the eighties, another significant transformation of the business took place. Supermodels became not only the dominant faces of fashion, but also of celebrity culture.
The public was obsessed with the women who racked up the most bookings for magazine covers, fashion shows, and advertisements. The women who were identifiable by their first names alone: Naomi, Christy, Cindy, Linda, Claudia.
Celebrity tabloid culture, as promoted by magazines like Us Weekly, was on the rise. And the supers (“supes”), the dominant celebrities of the day, were therefore followed by photographers. This phenomenon not only illustrated their superstardom, but also foreshadowed the fascination with the “model off duty” that would grip the aughts.
The Online Aughts
Blogs like Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist and Tamu McPherson’s All the Pretty Birds, which featured photos of stylish people taken on the streets, started seeding the internet around 2005. Not long after, interest in models when they were going from one runway show to the next rose.
Between fashion shows, gorgeous girls with their hair and makeup often done from the show would dash out of a venue, usually in some mix of terribly chic athleisure and street clothes, a designer bag dangling casually off their arm, and slip into a black car taking them to their next job.
The model-off-duty look represented the confluence of street style and fashion week, and part of the reason fashion week street style as a genre ever became a thing.
Plus, with the rise of digital photography in the aughts, photographers didn’t have to save their film for the collections anymore, and could start snapping away freely at the scene surrounding the shows.
The Ascent of the Fashion Editor
Another early target of street style photographers were editors, who had been known amongst the small and insular fashion industry for dressing stylishly. With street style photography becoming popular, editors were a regular subject of interest outside the shows.
Italian editor Anna Dello Russo, who styled spreads for Japanese Vogue, was regularly stopped outside fashion shows to be photographed because she always seemed to be wearing a full look from the runways. (She didn’t mix designer pieces because “I like to take a dream and put it on me,” she told New York magazine in 2010).
Carine Roitfeld, who served as editor-in-chief of French Vogue from 2001 through 2011, was also a popular subject for street style photographers, helping cement her reputation as the most stylish woman in the world.
Fashion week street style also enhanced the visibility of influencers like Bryan Boy and Aimee Song, who became fixtures at the shows in the aughts after publishing successful fashion blogs, further legitimizing their place in the industry.
The Present Day
The rise of fashion week street style hasn’t been without controversy. The scrum outside the shows, once nonexistent, became large and intense, like paparazzi hounding a British royal.
People started showing up to fashion week dressed a certain way with the hope of getting photographed, whether they were attending the shows, a part of the industry, or neither. And, those in the industry, now finding themselves passing before a throng of cameras before entering a fashion show, started dressing for the moment.
Critics pointed out that instances that once seemed serendipitous now appeared frustratingly manufactured. “There is a genuine difference between the stylish and the showoffs—and that is the current dilemma,” wrote veteran fashion critic Suzy Menkes in T Magazine (2013).
But, the debate subsided in a few years, and now, fashion week street style is an accepted part of the business of putting on shows.
Only now, instead of on blogs, most of the images trickle out over Instagram, where influencers and attendees can simply snap videos or images of their own outfits to serve up to audiences who are now able to connect to this world as easily as the industry was once able to keep them out.
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Fashion is infectious. Let’s stick to the catwalk a little longer with these beauties:
Or, tap into new sources of inspiration:
Cover image via Saira MacLeod/Shutterstock.