Fashion photography, like art, is not set in stone and it moves defined by its leading talents and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. Fashion photography has continuously evolved between artistic and commercial demands to enable imaginative and technical innovation.

Whether as advertisements or fashion shoots, these images have been heavily influenced by the world events, culture and shifts in women’s roles throughout the years.

Edward Steichen and a new era

Steichen has been proclaimed as the founding father of modern photography who photographed models wearing dresses by the designer Paul Poiret. Steichen formed his own unique photography style, using renaissance imagery with futurism and cubism to create something new and exciting. His use of studio techniques, models and lighting were revolutionary.

A new era of fashion and fashion photography began in 1909 when Vogue Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar were created to cater to high society fashion.

A girl sitting on top of the stairs wile references to cubism have been made through the use of shadows.

Use of cubism by photographer Edward Steichen.


A girl's face covered by a fabric with great lace detailings.

Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen

Challenging perceptions

During the 1920s and 1930s surrealism hyped which impacted fashion shoots. Fashion photographers used juxtapositions with clothes as an attempt to play with the unconscious mind and challenge perceptions of reality. Hoyningen-Huene, chief photographer Vogue, was a huge name in this era whose work fused classical and surreal motives.

Fashion photography using surrealism by depicting a girl as a cat.

Use of surrealism in photography.


Two dancers on the floor where the one sitting is poised ina way as if he is going to stab the one lying on the floor.

Dancers Serge Lifar and Mille Spressiwtzewa during the golden-age of the ballet russes in 1931 by George Hoyningen-Huence.


Post World War 2

As fashion recovered from the horrors of the war, many new designers stepped forward and a new approach towards glamour and feminity was adopted after years of harshness. This was showcased in Christian Dior’s extravagant shoots and Lillian Basman’s approach to focusing on evolving a mood through the image rather than the details of the clothes.

Diorable style: February 12, 1947


Lillian Bassman Estate. Courtesy: Edwyn Houke Gallery

Evoking a mood-Lillian Bassman.

Replacing studio backdrops

The 1950s marked fresh dynamics in fashion photography where shoots took place in real locations and the city streets rather than studios. Richard Avedon was the first photographer to photograph a model primarily outside the studio. He did not focus on making the models pose, but rather let them move about naturally. This new cinematic vision was widely appraised.

Richard Avedon Photography

Skater and the city gentleman wears a Digby Morton fur trimmed velvet coat. Captured by Richard Avedon.

Feminist liberation

The sixties marked the feminist movement which influenced fashion photography as well. Models were photographed in more youthful ways and they posed without the structured norms of feminine poses. Photographer David Bailey had a vivacious documentary approach which was widely used in this era.

A new take on society, 1961.

Ronald B.W. Photography.

Changing attitudes

In the 1970s fashion photography tested the limits of acceptable fashion imagery. Photographs depicted the changing attitudes of society towards feminity, sexuality, violence and religion. Fashion images captured provocative images that did not focus on the clothes but on the character of the women within. Use of black models also showed the changing notions of ideal beauty.

A new take on feminity in fashion photography by showing a woman smoking and another casually standing on a roof top in a skimpy onepiece.

Helmut Newton Photography.


A girl in a glossy metallic long dress and boots pushing a white car.

A new take on gender roles. Helmut Newton.

Real people

In the 1980s there was a growing trend of capturing images that focused on real life situations with real people. This was a counter approach to the use of airbrushed perfection. Corine Day, Craig McDean and numerous other photographers used this naturalistic approach that celebrated real people and everyday life with all its flaws unique individuality.

A candid shot of a real girl laughing amicably while seated on a sofa.

Corine Day Photography.


Street fashion photography showing two young girls casually posing on the left, while three young boys casually pose on the right.

Portraits of Joy: The 1980s Street Photography of Jamel Shabazz.

Picturing fantasy

Most fashion images today are dazzling with poetic and colorful narratives as a result of set designers, stylists and he budgets that enable photographers to be able to photograph elaborate fantasies. Miles Adridge’s photographs ‘take something from real life and reconstruct it in a cinematic way…condensed emotion, condensed colour, condensed light.’

A present day fashion photography shot starring a blonde Cara Delevigne in a red dress drinking from a sheer glass.

Alice in Wonderland, Miles Adridge.


An example of modern fashion photography showing a model with her eyes closed as if taking in the serenity with brightly hued eye makeup and lip colour.

Present day cosmetics advertisements.




About The Author

Sehla Tahir

A student of Economics in her early twenties who has a knack for stringing words together into crafty sentences. A lover of art, make up, all things literature, and photography. Although a writer by consequence, she now describes her relationship with writing as nothing short of true love.

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