Fashion on the Couch

Posted inPrint Design Articles

Jennifer Connelly has fallen and she can’t get up. At least that’s what it looks like in a new ad campaign for the fashion house Balenciaga.

There she is in Vogue’s September issue, lying on a couch that’s been tipped to the side. Or is she dying? All the signs seem to be there: the slack mouth, the blank stare, the awkward tilt. And what look like clues to the cause of her demise surround her: a baroque guitar, a twisted tapestry. Colonel Mustard’s candlestick is probably in there, somewhere. Personally, I wonder whether it wasn’t the heels that did her in, those five-inch-high accessories to chiropractic crime.

Whatever it is, Connelly is not alone this season. The September issues of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar are filled with models taking to the couch in varying stages of helpless horizontality. Pale-faced, passed-out, limp, and listless, they’re draped across chairs and sofas in fashion ads for everyone from Prada to Paciotti.

Lanvin’s siren has stiff limbs, as if rigor mortis has set in—though it could be she’s just scared to death of the crazy-looking kitties that surround her. And Alberta Ferretti features a quartet of leggy models collapsed in a Collyer Brothers fantasy of horded books and beds. OCD has never looked so outré.

Unlike their bustier peers in ads for more mainstream labels like Guess or Mango, these latter-day odalisques don’t appear post-coital so much as post-humus. As if the French “petit mort” had been traded in for the real deal.

Of course, fashion’s fixation with erotic imagery has always had its dark side. Long before Helmut Newton started tormenting his models in scenes of bondage and domestic assault, the English photographer Cecil Beaton wrote about his fantasy of shooting a model in a car accident: “It would be gorgeous, with gore all over everything and bits of the car here and there.”

That was in 1938, when dread was definitely in the air. Just two years later Beaton would get his chance to focus on more visceral matters as a home-front photographer for the Ministry of Information. So although he never got his car-crash, he did get a bracing dose of blood and guts. One of his most memorable images is of a little girl wrapped in bandages after a Nazi blitz on London.

So what’s up with the Thanatos theme these days? Are fashion photographers just gorged on glamour or are they channeling a deeper death drive?

The emerging field of socionomics says that during times of negative social mood horror movies become popular, which could account for the Twilight, True Blood, and Vampire Diaries phenomena. But at least those blood-sucking brothers are immortal—the un-dead.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Almost every ad I see that depicts death was shot by the same photographer—Steven Meisel. Meisel’s been around for a long time, which might mean he’s just bored, like Beaton, of the same old same-old. He’s certainly no stranger to mixing beauty and brutality. Four years ago he shot an entire issue of Italian Vogue staging scenes depicting plastic surgery. Facelifts, boob jobs, liposuctions—you name it. His subjects may not have been dead, but they were wrapped in bloody gauze and escorted down quiet corridors in wheelchairs. Wearing perfect heels, of course.

At Meisel’s hand, this year’s model has died on the table (or at least, the sofa). In the process, he’s left behind a trail of exquisite corpses—and a lingering feeling that one man’s morbid pictures may just express more about society’s fear of feminine power than a thousand words ever could.