Subversive Beauty

Reassessing the Surreal in 1930s American Vogue


  • Lynda Xepoleas Cornell University


In the 1930s, several of Vogue’s staff photographers—Georges Hoyningen-Huené, Cecil Beaton, and Horst P. Horst—explored surrealist-influenced fashion photography in the pages of the magazine’s American, British, and French editions. Using surrealist experimental photographic techniques, they transgressed the accepted boundaries of the photographic genre and created shocking images that, for a time, called Vogue’s pursuit of elegance and refinement into question. While previous scholarship has argued that the assimilation of surrealist aesthetic devices in American fashion magazines commercialized Surrealism during the 1930s, such photographic output has yet to be assessed in relation to surrealist thought and practice. In this paper, I reassess three fashion editorials illustrated by Hoyningen-Huené, Beaton, and Horst in American Vogue and how their experimentations with lighting, unusual angles, and darkroom processes aligned with the marvelous, a key concept of surrealist photography initially pursued by surrealist artist and photographer, Man Ray. I argue that Vogue’s staff photographers did not just photograph fashion in the surrealist style to promote desire for the commercial product. Instead, they created a new visual vocabulary that, for a short period of time, challenged the commercial ethos of American Vogue’s editorial section.

Author Biography

Lynda Xepoleas, Cornell University

Lynda Xepoleas is a Ph.D. Candidate in Apparel Design at Cornell University. She holds an M.A. in Art History from Arizona State University and a B.A. in Apparel Design from Purdue University. Her research revolves around the collection, circulation, and representation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American fashion. This essay is drawn from her M.A. Thesis entitled, “The Man Ray School of Photography: Reviewing Surrealism in Fashion Photography of the 1930s,” which reassessed an important facet of the relationship between Surrealism and the fashion press: surrealist-influenced fashion photography.