Reassessing the Surreal in 1930s American Vogue
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.