27th March 2020

Vintage Luxury Fashion in the Age of Social Media

Fashion stylist Niamh O'Dwyer looks at the concept and influence of vintage luxury fashion in the digital age

Oscar Gustave Rejlander, a contemporary of the early Victorian pioneer of photography, Clementina Hawarden, said of her work that she ‘aimed at an elegant and, if possible, idealised truth’.  She rarely focused on faces, and many of her photographs, or ‘studies’ as she called them, featured her young adolescent daughters.

Lady Clementina Hawarden. c. 1862-1863, Victoria and Albert museum

Carol Mavor, a leading present day critic, presents a different interpretation: she observes fetish content in Lady Clementina’s work, regardless of the mother/ daughter subject relationship.  She hints that perhaps we do not see it because we’re confused by our own modern day desires and fail to distinguish the erotic undertones.  So, what to a Victorian man was poised idealism in photography can be judged as over- sexualized by a modern day academic.  Through modern eyes Lady Hawarden may be perceived as a racy blogger, but she didn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows in her own lifetime.  By combining high fashion with the costume box, her work created rare mystique.

Lady Clementina Hawarden. Photographic Study, c. 1863

Compare Lady Hawarden’s daughters to a famous instagram fashion blogger’s representation of her own idealised femininity, more than 100 years on.  The beautiful Gilda Ambrosio, according to Forbes,  “is the “It” girl of social media fashion bloggers and one of the top ten fashion influencers in the world today.”  Known to mix vintage with high fashion, Gilda’s style is eclectic with  no scandal surrounding her posts.  But, thinking of our present day academics, what would be our ‘confused modern desires’ and what would be their influence on our fashion choices?

Instagram: @Gildaambrosio

Is it possible that a Victorian male can have less hang ups about ”suggestive” female images than a modern day critic?  And do the modern examples of femininity in fashion posts qualify as suggestive?  Suggestion is what we seek in images and perhaps what we want revealed about ourselves in contemporary fashion.  This could be Gilda’s attraction for us: her choice of looks varies considerably; her posts seek to impress with a profusion of beautiful things and especially, in a masterful way, the body.

Gucci, Autumn/Winter 2020

The Victorian in us all might suggest that bloggers’ images in general are slightly at variance with the more subtle representation of femininity in the contemporary fashion photograph – see the presentation of Gucci’s A/w2020 collection for example.  Therefore our need for suggestive images is satisfied but what do we do with it now we have it and how does it influence our choice of clothes?  We may see the model on the catwalk and envy her but we are really superimposing our own image on her as we view the collections; entranced by our own potential via beautiful clothes.  As a spontaneous response we snap ourselves in hundreds of selfies to emulate this identification experience.  Dolce and Gabbana went on to exploit this dynamic on the catwalk in 2016.

Dolce & Gabbana, Spring/Summer 2015. 

But selfies are important for luxury brands, who actively research and investigates consumer-generated brand images.  It’s easy to identify two different types of brand-related selfie images.  First, the consumer selfies – i.e., images featuring both brand logos and consumers’ faces, and second, brand selfies.  Looking at photographs by the selfie generation and comparing them to their Victorian counterparts it’s easy to feel like modern clothes on the modern body do not produce the dream effect so clearly perceived in Lady Hawarden’s daughter portraits.  Is it the consumers themselves, and not contemporary fashion photography, that has lost contact with the allure of clothes, since admiration as a concept has been bypassed for seeing only oneself when one sees another?

Vetements, Spring/Summer 2016

Iconic fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh once said ahead of an exhibition of his work called From Fashion to Reality,“ I think that selfies are actually pretty much the stupidest thing that there is at all.”  It’s a strong opinion from someone to take seriously, but social media had finally enabled everyone to broadcast their own lives and attain (relative) stardom through the self promotion offered by the selfies, where “consumers became actors and consumable products” all at the same time, in the words of Tomas Chamorra-Premuzzi, the celebrated psychologist.

Georgia Carrol by John Rowlings, Vogue, September, 1938.

Perhaps it’s the composition of the photograph then that plays a part in how it is received.  The V&A museum’s description of the Victorian photographs in their Lady Hawarden collection highlights her careful choice of props, clothing, mirrors, balconies and posture in producing the exquisite studies of her adolescent daughters.  The figures and the dress are the main subjects, carefully framed in the room and often in front of a balcony.  Slowly the penny drops.  The context inhibits a sense of identification.  We look in awe at a past we know so little about.

Herein lies the fundamental attraction of vintage clothes.  We can go back to the props and the contexts of a previous time and comfortably reinvent an identity that the modern world rarely allows us to.  Our aesthetic appreciation of a less populated visual environment calms our narcissistic tendencies.  We feel unique in that boho 70s dress, even if we will buy the fabulous luxury skinny jeans too.  But it’s the way we assemble our fashion identikit that will make it seem so well styled and superior if we aspire to the past.   After all, we are all still ‘perfect’ on our instagram accounts.  The compliments from our friends tells us so. Which must make Kate Moss something of a vintage diva too.

Kate Moss in Mairead Lewin vintage lace blouse, 2014. 

However, the opposite can also be true if, by chance, the identification process with the beautiful model fails to materialise. Then we are thrown into the worst case scenario: we are not like her so therefore we are no-one; apparently non-existent on the global beauty platforms.   The fashion photograph takes its revenge.  A sense of terror might rise if that same girl dares to challenge the social media platforms.  But she doesn’t.   Maybe she has already failed to consider herself acceptable and so she will evade the exposure and live without likes.  Or, alternatively (and perhaps more healthily), she sees it for what it is and choses to live without the likes.


Niamh O’Dwyer is an Irish fashion stylist currently residing in Italy.

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