Cindy Sherman on the Veneer of Fashion

A film star, a clown, a middle-aged socialite. These are some of the many faces of distinguished photographer Cindy Sherman on display at her National Portrait Gallery exhibition, which closed on Sunday. By manipulating her appearance, Sherman’s self-portraits explore the tension between façade and identity, challenging societal stereotypes and expectations of the female gender. Therefore, it is no surprise that throughout her career, Sherman’s work has caught the attention of the fashion industry. Many of her photographs have critiqued fashion for its superficial concern with appearance, in which it creates an illusion of glamour through false advertising. Yet Sherman continued to be commissioned for the purposes of fashion photography. Why is this? And what does it tell us about those commissioning the works? Furthermore, what can we learn today – in the age of Instagram and social media – from Sherman’s approach to and manipulation of appearances?

Illustration by Eve Eberlin

In a small side room of the exhibition, we find Sherman’s Cover Girls, 1976. In this series Sherman directly challenges the façade of glamour and sophistication created by the embellishment of appearances in fashion and advertising. She reproduces and parodies the magazine covers of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Redbook, and Mademoiselle. For each cover, she presents a triptych of images. The first image is the original, the second image is a portrait of Sherman made up but quoting the original, and in the third image, Sherman adjusts her expression, offering a goofy impersonation. Her appropriation and comic manipulation of imagery from mass media cheekily undermine the stereotypical standards of beauty and elegance purported.