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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.

Cindy Sherman, 'Cover Girl (Vogue)', 1976/2011. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. (Image: BBC, London, 2019)

Later in the exhibition, we encounter the first of Sherman’s fashion commissions. In 1983 she was hired by Dianne Benson, owner of a New York boutique, to produce photographs featuring Comme des Garçons and Jean Paul Gaultier for advertisements. In Sherman’s response, her newly invented characters may wear the clothing as asked, but they seem disturbed and unhinged. A quote on the gallery wall reveals Sherman’s intentions: “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful… I was trying to make fun of fashion”. Her criticism here is more forthright than her earlier tongue-in-cheek Cover Girls. Startlingly Sherman continued to be commissioned by the fashion industry. In 1984 she furthered her denunciation of fashion’s façade by creating characters in designer clothing who purposefully appeared ‘ugly’, for works commissioned by the French Fashion company Dorothée Bis. Sherman’s relationship with fashion did not end there. At the entrance/exit to the exhibition are two photographs for celebrated fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, 2016-18. Nicknamed ‘project twirl’, Sherman’s satirical portraits mimic the street style stars that parade across our Instagram feeds in search of social media validation.

Cindy Sherman, 'Untitled No.122', 1983. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. (Image: Saatchi Gallery, London, 2019)

With Sherman’s playful critique of fashion’s superficiality remaining an unwavering standpoint over the last 40 years, the fashion industry giants undoubtedly know what they are signing up for when commissioning her photographs. Consequently, it fascinates me as to why they would want to include a condemnation of the fashion veneer – in which they participate in producing and upholding – as part of their advertising. Perhaps they want to suggest that not all their advertising is false, or to prove that they too have a sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously. My understanding is that the likes of Dianne Benson, Dorothée Bis and Harper’s Bazaar want to portray themselves as simultaneously part of, yet also ironically removed from the trivial frivolity of fashion. Through their ability to identify and mock fashion’s shortcomings they believe they are able to dissociate themselves with the industry’s downfalls. Yet we as the audience are left deliberating whether this is successful advertising on the part of the commissioners, or whether we just see straight through it.

Cindy Sherman, 'Untitled No.587', 2016/18. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. (Image: Apollo Magazine, London, 2019)

We have the tendency to take visual culture as the truth. With the help of artists like Sherman, the façade has been broken down. In particular, Sherman’s fashion photographs remind us that appearances can be deceiving, and as per her Harper’s Bazaar images, that we shouldn’t take ourselves and our looks too seriously! In the age of editing, Facetune and the Instagram highlights reel, this is certainly a reminder that does not go amiss whilst we navigate not only the veneer of fashion, but of social media today.

Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery ran from 27 June - 15 September 2019.

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