The Vanity Fair Time Warp

Cary Grant by George Hoyningen-Huene 1934 Vanity Fair,
November 1934 © Condé Nast Publications Inc. / Courtesy Condé Nast Archive

Walking into the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum is like stepping into a time warp. No one takes photos, all is silent, and people walk around, discussing quietly amongst themselves the lives of celebrities I’m much too young to recognize.

On one side of the maze of rooms, black-and-white images of film stars, writers, artists and dancers line the walls. The photographs are smaller than I anticipated. I recognize few names and even fewer faces.  On the other side, there are much larger, mostly colour portraits of people I’ve seen in movies and on television for my entire life. The contrast is striking.

The first collection of portraits, taken between 1913 and 1936, before Vanity Fair’s mid-life hiatus, contains eerily staged snapshots of the best-known celebrities of the time. In one image, film star Cary Grant, clad in a cardigan and pleated pants, leans against a wall, smiling and gazing towards the camera. It’s easy to see how he captured the hearts of young women in his day like Brad Pitt does today. In another, actor and director Charlie Chaplin sits pretty with a stern stare in a crisp black suit.

With the notable exceptions of Josephine Baker, who poses in a rather tiny dancing outfit, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Joan Crawford, who lounge on a beach in swimwear, the vast majority of the Vintage Vanity Fair portrait subjects are fully and immaculately dressed.

Julianne Moore as Ingres’s ‘Grand Odalisque’, New York City,
by Michael Thompson 2000
Vanity Fair, April 2000 © 2000 Michael Thompson

Continue reading