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

What does this contrast between the vintage and modern portraits say about Vanity Fair? The fact that nudity seems more accepted in the media now more than ever may say nothing but,  to put it quite simply, “times have changed.”

What I do know is that after I look past the most obvious contrasts between the collections – those of size, colour, and photograph quality - it is the difference in dress that catches me. Everything else about the images is the same. Each collection contains portraits of celebrities, politicians and artists who were famous in their day; the subjects of both collections are all posed in ways that are meant to define who they are; and all of the images are well-composed and visually appealing.

But there is one difference that sets the collections apart and breaks the time warp. And that, undoubtedly, is fashion.

Mick Jagger, Madonna and Tony Curtis by Dafydd Jones
1997 Variant pose published in Vanity Fair, June 1997 © Dafydd Jones

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 will be on display on the fourth floor of Toronto’s ROM until January 3, 2009, as part of the museum’s “Season of Celebrity.” A beautiful coffee-table book that showcases all of the images in the collection is available at the ROM store.

- Stephanie Fereiro

8 thoughts on “The Vanity Fair Time Warp

  1. Julianne Moore is too fabulour – brave as an actress and with her style, too.

    Also, I would really like to see that look (in the CG photo) come back for men: high waisted pleated pants and shorter sweaters. Especially those pants. They look great, have fantastic drape and are comfortable, too. (Even the 80s reinvention a la Randy River didn’t kill them for me.) It’s such a perfect casual/elegant – why did we stop doing this?

    ps: Dear Madonna – if you’re done with that jacket, please send it over.

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