By Landis Lee
Today when street fashion photography is mentioned, photographers such as Bill Cunningham of the New York Times or Scott Schuman of the blog The Sartorialist, may come to mind. Their photographs capture seemingly regular people walking the streets of major cities around the world in their own clothes that have been deemed fashionable and/or photo-worthy by the photographer. The aim of street fashion photography is to capture what “regular people,” going about their day are wearing, un-staged (to a certain extent), rather than fashion photography that is staged and is meant to show a particular fashion in a particular way. Roland Barthes addresses “the pose” in his book Camera Lucida, asserting that when a person knows they are being photographed, they transform themselves and their bodies by posing to create a certain image. They are posing to convey or promote their true self, but are in fact creating an image to show a “real” image.
One photographer who captured street fashion truly did photograph his subjects with them (for the most part), wholly unaware they were being photographed, by use of a hidden camera. This sly photographer was Edward Linley Sambourne. He was not a twenty-first century photographer, and was in fact barely a twentieth century photographer (he died in 1910), making his photographs, which date to 1906-1908, the earliest known example of street fashion photography. Sambourne’s photographs provide evidence that street fashion was captured as early as the turn of the twentieth century.
He was born in England in 1844. He made his living as an artist and is most notably known for his drawings and cartoons in Punch magazine, where he eventually became a full-time artist. At times Sambourne would have creative blocks with his drawing and found it difficult to capture the true likeness of the human figure. In the 1880s, he found a solution for this through photography. He had already started to use photographs taken by friends for him or ones available commercially. However, by the 1880s photography had become an affordable pastime.
Sambourne would have certain models, his children, relatives, and domestic staff pose for him “sometimes wearing costumes borrowed from artist friends or from an agency, and would then use the prints as guides for his drawing.” If models were not available “and he needed a policeman, a brewer’s drayman, or a working man throwing a brick during a riot” he would find an original.
Although Sambourne was using photography for his work since the 1880s, it is the candid 1906-1908 photographs that are important in documenting the history of street fashion. These photographs show mainly young women walking outside, going about their daily business. Everyday fashions that women were wearing on the streets of Paris and London at the turn of the twentieth century are documented through these photographs. Sambourne’s photographs are extremely similar to today’s street fashion photography.
Dave Walker, the author of the post “Street Style 1906: Edward Linley Sambourne’s Fashion Blog,” writes of street fashion blogging as being “a genuinely new phenomenon, a product of the Internet, a distinctly twenty-first century thing.” He goes on to say, “photographers have taken pictures in the street since it was technically possible but no-one ever did a style blog in the early years of the twentieth century. But Edward Linley Sambourne came close. The one difference between Sambourne’s street photography and the pictures taken by modern style bloggers is that for the most part his subjects had no idea they were being photographed. Sambourne used a concealed camera.” Walker also points out that Sambourne’s photographs are important to fashion history because of the casual look of the subjects, which is in contradiction to the stiff, formal fashion plates and staged photos of the Edwardian period. This echoes my view wholeheartedly about Sambourne’s photographs. They are important to fashion history because they offer a rare glimpse of the garments in motion. The viewer can see how the women actually moved in their dresses: women holding their skirts up to walk or climb stairs, showing how they manipulated their dresses in order to move around in them. Sambourne’s photographs offer more than a view of the fashion; they offer a glimpse of everyday Edwardian pedestrian life.
The photographs shown here were taken by Sambourne from 1906 to 1908 in his hometown, London, and during a trip to Paris and are available through the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library’s website. In these photographs, women are seen walking down sidewalks, across streets, up steps, and promenading down Parisian boulevards; several photographs taken on the streets of London show women walking by themselves- a new phenomenon at that period. Two photographs of young women reading books while walking are particularly interesting. Perhaps it was common for women to read while walking. Not only do these two women not have a chaperone with them, they also appear to be unaware of their surroundings by being engrossed in their books. Perhaps this helped to ward off unwanted conversation since they were by themselves? These two women are wearing the fashionable silhouette of the time with a small corseted waist, blouse, and skirt. Their clothes are not highly fashionable. Another photograph shows a young woman walking beside her bicycle wearing a very large hat that she appears to be holding to steady.
All of these photographs are interesting to fashion history, but one in particular in this group of young women shows the woman walking away from the camera offering a complete back view of her outfit. Back views of garments are rarely seen in fashion photography/plates. Her long braid is visible hanging down to her waist and the ruffle of the skirt made by walking shows just a glimpse of the hem of her petticoat. She is also carrying a handbag and wearing an outfit very similar to the woman reading and walking. As evident in these photographs, women were beginning to carry handbags as an everyday accessory, just as they do today.
Many of these women are wearing dresses with short hems that expose the shoe or boot and stockings. Dresses with shorter hems were easier to walk in, but not all dress hems were short. Sambourne took some fantastic photographs of women walking while holding up their skirts, providing evidence of how women managed their long skirts in the streets. This allows their wonderful shoes and boots to show, these rarely seen under the long skirts.
Sambourne also captured some wonderful photographs of families with children, offering a view of children and teenagers’ fashion. The picture below shows a Parisian family out for a promenade. The young lady in the foreground is probably in her early teens given the length of her skirt. The rest of her outfit, including her hat, all resemble adult fashion, but an adult woman would not be wearing a skirt that short, making her outfit transitory, signaling her transition from childhood to adulthood. The child at the right is much younger and wearing distinctly children’s clothes.
Some truly remarkable photographs were taken by Sambourne in late summer of 1906 at the English coast. The photographs below show women in typical bathing attire for the time period. In one photograph a woman has just emerged from the water with her outfit soaking wet and clinging to her body, revealing her shape underneath. This was a cheeky picture for Sambourne to take, and if she knew she was being photographed, she probably would not have been too happy with him! Another great thing about these bathing photographs is the presence of the bathing machine. Women would enter these wooden boxes on wheels and then be wheeled into the water, minimizing public view of them in their bathing outfits.
Edward Linley Sambourne has left behind many wonderful photographs of early twentieth century street fashion. These photographs are gifts to fashion historians and anyone interested in early twentieth century fashion. Fashion photography and fashion plates from this time period are wonderful resources for styles of clothing worn, but with them often comes doubt of authenticity. Were women actually wearing this fashion? Were they wearing this fashion in this exact style? Has the photographer taken any artistic liberties with the photograph?
Sambourne has given us evidence of what women were indeed wearing on the streets of Paris and London and at the seashore in 1906-1908. Different styles, fashions, and ages are represented in his photographs. Much like what is seen in street fashion photography today. The clothes are taken out of magazines, editorial spreads, and advertisements, shown on the streets on “real” people, not models in fabricated surroundings or situations trying to sell them. The clothes in Sambourne’s photographs are caught in motion; they are being worn and lived in unlike their static fashion plate counterpart. They are taken off the page and put onto the street. Through these photographs, I think it is easy to say that Edward Linley Sambourne can be called the earliest known street fashion photographer.All photographs courtsy of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library’s website