Lauren Bacall by Louise Dahl-Wofe

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This is the photograph that led to Lauren Bacall’s movie career. It is currently on display, along with other works by Louise Dahl-Wofe, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. Ostensibly, Nancy ‘Slim’ Hawks saw this and thought her husband should test that striking presence on the cover for a new film he was planning. Howard did and cast her in a secondary role in To Have And Have Not, where she was so charismatic that he built up her part into Bogart’s leading lady. Men still go woozy when they watch her ask Bogart if he knows how to whistle. Bacall slinking provocatively on a piano, legs crossed as President Truman tickled the ivories, was enough make a whole nation woozy, some with indignation.

Kitty Hawks divorced Hawks and married Leland Hayward, legendary producer of some of the greatest hits of mid-Century Broadway (South Pacific, Mr. Roberts, The Sound of Music). Leland Hayward had gone out with Katharine Hepburn in the 30s and later married Margaret Sullavan, the immortal star of The Shop Around the Corner; Margaret Sullavan had earlier been married to Henry Fonda, who later in life wrote of how he spied on his wife making love to Jed Harris (‘the meanest man on Broadway’) through the window outside their own flat, riven with jealousy but immobilised by powerlessness, and wept; Brooke Hayward, one of the Hayward-Sullavan children, married Dennis Hopper and  wrote – beautifully –about the childhood they shared with the Peter and Jane Fonda in Haywire. Slim herself was one of the super-rich ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ on the edges of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’, Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and all the other ultra-fashionable consorts of the jet-setting 60s super-rich.

In a superb article, ‘Looking American: Louise Dahl- Wolfe’s Fashion Photographs of the 1930s and 1940s’, Rebecca Arnold writes of how Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs, of which the above isn example,  ‘represent and help to shape feminine identities that evoke myths of America: the pull between visions of a vast Edenic landscape of opportunity and the cosmopolitan modernity of the city’ (p.46) and how, ‘her photographs provide a rich source for examining the growing confidence of the New York fashion trade and the crystallization of the “American Look,” which framed national identity in terms of active sportswear that spoke of functionalism and freedom. Dahl-Wolfe’s warm color schemes and light-filled images present a fiction of stability and cohesion during a period of turmoil. They smooth away contradiction and anxiety, providing unproblematic and coherently constructed ideals of American femininity'(p. 46, Fashion Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 45–60)

Louise Dahl-Wofe shot for Harpers during the time it was edited by the legendary Carmel Snow. In the relatively recent A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters (2010),  Penelope Rowlands recounts how Snow revolutionised fashion publishing by drawing on the European avant-garde to create a distinct, modern American view of life. Harper’s Bazaar during this period was part of the huge Hearst publishing empire that encompassed newspapers across the US but also National Geographic and Good Housekeeping, thus creating a taste for what Thomas Veblen had already termed  conspicuous consumption. Hearst would be Orson Welles’ model for Citizen Kane. Welles himself, baby-faced but already a Broadway legend, was photographed by Dahl-Wolfe in 1938 (see below).

One can spin out a whole history of Hollywood and a whole series of social histories from one photograph, or one of Dahl-Wolfe’s at least. But one doesn’t have the time to do so now.

José Arroyo

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‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ is on show at the London Museum of Fashion and Textiles until the 21st of January.

 

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