How Peter Knapp liberated women

When we look at fashion editorials today, rarely we tend to ponder how much they reflect the times we live in.  The photographs often seem (especially for those not initiated) as innocent, spontaneous outbursts of creativity, which have more to do with aesthetic whims than stark everyday life and its realities. And yet, after several years, or decades, shedding new light on editorials produced earlier reveal deeper truths about the society. Cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris did exactly that by bringing back into the spotlight the very best of Peter Knapp’s work, mostly realized in the 1960s while he was the artistic director of the famous French magazine ELLE. His photographs, showcased in an exhibition “Dancing in the street: Peter Knapp and fashion 1960-1970” earlier this year, represent a defining era both for fashion and for women’s role in it.

The Swiss creative (to mention him only as a photographer would do disgrace to his numerous endeavors, among which – graphics, painting and videos) produced photos of unparalleled vibrancy and poignancy. Flirtatious editorials, published mostly in the pages of ELLE, spell freedom, joy and modernity that resonate so well even today. At first glance, the shots surprise by their apparent simplicity – mainly three things in focus, a woman and her clothes caught in an insouciant movement.

It was inconceivable for a woman to pose like a statue with her clothes as a fine trophy; no way it would have corresponded to the spirit of the times. These were the times that announced the rise of ready-to-wear and women started to wear clothes that felt like a second skin; feminine figures were finally liberated, and not burdened by them. Clothes needed to be functional and serve throughout the day while remaining visually engaging and flattering.

Therefore, it was an incredibly important time for designers to weigh in. Having closely collaborated with such masterminds as André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin or Emmanuel Ungaro, Knapp documented the new, futurist fashion offered to women. Geometric shapes, glossy textures, shiny surfaces signaled a triumph of creativity over convention, a brave regard to the future and everything it might bring. It also announced the rise of individualism, where clothes serve to accentuate the woman’s character rather than create it. Minimalistic, often colorful backgrounds, whether superficial, urban or natural, also play an important part. They frame the otherwise unrestricted movement and give it substance.

Knapp’s work is deeply rooted in a belief that clothes are meant to be tools for self-expression, not just elements of decoration, and while it seems more than obvious today, several decades ago it wasn’t the case. Musing on Peter Knapp’s legacy is relevant today, when ready-to-wear is as triumphant as ever, pushing the haute couture to margins with even more fervor than it was in the 1960s. It’s possible to say that today the pret-à-porter sphere is undeniably dominated by street style trends and has acquired a somewhat ambiguous taste. One might wonder, what does it mean to be “dancing in the street” in our decade? Our future generations will tell.

Visit the site of Cité de la Mode et du Design for its future exhibitions

Photography courtesy of Peter Knapp

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