The Selfie: A History

Kim Kardashian didn’t invent the fashion selfie. In fact this narcissistic form of photography has been around for centuries. We chart the art of the selfie trend, from beginning to end.

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

The self-portrait as a vehicle for women’s fashionable self-presentation dates back to the eighteenth century. One of the first successful women artists Vigee-Lebrun, a favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, poses with a palette and brushes in one hand to promote her trade. Yet clad en chemise in purple silk, trailing black wrap and straw hat with rakish feather she sends a clear message about her modern fashionability.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self Portrait in the Green Bugatti, 1929

Paris in the 1920s; a glittering Art Deco stage where Tamara de Lempicka the most glamorous of artists launches her career with a beauty so incandescent she was dressed for free by Schiaparelli and Chanel. Here a heavy-lidded Tamara wears leather driving gear by Hermes and a cool red lipsticked smile. Dashing to the end, her will stipulated her ashes be scattered over the Mexican volcano Mount Popocatepetl.

Claude Cahun, 1927

Described by Andre Breton as “one of the most curious spirits of our time”, photographer Claude Cahun (real name Lucy Schwob) took thousands of self-portraits whilst holed up with her stepsister and lover in Jersey during German Occupation. Her play with appearance challenged notions of femininity and sexuality and displayed the shifting notion of identity created by dressing up. In this selfie from 1927 she wears lacquered kiss curls, painted hearts, sewn on nipples and a shirt emblazoned with the words, “I’m in Training Do Not Kiss Me”.

Lee Miller, 1929

Miller worked both sides of the camera as a Vogue model discovered by Conde Nast after bumping into him on a crowded Manhattan street in 1927. As a fashion photographer and war correspondent in the 1930s and ’40s she was famously photographed in Hitler’s bath, muddy boots at the side. Miller rejected her aspirational high fashion image deeming it ‘shallow’ and, after pursuing Surrealist Man Ray to Paris, became his lover, muse and collaborator. Her subsequent selfies are infused with a calm melancholy and use ground-breaking solarized effects and surrealist distortion.

Leonor Fini, 1946

A vivacious Bohemian and one of the most photographed women in Paris, Argentinian born artist Leonor Fini certainly knew the power of dress and never failed to make an entrance — one outfit consisted solely of a white feathered cape and a pair of knee length boots. Her first exhibition was shown in a gallery run by Christian Dior and her self-portraits combined eroticism and deadly menace to glorious effect. Fellow artist Dorothea Tanning described her as, “striding across the rue de Seine, an imperious flash of taffetas and perfume and feathers, seeming to illumine even the cobbles under her very high heels”.

Bunny Yeager, 1946

Beauty Queen turned pin-up girl turned photographer, Bunny Yeager established the erotic photo as pulp art in her collaboration with model Bettie Paige who she famously posed in leopard-skin alongside two cheetahs. Using herself as the subject in many of her images. ‘Her book How I Photograph Myself’ (1964) created “so that any girl could read it and become a good model … in the privacy of her home instead of going to a strange male photographer” has become a cult classic in which she uses her imagination and her Rollifex to create a series of fantasy scenarios that prefigure the work of Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman, 1994

Between 1978 and 1980 Sherman took over a hundred ‘film stills’ or selfies in which she parodied mass media stereotypes of women proposing that female identity is created through a constructed appearance determined by culture rather than a reality — it’s clothes that create our identity. Her cultural commentary has proved so influential she was invited to shoot a series of provocative ‘anti-fashion’ selfies for Comme des Garcons and Balenciaga for French Vogue.

Katy Perry, 2014

The carefully staged self portrait has been given a new impetus by the selfie, a format that can be spread across a global network in an instant and allows the same play with fashion and identity. The front-facing camera of the iPhone 4 of 2010 allows detailed self-scrutiny where new images can be tried out, censored or sent. It’s become an important tool for celebrity self-promotion and Katy Perry, always a refreshing risk-taker with her public image takes some of the most inventive.

Kim Kardashian, 2014

Somewhat of a selfie pioneer, reality tv star Kim Kardashian, famous for ‘being herself’ is poised to release ‘Selfish’, a mighty tome of over 300 of her most flattering shots together with a ‘how to’ for the budding starlet. In the carefully stage-managed selfie that is rumored to have made Kanye propose (check out the Japanese screen hiding the furniture and the flattering light) Kim follows her own rules: “Hold your phone high; know your angle; know your lighting; and no duckface!”

Miley Cyrus, 2015

Miley’s constant stream of selfies gives us an insight into modern fame; it’s about creating the idea of intimacy amongst your fan-base by presenting what appears to be a ‘private self’ in public. And while she’s broadcasting her own selfie show, we’re also broadcasting ours, which seems to level the playing field. Ok, so there may be no cultural theory underpinning her actions, but Miley shows us, like artists before her, that fashion, make-up and hair can be powerful tools for showing us how slippery the notion of identity is. So who are you going to be tomorrow?


Originally published at www.lyst.com on May 6, 2015.

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