Dovima With Elephants
Richard Avedon’s photograph “Dovima with Elephants” was taken in Paris, France during the month of August in 1955. It was a commercial piece for Harper’s Bazaar to promote the work of Christian Dior. The picture was taken with trained circus elephants that are visibly shackled while the woman at the center is not, indicating the underlying social tension and low position of women during the period, although that might not have been realized at the time the photograph was taken. The model Dovima, who was born Dorothy Juba, is wearing a whit Dior evening gown and, as the title of the picture suggests, she is surrounded on both sides by large elephants. There are actually two photographs which have the same title and were taken on the same day. One has the model in a black dress. They are both culturally significant but for the sake of cultural argument, the white dress photo will be the one focused on. In the nearly sixty years since, the picture has become an iconic image showing off the skills of the photographer, the beauty of design during the period, and the general culture of the western world during the 1950s.
Christian Dior was behind the dress that Dovima wears in the photograph. He was considered the premier designer of the 1950s, creating iconic outfits for the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco and Audrey Hepburn. Dior also created what he called “The New Look” which was a direct response to the Depression and wartime fashions of the 1930s and ’40s. During those times, women were concerned with feeding their families and helping the war effort and fashion took a turn towards the practical. However, in the 1950s women were sent back to the kitchens to take care of their returning soldier husbands and baby boomer children. Fashion responded to this renewed femininity. Dior specialized in creating dresses which were both aesthetically clean and decidedly feminine, often with voluminous skirts, plenty of fabric, and embellishments. The dress in “Dovima with Elephants” is a perfect example of “The New Look” (Edwards 2005). Interestingly, this dress was designed for the House of Dior by a man who would also become a premier fashion designer himself, Yves St. Laurent. Both men were interested in restoring women to an elevated position in terms of glamour. Women were to be pretty above all things.
“The New Look” Christian Dior was about aesthetic style. While there were certainly beautiful gowns being designed in the 1930s and ’40s, they were limited in who could hope to wear them. Evening gowns were for the very wealthy only. Everyday women would have to settle for clothes which they could wear but which would also be useful for work both in the house and out. Dresses of the 1950s for the average housewife did have to be functional, but the level of comfort or practicality was second to how they looked. According to biographer Marie France Pochna, “The true power of this new fashion was as a catalyst for the universal longing for change, the need to forget empty bellies, run-down apartments, and a general feeling of tedium. It was the longing of forty million Frenchmen and women for a return to a normal, happy, healthy, and romantic existence” (1996,-page 138). This was particularly true for the wealthy or famous where evening gowns would be extremely elaborate affairs, but even a regular housedress that would be purchased off the rack by the end of the ’50s would be based on the designs that Dior created for his New Look.
In the dress that Dovima wears in “Dovima with Elephants” is a white ankle-length evening dress. The dress appears plain except when looking closely where it appears that the bodice and skirt appear to be separate pieces that have been put together which is shown by a somewhat heavy hemline which is accentuated by the way Dovima is turned. It does not have the full skirt that would be characteristic of 50s fashion, but does have some of the other stereotypical components. Specifically, the flower on the bust of the dress is given a great deal of prominence. The top of the dress is a band of black which matches her gloves. It heavily contrasts against the white making the flower on her breast stand out in a striking way. The flower is also quite large. Flowers are found very prominently in fashion of the 1950s. Much of Dior’s earliest designs heavily featured flower embellishments or floral prints. Again the emphasis is placed on the things that are beautiful and feminine. Flowers are beautiful, delicate, and associated with womanhood so wearing them is heightening the female’s own sense of femininity.
Richard Avedon was one of the premier photographers of the period and continued to have cultural relevancy for decades. Among his subjects were fashion models like Dovima, film stars like Marilyn Monroe, and musical stars like the Beatles. Every icon of the mid-century was documented by Avedon’s camera at some point. The model at the center of the picture, Dovima, was arguably the most famous fashion model of the 1950s. Dovima and Avedon had a special relationship and he photographed her more than any other subject (Swartz 1991). He said that she was the last of the aristocratic type of beauties, a type of woman who rarely existed anymore. She was one of the most highly-paid because of the way that she could elevate the level of elegance and artistic beauty of the clothes she wore. Dovima was nothing like the natural models that would be indicative of the following decades like swinging sixties favorite Twiggy. She was highly made up, highly stylized, and had to work very hard to provide the kind of image she was hired to show the world.
The elephant on the left of the picture has his trunk up and his front foot up as well and the one on the right seems to be trying that as well. She is between them and her arm is lifted as if she is imitating the creature, but her actions are more delicate and refined. It is making a clear comparison between the beauty and the beast. At the same time she is portrayed as deserving of being placed on a pedestal, the unnatural position also underscores the submissive position women were supposed to take during this time. Women were to be controlled by men. In this case Dovima is being controlled by Richard Avedon, Christian Dior, and Yves St. Laurent. She is a doll to show Avedon’s photographic skill and Dior and St. Laurent’s design ability. She does not have an identity outside of what these men give her. This is indicative of the era, something Dior recognized. Dior himself said, “When I went to analyze this social trend I was responsible for, I realized that, above all, it stood for a return to the art of pleasingThe birth of the House of Dior profited from that wave of optimism and the return to an ideal of civilized happiness” (Pochna 1996, page140). This is a very interesting statement in that pleasing others is equated to being happy. So, for a woman to , she ought to please others, including wearing Dior fashions which are more romantic, more womanly, and more beautiful.
In a very real way, Dovima was the perfect example of what a 1950s woman was supposed to be. The 1950s were a unique time in the culture of the western world. Following World War II, the United States, England, and much of Europe adopted this highly conservative identity, particularly in the U.S. Women were clothed and expected to perform within the home doing cooking and cleaning. This was the time of the perfect homemaker. Women who represented popular culture had to be both extremely beautiful and possibly sensual, but also exhibit these wholesome ideas. By contrasting this extremely sophisticated, beautiful woman with these clumsy natural creatures, the difference between the modern woman and the rest of the world is clearer.
Edwards, Owen. “Fashion Faux Paw: Richard Avedon’s Photograph of a Beauty and the Beasts
is Marred, He Believed by One Failing.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2005.
Pochna, Marie France. Christian Dior: the Man who Made the World Look New. Arcade, 1996.
Swartz, Mimi. “The Couture Cinderella.” Vanity Faire, June 1991.