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Dress Codes: Portrait Photographs from the Collection



Zanele Muholi

“It is through the cravat that the man reveals and manifests himself,” wrote French author Honoré de Balzac in 1830, recognizing already at this early date the cultural significance of everyday dress. Mere decades later, the modern fashion industry was born, and portrait photography became more accessible. The convergence of these phenomena led elite and aspiring individuals to understand that clothing can shape self-representation in front of the camera—an idea that, consciously or not, has remained central to photographic portraiture ever since.

This focused exhibition, featuring new acquisitions and other works drawn from the Art Institute’s collection, presents five series that exemplify the power of clothing in pictures. In each case the subject’s dress enhances, alters, or complicates the photographer’s point of view. Spanning the 1870s to the present, these groupings suggest portraits as typologies wherein clothing differentiates individuals and indicates their real or desired identities.

The 19th-century periodical Galerie Contemporaine (1876–84) featured studio portraits of notable French cultural figures posed in identical formats. The sitters used the subtle codes of clothing to great effect, projecting their precise social standing and even forms of dissent within the compositionally consistent frame. August Sander likewise intended his seminal project, People of the Twentieth Century, begun in the 1910s, to constitute an archive of German society. However, his subjects—from farm laborers to aristocrats—complicated Sander’s drive to categorize through their individual choice of dress.

Other works in the exhibition exemplify a desire for visibility. The 1984 series Rodeo Driveby American photographer Anthony Hernandez presents candid encounters with shoppers who are dressed to be seen. Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians in South Africa serve as a form of activism, disrupting the traditions of studio portraits. Finally, more than 100 photo booth snapshots from the 1950s reflect the diversity of small-town society in this country—showing how American culture, like any other, shapes and is shaped by the language of dress.


This exhibition is generously supported by the Black Dog Fund.


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