The new exhibition at the NGV, Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, features almost 200 of Steichen’s photographs, taken when he was a Vogue and Vanity Fair photographer for magazine publisher Condé Nast during the 1920s and 30s. The Art Deco nostalgia spills into fashion too - more than 40 garments and accessories have been sourced from the NGV Collection and private collections, with designers on display including Chanel, Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Paquin and Callot Soeurs.

Fashions from the 1920s exude the heightened visual texture and expanded canvas of New York City at a time when it was the centre of the jazz age. “In the 1920s, electric lighting dominated the New York streetscape and affected the colour palette of clothing,” Susan van Wyk, co-curator and Senior Curator of Photography at NGV explains. She describes Steichen as a “master technician” whose complex use of lighting highlighted the dramatic and multi-faceted appeal of fabrics such as lurex. “He used multiple lights that are not easy to unravel or pick.”

Paola Di Trocchio, co-curator and Assistant Curator of Fashion and Textiles at NGV, points out that many of the garments on display are typical of what women would have worn at the time. “From a wearability point of view, every dress slides over the head which is radically different to how women dressed in previous decades.”

Beaded tubular dresses revelled in the progress of the machine age, while metallic fabrics and intricate embellishments signified the Western world’s fascination with the East. “Gold used in fabrics reflects influences of electric lighting, Egyptomania and Orientalism,” says Di Trocchio.

Di Trocchio points to a crimson bias-cut dress from 1927 which merges floral and geometric motifs as being a striking example of Art Deco, its demure length reflecting a fall in both hemlines and public morale that would continue into the 1930s. “By 1929 hemlines had dropped completely, coinciding with the Wall Street Crash,” she says.

As well as Steichen’s modernist fashion photography, the exhibition showcases his celebrity portraiture for Condé Nast, which van Wyk says “moves away from the pictorialism and romantic focus of the 1920s”. Prominent subjects include stars of the Broadway stage, dancers, sportspeople, filmmakers, authors, politicians, and members of high society. “Remember this was a time when to be a celebrity you had to do something,” remarks William Ewing, an independent curator and specialist in the history of fashion photography.

Ewing observes that “Steichen’s portraiture is about theatre”, with one of Steichen’s trademarks being the ability to instil confidence in his subjects.

In the 1920s Steichen began to shoot out on location, at a time when bathing suits were making a splash and Coco Chanel was pioneering sportswear, restaging the Ancient Greeks’ cult of the body beautiful for a new age. “Particularly in the image of resort wear, you see women on a yacht or at the races, photographed in situ,” van Wyk says. A pair of way-faring beach pyjamas in duck-egg blue, sourced from the Australian National Maritime Museum, marks one of the exhibition’s most covetable - and contemporary - fashion moments.

Di Trocchio and van Wyk point to a number of significant developments in women’s lives that form backstories to the exhibition. “Clothing changed how women could participate in society,” van Wyk says. Di Trocchio cites as examples the liberating influence of the Charleston dance, which enabled women to participate sans men, and later on the activity of attending the cinema.

The influence of Hollywood’s Golden Age – the 1930s – is harnessed in bold shoulder lines championed by the costume designer Adrian - who designed for actress Joan Crawford. The effects of Schiaparelli and surrealism are also felt, says Di Trocchio, pointing to a tippet and muff featuring hand-dyed “acid-green monkey fur”. It’s a look she sizes up as “bizarre chic”. Elsewhere, The Motion Pictures Production Code, or Hays Code as it is better known, was responsible for censorship in Hollywood from the 30s onward, signified by backless dresses and high necks – styles that van Wyk describes as “more sophisticated”.

One of the most visually arresting photographs, White (1935), has a decidedly modern feel, its Grecian goddess dresses and the presence of a white horse pre-figuring the decadent, carnivalesque glamour of Studio 54 by four decades. Pointing out that it is the only photograph in the exhibition that features three models, van Wyk describes the photo as “a fantasy” that expresses “a recognition of avant-garde art and the way art flowed into a commercial realm”.

Describing Steichen’s overarching influence, Ewing defines him as a renaissance man who, as Picasso himself said, was a key figure in bringing modern art to America.

“He was a bridge between the old world and the new, between New York and Paris, between an amateur and a professional, between art and commerce, between pictorialism and modernism, between technology and aesthetics, between elitism and populism.”

Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion is showing until 2 March 2014 at NGV International.

ngv.vic.gov.au