High Glam

You know my interest for the portrayal of mothers in fashion photography, and in particular for Miles Aldridge, whose work often includes interesting reflections on motherhood. I’ve started to go through his most recent photospreads, and I’ve found this one – High Glam, published on Vogue Italia’s supplement, Vogue Unique, in March 2010 – which has really impressed me. Aldridge’s pictures rarely fail to impress me, but this time there’s something more than his trademark aesthetically flawless pictures imbued with drama and suspense. The central figure of the photoshoot is not a mother but a teacher; since I’m a teacher, you may understand my excitement to see how it was presented. Before starting with a short analysis of the pictures, let me explain the reason why I think  this is about motherhood, even if apparently it’s not. Mothers (parents) and teachers have similar roles, applied in different contexts – educating and teaching; the protagonist reminds us of some “cruel” or uncompromising mothers and teachers seen on the silver screen, so it is as if the two roles overlapped.

The model Toni Garrn is the extraordinarily flawless piano teacher, portrayed in an elegant room, while teaching to her students – young girls and boys. She always wears haute couture creations – this amazing dress with ruffled skirt is by Givenchy Haute Couture [1]. She looks down at her student with a haughty attitude, while sipping a glass of red wine, not exactly something you’d expect from a private teacher. The hand on the girl’s shoulder is not reassuring, but kind of disquieting. Just a note on the setting: see the picture of the Persian cat on the piano? It’s an important detail.

This time, she’s sitting at the piano and shows her student how to play a piece. She’s looking at the camera, while her student is looking at the keyboard, with a humble countenance. The teacher is wearing a ruffled white Armani Privè dress, and the girl is wearing a dress and bow headband of the same colour. White is the recurring colour (even the metronome is white!) in this picture, whose composition is very interesting: teacher-piano-student create a sort of triangle, while the looks run after each other. Another chromatic recurring element is dark blonde/saffron, seen in the hair of the protagonists and in the curtains in the background.

Now the atmosphere starts getting eerie. In this picture, the teacher is holding a cane to keep time of the student’s performance, a student whose face is hidden behind perfectly coiffed blonde hair. Hiding something is often more dramatic than actually showing something: it’s not a case that a suspended atmosphere is present here. The teacher is wearing a tiered Valentino Couture chiffon gown, whose yellow and pink shades are echoed by the yellow pleated dress of the student and by her bow headband, respectively. The cane immediately reminds me of Lydia Grant, the unforgettable dance teacher played by Debbie Allen in my favourite tv series ever, Fame.

Here, the teacher has a motherly attitude with her student. They’re both dressed in warm tones (the former is wearing a Valentino Couture red dress, while the latter opts for a candy cotton pink sleeveless dress and matching bow headband) and both are playing the piano at the same time. The teacher is concentrated on what she’s doing, but the act of leaning towards the student reminds us of a motherly action, even if the purpose is not such.

This is the rare shots in which the student is looking at the camera, while the teacher is absorbed by her thoughts or by music. We have a wider view of the room where the action takes place, too: it includes the white grand piano we’ve seen since the beginning, the saffron curtains, gold mouldings on cream walls and an elegant parquet on the floor. The colour scheme is interesting in this case, too: the student’s dress, the stool cushion and the walls are all cream, thus creating a contrast with the darker tones of the teacher’s outfit by Dior Haute Couture.

The eerie atmosphere is back again: this scene is disturbing, in my opinion, because the teacher is closing her student’s eyes with a hand and forces her to play the piano without looking at the keyboard. I don’t know if this is a common piano teaching method, but it looks quite cruel to me. I think the primary source of reference of the photoshoot is The Piano Teacher, a 2001 film directed by Michael Haneke, starring an impressive Isabelle Huppert as Erika, the disturbed protagonist. The complex and violent mood of the movie is not present here, but something of the apparently impassive and cruel attitude of Erika characterizes this teacher. Here, the scene is dominated by a blue light, which casts a mysterious shadow on the setting and on the protagonists, both dressed in white (the teacher is wearing a Chanel Haute Couture lace and satin dress). In this case, some more details of the setting are revealed: besides the Persian cat picture, there are other silver framed pics on the piano, plus a tray with a teapot and a tea cup on it.

Now, this picture really breaks my heart: the student, a girl with her arm in a plaster, seems she’s about to burst into tears (maybe she’s afraid of her teacher’s reaction, or maybe she’s sorry because she can’t play the piano), while the teacher, holding a sheet music rolled in her arm, is sitting on the piano stool, her eyes lost somewhere… or is she only disappointed? In this case, she’s wearing a Dior Haute Couture satin dress. A new element is introduced in the setting – white flowers on the piano.

The protagonist of the last two pictures is a boy. In the first picture, we can only see his hair and eyes (remember the effect of hiding, instead of showing), while the rest of his face is hidden behind the piano. The teacher is wearing a Givenchy Haute Couture ruffled powder pink dress; her hair, always styled in a wavy/pouffant updo, has the same colour as the hair of the boy (dark blonde again). They’re both sitting at the piano and both are supposedly playing.

This is probably the most complex and meaningful picture of the whole photoshoot. First of all, now the boy is fully visible: he’s holding a music sheet under his arm, while the teacher is holding her face with a menacing gesture. This can be interpreted in different ways: is she scolding him? [2] Is she just doing an affectionate gesture? Judging from her haughty look, I would say the first option is plausible, but probably it’s a mixture of the two possibilities. The boy is looking at the camera, but he’s staring, as if he were holding his breath.

The scene is dominated by a peculiar cold light, which emphasizes the icy tones of the Armani Privè ruffled dress worn by the teacher. The setting is like a picture that slowly shares its secrets: here we can see a crystal candleholder with a white candle and – as if he has come out of the silver frame by magic – the white Persian cat! All the elements of the photoshoot are important and noteworthy, but I think Aldridge did an excellent job with the setting, as mysterious as the characters.

What is the idea you get from the photoshoot? Do you agree about the overlapping roles of mother and teacher, as embodied by Toni Garrn?

[1] You may remember Zoe Saldana wore this exact dress at the Academy Awards in 2010.

[2] Am I the only one who thinks this gesture is reminiscent of Mommy Dearest (1981) by Frank Perry, the biopic of Joan Crawford, starring a stunning Faye Dunaway?




  1. My dear, I like how your analogy of mothers and teachers. I also enjoyed reading your analysis of this shoot. I find some of the images particularly strong and my mind keeps wondering what is behind each shot.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you liked my analysis.
      Well, I ALWAYS wonder what is behind each shot, in particular recurring themes and sources of inspiration, but I think this is related to my humanistic formation. This is why I analyze a photoshoot as if it were a novel or a poem.

  2. OMG the dresses. I love them all, but the first one is just perfect.
    And btw when I first saw this photoshot, I suddenly taught about mom/dauther relationship, it not even crossed my mind the woman can be the teacher.
    I’m wondering why….

    1. The first dress is gorgeous , I agree.

      See? I think this is one of the reasons why I think Aldridge is a true artist. He shows you something but he’s actually hinting at something else, and at first you don’t even realize it.

  3. Pingback: Close Up «
  4. I distinctly remember in this collection that in one of the photographs the woman is playing at the piano and one of the students seems to be chained/tied to one of the piano legs. Though I’ve been searching for it and cannot find it anywhere! Does anyone know if the photo was removed from the collection because it depicted child abuse or something? PLEASE HELP

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