My interest in the way in which motherhood is portrayed in fashion photography is always alive. As you know, I have a particular passion for the British photographer Miles Aldridge, who never fails to present interesting takes on the subject in his works. I think he’s the only one who has been able to give Daisy Lowe, the British sexy kitten par excellence, the role of a mother in a photoshoot: the result is complex and unpredictable.
Close Up was published on Vogue Italia in September 2009: it was set in Essex at the Bancroft’s School, a preparatory and senior school founded in 1737. The stately main building of the school serves as backdrop for Mommy Daisy and her son, who arrive with a luxury car, driven by a handsome and young chaffeur. This first shot is important for the rest of the photoshoot, because it introduces the protagonist (the mother) and other minor characters of the story, her son included. She’s wearing red, the colour of passion, and all the eyes of the male characters are focused on her. It’s curious to see how this image plays with the concept of sight: the men watch Daisy, but one of her eyes is hidden under her black hat.
The story opens in medias res: in the first picture, mother and son have reached their destination, but other shots show us what happened before. Their journey to the school seems very sad: the boy clings to his Spongebob balloon, while his mother is apparently sleeping. This image is dominated by cold shades, grey in particular (the interiors of the car and the boy’s school uniform), amplified by stark lightning effects.
When they walk through the school’s gate, she’s wearing a very feminine houndstooth skirt suit (reminiscent of the 50s style), and watches the chaffeur out of the corner of her eye, a look speaks a million words. Just beyond the gate, we are introduced to other characters – school students, who are wearing the same uniform seen on the boy.
The last character we are introduced to is the headmaster, who’s wearing a formal grey suit under his black gown. It’s interesting to notice how the distance between the characters and their positions are important: the headmaster leads the followers – mother and son, walking side by side; the chaffeur, carrying a briefcase and a travelling bag; the students, walking in single file. The distance between the headmaster and mother/son is apparently bigger than the one between mother/son and the chaffeur: this is a visual way to highlight the role and the social position of the headmaster.
Oh, something is going wrong: mother and son are walking past a bench, where school students act in a way they’re not supposed to. Some of them eat potato crips, another one is holding a orange soda bottle and a bottle of the same soft drink is spilling its content on the ground. The mother’s expression in this case is important: she doesn’t look at the boys, but her eyes fixed in front of her express disapproval. She’s not exactly dragging her son away from that place, but this is the idea we get.
I’ve been thinking about this picture a lot, because its interpretation is not linear. The mother has a hand around the headmaster’s arm: is this simply a gallant gesture (the headmaster is showing her and her son the school and gives her his arm) or something more? The mother’s bored expression adds fuel to the enigma. What about the boy? He’s holding his mother’s arm, a gesture to attract her attention or simply to state the mother is his.
They’re in the headmaster’s office now: the mother looks at the camera, the boy looks in front of him and the headmaster looks at the mother (he’s obviously interested in her and attracted). The diva attitude of Daisy is now in full display, as shown by her dramatic headpiece, and the boy shows his rebel side, as well: what is he doing sat on the headmaster’s desk?
This is my favourite picture of the whole photoshoot, because we’re finally given vibrant colours after a series of washed-out/dull-coloured pictures. They surely wanted to convey the ideas of boredom/severity that are usually connected to (private) schools, but for the first time a picture stands out among the rest. The shot is set in a dorm: both mother and son are sitting on a bed, but there’s a creepy presence behind them. Here the lights are cold, livid, and amplify the green and blue tones of the setting and of the mother’s sequined dress. A student is lying on the bed behind them, but his face is not visible, a device Aldridge often uses to shroud everything in a veil of mystery.
The same setting is presented in this picture, but the contrast with the previous one is striking. Here, the day light makes everything look ordinary, the dorm included. The mother kisses her son goodbye and her pose is so overtly sexy and out-of-place, not to mention the fetish touch of the lace-up pumps. She’s leaving the school, and her kid is starting a new life there. Another boy is watching the scene from behind the dorm door: is he waiting for a new friend or is he watching his sexy mother?
It’s time to leave: the mother jumps back into her car and drives away. The only symbol of her son left is his Spongebob balloon, still on the car seat. Her expression is sad but enigmatic: she’s always playing the sexy/bored card, but we actually don’t know if her grief is real or if it’s just another pose. If we compare this shot and the first shot set in the car, we can notice this one is dominated by warm tones (her clothes, her bag and the reflection of the school’s red brick façade on the chrome-plated parts of the car.
Maybe the comparison is inappropriate, but when I first saw the photoshoot, these pictures came to my mind: another case of mother (and father) accompanying her son at school. I’m not talking of ordinary people, but of Royal Family members: in 1995, Lady Diana and Prince Charles took Prince William at Eton on his first day there, Prince Henry in tow. In that year, Lady Diana and Prince Charles were a separated couple (they officially split up in 1992), but they wanted to be there together for their son.
Awww, nice shot! Prince William was signing a register, and his mother showed him where to sign. She looked so beautiful and caring with her children. Her attitude is totally different from the one the mother of the photoshoot has: no sexy persona here, but an elegant and demure outfit instead.
The editorial by Aldridge is clearly an exaggeration: the contrast between the situation, the setting and the protagonist is ironic, but not so far from the truth. As a mother, I always take my daughter to nursery school but I’ve never felt that weird style “performance anxiety” when meeting other mothers. In other places (in New York, but in Italy, too), drop-off has a social relevance, but this idea is just too far from my own experience. Thank God I’ll never found a mother like the one presented by Aldridge coming out of my daughter’s school: my heart and self-esteem could break.