Named after Irving Penn's remark "I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes", an exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales shines a light on a century of fashion photography.

For some reason, people seem to forget that the State Library of New South Wales regularly hosts exhibitions. Maybe it's that traditional perception that libraries are quiet, stuffy places, filled with books and old ladies hushing anyone who dares to whisper. Well, not so in Sydney, and mostly thanks to its effervescent fashion historian Margot Riley who has in recent years curated a series of intriguing exhibitions that draw on the library's extensive collection of fashion resources. Yes, even fashion can be historical social barometers, and such is the case with the library's newest exhibition, Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography. Originally curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the exhibition comprises 60 original works by 40 photographers - fashion glossy luminaries Horst P Horst, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Tim Walker among them - and is being shown exclusively in Australia at the State Library of NSW.

According to Susanna Brown, the curator of photographs at the V&A: "The exhibition travels in time to the three capitals of fashion in the 20th century, beginning in Paris, then shifting to New York after the Second World War and then to the swinging 60s in London. Today, the industry is global with photographers travelling the world to produce the perfect shot." Brown describes the exhibition as glamorous, scholarly and insightful, which might come as a shock to those who dismiss fashion photography, and indeed all connected to its world, as frivolous, but photography is an artistic medium that has continually evolved in the past century, and as Brown notes, fashion photography in particular is linked to "the changing roles of women over the past century." One need only think of Vogue wartime photographer Lee Miller's images, or Helmut Newton's own brand of sexed-up power women. Accompanying Selling Dreams is a smaller exhibition, Australian Glamour: Model, Photographer, Magazine, curated by Riley, that presents an Australian perspective. Herewith, a chat with Riley about the exhibition.

MOS: What has been the reaction to the exhibitions?
MR: There seems to be a lot of people in there. The section I did focused on Australian women, and I've just been contacted by the son of one of the models in a picture. Apparently she is still living in England. It's always so interesting to have people connect with it and come out with their personal stories.

MOS: Is there a conscious effort on the library's part to include more fashion in its exhibition programming?
MR: It's case by case. It's circumstantial. And this is part of the Head On Photo Festival, a focus this year on photography, where  Magnum on Set, then Head On, and now this show. It was this idea that we would have all of our exhibitions focusing on one medium and coming from as many different places.

MOS: Fashion photographs, and photography in general, are certainly commanding greater attention by institutions today.  MR: Oh, definitely. You see that with Selling Dreams. That a copy  of an Irivng Penn photograph was sold at auction in New York in 2011 for around $130,000 shows the appreciation and collectability of fashion photography, and that affects how it's seen in cultural institutions. People want these things and they attract such crowds. People can't get enough of the glamour.

MOS: Why are audiences craving fashion exhibitions?
MR: It's hard to put your finger on. I think in this case, people really do like to look at other people's faces. The sophistication and the way we read images has increased enormously in the last ten to fifteen years with the internet, so much more visual information out there. People really engage. And it's not just colour, the  black and white images draw poeple in as well.

MOS: What's the difference in seeing these images in the exhibition, because so many of them are well known.
MR: Exactly. Nearly all of of these images are well known, and people will be familiar with because they're so iconic, we are used to seeing them in books or online, but the difference in coming in and seeing the scale and the format and the collectible print is really important, because the scale of the work tells you a lot about the time, and when you digitise it you take it out of its context, so seeing them in a museum or library is a bit like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time, because you have an idea of what it is, but then you see it and it can be completely different, and that's really important and one of the most singificant things.

MOS: What makes an image worthy of exhibition? MR: It's hard to say. There's the basic questions, like how attractive is it for you, but then there's the stories behind the images, too, and that's my job to discover and share them with audiences. You have an image but you can't automoatically read it; there are clues sometimes, but there's that untold story which you can unlock for people. That's been a really exciting thing for people, because I know something about that picture that nobody else knows. The viewer, they'll come in to the library and they'll put pieces of info together and view it as no one else has. It's very personal. Even in Selling Dreams - that was curated from London by an English curator, who as far as we know has never been to Australia, but there were significant Australian items. There's an image of a Schiaparelli swimsuit, taken by George Hoyningen-Huene, who came to Australia in 1930s on invitation by David Jones, and here he met with Max Dupain, Russell Roberts, key Aussie photographers, and there was an exhcnage between these photographers, which the curator in London was probably unaware of. To think back in 1937 this acclaimed photographer was brought to australia by a department store is incredible.

Selling Dreams and Australian Glamour are on show at the State Library Galleries until November 10 2013. 

Top image: Tim Walker, Lily Cole & Giant Camera, Italian Vogue, 2005, copyright Tim Walker / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Above image: Horst P Horst, Mainbocher Corset. Pink satin corset made by Detoile for Mainbocher, American Vogue, 4 March 1949, from the Horst Estate / Victoria and Albert Museum, London.