Photographer Dario Calmese first met Lana Turner, a Harlem socialite and fashionable character, a few years ago at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while he was browsing a selection of hats for a fashion story. Turner’s style immediately stood out to Calmese, who quickly realized that the fashionista would be the perfect subject for a photographic project, all dressed up in her incredible wardrobe and collection of over 500 hats.

no.73 © Dario Calmese

Soon after their first meeting, Calmese met Turner at her home. What he encountered in that space was the remarkable repository of a seasoned collector. “Hat boxes line the top shelf of her personal library, and are stacked ceiling-high in her foyer, each labeled and organized by color and content,” he explains. “Her gowns and gloves are meticulously stored with tissue paper and ribbon, each with a label indicating where and when she wore it, at times with a note about who she met.”

While the socialite’s foray into fashion first included a number of trendy styles selected for her Sunday best, Calmese quickly noticed that over time, Turner’s style turned into something more intentionally avant garde. “Over the years, I observed that Ms. Turner, who describes dressing as her artistic medium, or ‘painting the body canvas’, began to actually abstract herself,” he explains. “What began as the process of Sunday presentation, over time began to exaggerate itself. Traditional veiled felt hats transitioned into umbrella-shaped fascinators, and then 3-D printed helmets. Simple lace gloves morphed into 3-tiered satin gauntlet creations.”

no.197 © Dario Calmese
no.194 © dario Calmese

While some of Calmese’s photographs depict Turner in more traditional stylings, he made a point of capturing the more eccentric pieces and pairings, like a 360-degree mask and silk purse shaped like a takeout box. All of the images are in black and white, allowing Turner’s personality and style to color the imagination of her viewers. While grounded in fashion, it’s also a series about the construction of identity, and the influence that surroundings and culture has on our self-confidence and self-creation. Calmese reflects, “This series seeks to dig deeper into the idea of the Black Church being an activator for not only imagination, but a crucible for the construction of self.”

Editor’s Note: Dario Calmese was a finalist in our first ever LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards. Check out more incredible work from our winners and finalists here.