The images in this portfolio show the best fashion work published over the past year by magazines from around the globe. The lasting impact of the work goes well beyond fashion, however.

“Photographers who through the years thought they were performing a humble, necessary task of showing what clothes existed for the needs of a given moment … were involved in a much grander scheme,” wrote the great Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman in the 1979 tome Vogue Book of Fashion Photography. “They have shown that there is a possibility of achieving beauty, happiness, and progress.” Fashion imagery, at its best, merges art and psychology, enabling viewers to escape into a world of illusion while depicting the styles and symbols that define the real world we live in. It can be perplexing and ravishing; it can celebrate excess or the revulsion for excess; it can conform to culture or revolt against it.

These days, you can find fashion everywhere, from television to the Internet, but the primary medium of fashion remains the magazine, which allows editors, designers, stylists, models, and photographers to present couture fantasies in tableaux that can be studied and appreciated as art and commerce. American Photo asked 25 of these publications — mass-circulation glossies and smaller, niche journals alike — to submit what they considered their three best fashion stories from the past year. From those nominations we selected these 12 winners. In all the images, we can see a celebration of inventiveness, the most human of traits.