The year was 1939. The place was the Paris Vogue studios on the Champ-Elysee. Resources were limited. Everyone knew that war was coming. Germans would soon invade Paris and everything would change.
Photographer Horst P. Horst already had his bags packed. When he left the studio at 4: 00 AM the next morning, he would travel back to New York, leaving fashion photography behind until Europe was liberated.
His last pre-war photo was the Mainbocher corset, arguably the most famous of all Horst’s photographs. The original image mixed Greek classicism with contemporary surrealism and was still so sensual that it couldn’t be published until the image was modified so that the loose corset appeared to fit more tightly to the model’s body.
I have visited this concept frequently over the past 30 years, each time taking a slightly different approach. While I intentionally stay away from the exact pose of Horst’s photograph, to capture that same sense of classicism and beauty is always a challenge.
As fashion has changed over the years, corsets have become less common as an undergarment. While Madonna made wearing them outside one’s clothing a popular trend in the 80s, most the corsets we see today are shoddy knock-offs of the real thing and rarely do they actually serve the purpose originally intended.
In visiting the concept again, 30 years from when I first met Horst in person, I asked our model, Meghan, to find a corset that fit her well. Her’s is a classic body shape that is perfect for wearing a corset but actually finding one that would not gap in the wrong places or squeeze too tightly in others proved even more difficult than I had imagined. Detailed searching brought her to a lovely selection with lace panels embellished with rhinestones, a nice touch considering our other work with rhinestones this fall.
We ultimately opted to take a then/now approach to processing the images, half in a black and white tone as closely matching that of a pre-war film as I could manage, half in color, relatively low key to bring out the depth of the red fabric contrasting the pale blue of Meghan’s eyes.
I very much like this set of images. Meghan was fantastic for her first time in front of our camera. Kat nailed the period makeup and the crown braid with back bun. Never mind that I can still hear Horst grumbling in my ear about playing too safely with my lighting choices. He’s always there in my head, never quite happy, always wanting a deeper shadow. My argument back at him is that a deeper shadow over a dark corset would have muddied the form. He responds in German, makes a gesture and walks away. Every time. For 30 years.
As we’ve been focusing heavily on contemporary abstract processing much of this fall, I needed this return to a classic form. I hope you enjoy the images as much as we do. Click on any of the thumbnails below to view the full gallery.