The year is 1939. A woman with a sculpted back leans against a marbled plinth. Her upper body is encased in an exquisite corset. The lighting accentuates many different shapes, curves, triangles, sharp edges. Her expression is unknown; only the back of her head is visible. The woman and the corset blend seamlessly into the black and white landscape created by a great artist.
That artist is Horst P. Horst. In the years after the photograph was taken, Mainbocher Corset would be truly iconic, mimicked by artists like Madonna and fashion designers like Donna Karan. He remains an inspiration for photographers throughout the world. So who was Horst P. Horst?
Horst is a German-American photographer who was responsible for some of Vogue’s most incredible images. Although virtually unknown outside of the fashion and photography worlds today, Horst was an influential and glamorous artist. His friends and collaborators included Salvador Dali and Coco Chanel.
Horst’s vision extended outside the fashion world. He teamed with many home magazines in the United States to shoot impossibly opulent images of the world’s most rich and famous people in their homes. He became the go-to photographer for First Ladies, and took memorable pictures of people like Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Emilio Pucci and Cole Porter. Before the War, Horst studied under the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, so he had the perfect grasp of art and architecture.
Horst brought the same attention to detail to every shoot. His ability to light his shots was legendary. Horst would spend hours and even days lighting his rooms, creating setups so complex they were unable to be replicated later. His style added drama to every photograph, sometimes frustrating the fashion industry because he did not focus exclusively on the clothes. Indeed, Horst was not so interested in selling products as he was in making the viewer feel like they just walked upon the scene as a guest, glimpsing the subjects in their private moments.
“The Mainbocher Corset”
The Mainbocher Corset is an exact blend of Horst’s two most significant influences: Greek art and Surrealism. Horst discussed the inspiration for his vision:
“It was the last photograph I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4am, went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7am train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. We all felt that war was coming. Too much armament, too much talk. And you knew that whatever happened, life would be different after … This photograph is peculiar – for me, it is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”
The photograph was taken in Paris Vogue studios on the Champs-Elysees. France was about to be invaded and would be under occupation for the next half decade. Horst’s work also came to an end with that photograph, at least for a time. The Mainbocher Corset, then, represents a kind of timeless glamor that vanished after the War.
Horst moved to the United States, joined the Army and became a war photographer. After the war he settled in New York, where he became friends with Harry Truman. That relationship led to Horst’s arrangement to take the portraits of every first Lady in the post-War period.e