The Mainbocher Corset

Horst P. Horst’s Mainbocher Corset is the famed photographer’s most celebrated image, and has become one of the most recognisable fashion photographs of the twentieth century. The photograph is laced with an elegant eroticism, charged by the semi-nude model, Horst’s ingenious lighting, and the corset itself. At the time Parisian lingerie was considered highly desirable and the corset had come back into fashion in the 1930s after a period of unpopularity during the previous decade. By 1939 American women were spending over $100 million per year on brassières and corsets. As an item of clothing it came laden with obvious sexual connotations that brought Horst’s photograph a certain notoriety. The original negative showed the left hand side of the corset hanging away from the model’s side. This was considered too risqué for publication and so the negative was retouched to look like the corset fitted snuggly onto the model’s body. However the photograph also delivers another layer of sophistication in the motif of the back of the nude, referencing several art historical precedents including Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Neoclassical nudes and Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres (1924).

The photograph is not only emblematic of a key period in fashion, but also marks the end of an era – both for Horst and Europe. Horst had been working from Paris as a principal photographer for French Vogue since the early 1930s, but by the summer of 1939 the Nazi threat had grown to such an extent that he felt compelled to leave Paris for New York. Taken in the French Vogue studios, he took this photograph the evening before he left. Speaking about the photograph, Horst said, “it was created by emotion… it was the last photo I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4.00 a.m., went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7.00 a.m. train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. The photograph is peculiar for me. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.” Not only does the photograph mark the end of key period in Horst’s early career, it also marks the end of a golden age for Paris as a centre of culture and fashion as the avant-garde moved across the Atlantic to the haven of New York.

Explore More