How did the German-born fashion photographer Horst P. Horst capture the anxiety and sorrow he felt as he fled France for the United States just prior to the outbreak of World War II?
In this starkly lit black-and-white photograph we see a model from behind, wearing a corset laced up the back with the tightening ribbons pooling and dripping off the edge of the balustrade against which she is perched. We see only the model’s torso, bowed head, and outstretched upper arms, folded inward at the elbows. The model’s face is mostly hidden; we see her ear and the shiny waves of her coiffed hair. Her corseted torso forms a C-shaped curve, contrasting the sharp angle made by the right side of her nipped-in waist and the curve of her right hip.
The Mainbocher Corset, featured in this photograph, was made by corset maker Detolle for the American couturier, brought an end to the loose fitting, straight silhouettes of the Jazz Age in favor of a slim-waist, fuller-bust, controlled-hourglass figure.
This shift in fashion to a familiar ideal shape for women from a bygone era was called the “Velasquez silhouette” in the Vogue article that accompanied Horst’s image, after Diego Velázquez’s well-known 17th-century painting Rokeby Venus.  In 1914, Mary Richardson, a British subject agitating for women’s right to vote, slashed this painting of what many considered an extraordinarily beautiful woman to protest the arrest of suffragette Emily Pankhurst. The painting was carefully restored, but Richardson’s attack underscores the strong emotions this image could still trigger almost 300 years after it was painted. While Horst omitted the mirror in his photograph, we see the echoes of the Rokeby Venus in the Mainbocher Corset—in the position of the right arm, the narrow waist above a curved hip, and the near concealment of the model’s face that no mirror reveals.
While the published versions of the photo were retouched to make the model’s waist even more slender and to remove the gap made at the top left edge of the corset, the photographer explained that he preferred the photo with the visible gap between the corset and the model’s body, finding it more alluring.
In Horst’s sketches to work out the composition, he included a vase with a rose, alluding to historical images of Venus and linking the model’s torso to a still life object. The final version of the studio image omits this element to keep the viewer’s focus on the curving torso, positioned to the right of the center of the frame, balanced by the dangling ribbons on the model’s left, another reference to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus recalling the ribbons spilling out of Cupid’s hand and over the mirror he holds. Perhaps leaving these unfurled ribbons also signals the unravelling Horst felt in leaving Paris.
The photograph has an elegance, as well as a feeling of stillness and melancholy that continued to influence fashion photography for decades after it was taken, inspiring pop-star Madonna to appropriate its composition at the end of her music video for the song Vogue, released in 1990.
Influences and the making of Mainbocher Corset
Horst P. Horst was born in Germany in 1906 as Horst Bohrman. As a teenager, he studied carpentry and set design at the Hamburg School of Arts and Crafts and befriended Eva Weidemann, a dancer, ten years his senior, who worked with Lothar Schreyer at the Weimar Bauhaus. Lothar Schreyer was an early Weimar Bauhaus instructor, the first Master of the Theater department who was heavily steeped in the mysticism so common for the time. Weidemann introduced Horst to the Bauhaus teachings, though she was not a student there herself, but rather a performer in Schreyer’s experimental theatrical works.
Horst claimed the Bauhaus influenced his aesthetic, which we can see in the asymmetrical framing and the dramatic lighting as well as the spare setting and focus on a singular object. However, Erich Consemüller’s 1926 photograph of a seated woman contrasts with Horst’s 1939 image. In Consemüller’s photograph the masked model is comfortably supported by the tense fabric bands of her chair, while Horst’s model is constricted by fabric in tension and is not comfortably seated.
Perhaps even more striking is the influence of the German Neoclassicism of the 1920s and 1930s with its admiration for beautifully sculptural human bodies, as seen in the work of Leni Riefenstahl from the 1936 Munich Olympics which reflected Nazi aesthetics.
Horst moved to Paris in 1930 to apprentice under modernist architect Le Corbusier, but soon met Vogue photographer and Baltic Baron George Hoyningen-Heune who introduced him to Paris’s fashionable world and his own photographic work, becoming both Horst’s mentor and partner (see Hoyningen-Heune’s photograph of Horst’s torso from 1931). Through his connection to Hoyningen-Heune, Horst began as a studio fashion photographer for Paris Vogue in 1931.
Horst made Mainbocher Corset, which would become his most well-known photograph, just prior to leaving Paris for New York on August 15th, 1939. He recalled 45 years later:
It was the last photograph I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4:00am, went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7:00am train to La 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 completely 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. 
Two weeks later, the Second World War began when Hitler invaded Poland. Horst’s photograph was published in American Vogue on September 15th, 1939. The Mainbocher Corset—and the American couturier’s return to a slim-waist, fuller-bust, controlled hourglass figure ideal after the loose fitting, straight silhouettes of the Jazz Age— had been intended to appear in the October issue of French Vogue, but the magazine did not to publish issues in either October or November, due to uncertainty at the outset of World War II, so the photo was not published until December. An anonymous editorial in the December 1939 French Vogue lamented the passing frivolities of fashions produced the previous August but asserted that the fashion industry was too important to France and its working economy to simply shut the industry down due to the war. The designed pages of the ready-to-print but now outmoded October issue were included in the December French Vogue but at such reduced size that Horst’s Mainbocher Corset image was robbed of its considerable aesthetic power. By the time the photograph was published, both the photographer and the corset’s couturier had relocated from Paris to the United States, far from both the center of fashion and the European theater of war.
From Vogue to vogueing
What is it about this photograph that continues to speak to us today? The stark lighting and dramatic contrast draw our attention to the model’s bowed head and the hidden face, a posture that expresses fear or sorrow. The corset was being relaunched as a fashion accessory for the 1939 fall collections in Paris. This can be read as the tragic trapping of woman in an uncomfortable and fetishized garment that she cannot even put on or remove by herself. The tangled, falling ribbons streaming from the back of the confining contraption add a chaotic element that belies the straitlaced attempt at maintaining control. The model’s posture, and the lack of visible lower limbs, add to the sense that this is an image of entrapment and bound stasis, on the brink of collapse. While the photograph conveys the timeless qualities of elegance that were so prized in Horst’s fashion work, the emotional impact he achieved rises above any simple product advertisement.
It is precisely this emotional impact that Madonna seized upon and reinvested for her own purpose in her music video for Vogue. In the Material Girl’s multiple layered appropriation (she not only appropriates Horst’s image, but also the dance and aesthetics of New York Drag Ball culture, created by gay men of color in the 1980s), she dials down the melancholy, strikes the pose, and turns the entrapment into agency as a signifier for the only power women are afforded under patriarchy: sexual allure.
David Fincher, the video’s director, takes advantage of the moving image and shows Madonna’s back, filmed in elegantly lit black and white, seated on a similar marble balustrade. Writhing in her corset near the culmination of the video, as she sings “let your body move to the music,” she lifts her arms while she wriggles. Unlike Horst’s model in the Mainbocher Corset, Fincher finally gives us a full profile view of Madonna’s face as she powerfully speaks the word “Vogue.”
Horst, in 1939, as Europe was on the brink of war, makes a final image in Paris that journeys across oceans and time to fifty years later transform a magazine title into a concept and a verb.
 “Paris puts you back in laced corsets—and here they are. Detolle made the extreme, back-lacing corset…to bind you in for the Velasquez silhouette.” Horst P. Horst, “From Paris – The New Detolle Corset with Back Lacing,” Vogue (New York), Vol. 94, Issue 6 (Sept. 15, 1939): 76-76a.
 Horst is quoted in: Susanna Brown, “Mainbocher Corset” in Horst: Photographer of Style (New York: Rizzoli, 2014), 76.
Susanna Brown, ed., Horst: Photographer of Style (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2014).
Valentine Lawford, Horst: His World and His Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984).
Victoria and Albert Museum. Collections: “Mainbocher Corset”