Body styling is one of the hottest trends in fashion presentation today, yet one of the most difficult styles to pin down by definition. It might have its roots in the ancient traditions of certain tribal societies, or it may be linked to the flamboyant costumes of Carnival dancers seen in South American countries, particularly Brazil. Or maybe to Las Vegas showgirls.
In any case, body styling is one of the most vibrant and complex ways of decorating the human body. It may be employed in a fashion context, or not. When used in fashion editorial presentation, it is rarely specific to a fashion line, atelier (design house) or brand – with certain notable exceptions, one being Victoria’s Secret. Rather, it is used to evoke a mood or promote a lifestyle.
Body styling is one of the most freewheeling, creative artistic endeavors used in fashion presentation. We are creating a living sculpture on a human body. There are no rules; anything goes (within reason, of course). In a commercial context, one key factor for the success of a presentation is knowledge of the audience. A notable example is Victoria’s Secret, who use body styling techniques in their annual televised fashion shows. When they decorate their models, their target audience – women – is firmly in mind.
The techniques can be simple or complex; fanciful or moody. We may use body paint to augment other decorations, or simply rely on the decorations themselves to carry the message. Or we may use body paint by itself. There is, however, a common foundation for all body styling – a beautiful human figure.
The cost of really extravagant costumes worn by Carnival performers can be staggering, ranging upward of USD 10,000. Victoria’s Secret doesn’t release their figures, but it is estimated that the cost of their annual fashion show is ten times that of an “ordinary” runway production. Very few photographers or wardrobe stylists can afford these stratospheric prices, so we tone it down a bit by showing how ordinary materials found around the house, office or your local crafts store can be used to create awesome styling touches. Scrounging is an acceptable method for acquiring materials; one of my colleagues used PVC pipe shavings from a construction job site to create a fanciful feather simulation.
Create Winning Body Styling By Yourself (It’s About Imagination!)
Because body styling is such a wide-ranging topic, I am going to present it in two installments. In this article, Part 1, we demonstrate some fundamental concepts involved in body styling, and the materials used are quite ordinary. In Part 2, we will look at some advanced techniques, including some intricate body painting designs.
Can the lone photographer create winning body styling designs by himself or herself? Certainly; all it takes is imagination – and a willing model. It does help, however, to engage the services of a makeup professional to take care of the basics (face, hair and body makeup).
In Part 1, our production team was kept at a minimum; myself as photographer, Heather Filipski as makeup artist and stylist, and Clara Dodd as our model. Heather has been doing makeup and styling professionally for a number of years; Clara is a recent graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Film and well-versed in film production methods.
As with most body styling initiatives, we start with basic hair styling and facial makeup. To minimize retouching in post-processing, we also use full-body makeup (which we will cover in a future article). In this session, we created four basic looks with minor variations of each one by adding or removing decorative elements.
After basic hair and facial makeup, Heather prepares Clara’s body by applying full body makeup with contouring as needed. Women with smaller breasts or minimal natural cleavage often benefit from subtle contouring on the sides of the breasts nearest the sternum (breastbone).
Natural redheads like Clara often have pale skin; slightly darker-than-normal foundation applied all over helps keep skin details from washing out under studio strobes. We discovered after a few test shots that her nipples were blending too much with the surrounding skin, so Heather skillfully applied a bit of toning there. From long experience, I have learned that this is preferable to adding tone and contrast in post-processing; it cuts down time required for retouching.
Look 1: Creating a Fashion Nude Statement with Jewelry
↑ With most body styling, it is advisable to start simple and add elements as you go along; it is much easier to add than to subtract, especially if body paint is involved. Here, Heather wanted to showcase a piece of beadwork jewelry she made, and she came up with the idea of presenting Clara in an old mirror frame (a good example of the freewheeling creativity involved – it was a spontaneous decision). The frame could have been used in different, less-conventional ways, but we were pressed for time and moved on. ↓
Look 2: Add Layers of Fabric to Create Different Textures
↑ Still using the keep-it-simple principle, Heather took a piece of lace fabric (available at any fabric store), twisted it in front to create a bra and tied it in the back with a beautiful bow treatment. She added a lavender dress, dropping the top and bunching it around the waist to leave the lace bra exposed. Even though the lace is quite open, the lighting I used made Clara’s breasts and nipples barely visible – an important consideration for certain viewing audiences. ↓
Look 3A: Go Wild with Fabrics!
For the next look, we removed the dress and replaced it with a wrap made of old beat-up cheesecloth, torn in various places to create a ragged look. Heather added some feathers (available at most crafts stores) to Clara’s hair to add some visual interest and balance to the top. ↓
As can be seen from the rear view, the cheesecloth was tied in such a way as to leave a “tail,” which Clara could use to occupy her hands whilst posing. An inexpensive circular brass pin was added, approximating the location of a belt buckle, had Clara been wearing one (another body styling idea: using multiple belts in locations other than around the waist). ↓
Look 3B: Textures: Fabrics, Feathers and More
To modify the look for the next series, Heather added another piece of cheesecloth around Clara’s head and covering her face to create a sort of mask, which later became a veil as the cloth was unfolded. To complete the look, we removed the lace bra so that Clara was totally nude between the two pieces of cheesecloth. To modify the look further, Heather found some decorative coiled wire at a local crafts store, which she looped around Clara in a crisscross design between Clara’s breasts. ↓
↑ As you can see from the accompanying video sequence (a series of still photos blended in video format), a nice variety of images can result from subtle changes in body positioning and strategic rearrangement of the fabric. Even with the mask on, you can see that Clara employed different expressions to convey different messages. For this series, we asked Clara to gradually push the wrap down, eventually revealing her beautiful natural red pubic hair. The effect was intensely erotic. ↓
Look 4: Assembling a Forest Faerie
The final look was a segué into Part 2 where Heather used a bit of body paint to create an altogether different and somewhat animalistic look. Both gold and silver glitter body paint was used to achieve a balanced look on both hair and body. A styling note: since Clara’s natural pubic hair is quite striking in its natural red color, Heather felt it necessary to tone it down a bit by applying the gold paint to her pubic region, a touch which added some natural contouring. At this point, Clara was fully nude except for the lace fabric draped over her shoulders; she posed for a full-nude series with this look. ↓
To wrap it up, Heather added a few touches: a subtle grouping of rhinestones (again, the crafts store), then she re-wrapped Clara’s waist with the cheesecloth and tied some decorative sticks (available in your local forest!) to her back in a spider pattern. The effect is to give Clara a from-the-forest look. To complete the look, Heather applied an intricate two-toned plus glitter lip treatment to provide a counterpoint to the forest nymph look. Using creative dissonance is a cornerstone of body styling. ↓
A Note About Tattoos
While most European models are tattoo-free, such is not the case with American models. Often, the tattoos themselves are quite striking and can be incorporated into a body styling design. Other times, they can be intrusive and disturb the natural flow of the design. I have included a few detail shots demonstrating how body paint, decorative wraps or even lingerie can be used to minimize or eliminate the impact of unwanted tattoos.
And a styling note: model safety and comfort are paramount concerns. You should make sure that body decorations do not contain sharp edges or points which can damage sensitive models’ skin. If you use body paint or apply rhinestones, make sure you use products specifically formulated for application on skin.
At the time of this writing, Part 2 is in the planning stages with a different model. I have given Heather and our model free rein to come up with outstanding body styling designs.
Stay tuned; Victoria’s Secret never had it so good!
The Back Story
As I mentioned earlier, body styling is a process of creating a living sculpture on a beautiful female figure. Both sets and lighting should be kept simple so as not to distract from the presentation. As I am a practitioner of minimalist lighting, I used a single large (120x180cm / 4x6′) softbox placed at a 70 degree angle to the camera / subject axis – very much a side light. I filled the shadows on the non-lit side with a metallized silver reflector. I adjusted the power to achieve a balanced look for my ISO setting.
- Camera: Sony A7ii full-frame mirrorless
- Lens: Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 24 – 70 / 2.8 zoom
- ISO 100
- Allen Moore: photographer, set designer
- Heather Marie Filipski: hair, makeup & body stylist
- Clara Dodd: model
Additional photos using PVC pipe shavings
Scrounging for materials in all the right places: PVC Feathers from the construction job site.
- Stylist: Matt Schmidt
- Model: Sonnie Marie Slagle