I could make a good case for the trend starting with some of the earliest examples of “fashion” photography as practiced by Alfred Cheney Johnston , Albert Arthur Allen and others in the 1920’s. In those days, however, the style was not known as “fashion nude” as we have come to understand it.
For the most part, those old photos were highly stylized classic nudes; the trend started in Europe in the late 19th century and eventually landed in the U.S.
As I have mentioned in previous installments, there is no single accepted definition of the term “fashion nude,” though images in this style will nearly always involve some measure of nudity and nearly always featuring some aspect of fashion. I will even be so bold as to suggest that any women’s garment can be presented in a fashion nude context if the principle of déshabillé is applied to a sufficient degree.
Teaming Up & Assembling The Outfits
I set out to test this meaning with two highly qualified women. Keira Grant is a well-known and respected art nude and fashion model with worldwide appearances to her credit. Caroline Langdon is a model, actress, wardrobe stylist and a walking encyclopedia of fashion history, whose specialty is knowledge of what we today consider “vintage” or “retro” fashion from the 1910’s through the 1940’s.
The outfits and accessories used in this session came from a variety of sources; in most cities, shops specializing in fashions from the era are not hard to find. These shops sometimes sell modern reproductions of classic fashions, but the majority of their garments are the real thing – mainly bought at estate sales and refurbished. Some of the garments shown here are from the private collection of Ms. Langdon.
I was very fortunate to have Caroline on board as stylist for this series. In addition to her other qualifications, she is also a very talented seamstress. When executing her vision, she can craft authentically-styled garments if she can’t find what she wants. Two of our wardrobe items presented here are examples of her tailoring abilities.
Setting 1: THE LBD!
Our first look used the 1920’s take on the Little Black Dress (LBD), with sequins. A reproduction piece, the cut of this dress is very form-fitting, emphasizing Keira’s svelte figure (which she keeps in shape by being a self-described gym rat). Headbands were very popular in the Flapper Era, as were feathers in any number of configurations. Here, Caroline was able to source a coordinated necklace and headband ensemble. The feather fan gave Keira a point of interest to keep her hand coquettishly occupied. Lace pattern black stockings and period shoes completed the look.
This first series was a straight fashion sequence designed to showcase Keira’s fashion modeling skills. She is best known as an art nude model, so this gave her an opportunity to add something different to her book. Near the end of the sequence, I moved in for a head and shoulders portrait that emphasized her striking eyes.
Setting 2: Femme Fatal
Our next look transformed Keira into a languid, flowing femme fatale. This backless silk dress drapes the figure and is cinched at the waist with a decorative belt. Here, Caroline has coordinated it with a black turban – another stylish item popular in the 1920’s – and silk gloves. The dress is meant to be loose and flowing, so Keira wore no bra. This made for some interesting “wardrobe malfunctions” dealing with, as she put it, “the rogue nipple.”
Setting 3: Gangster Moll
In the third sequence, Keira became a very sexy and free-spirited Gangster Moll. This sheer garment, authentic from the period and from Caroline’s private collection, would have normally been worn as a sort of shirt dress over another garment in a layered arrangement. Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in the 1920’s, and as a result, Egyptian-inspired motifs became very popular – hence the headband, necklace and gold-toned peacock earrings, all of which complemented the Egyptian-style gold embroidery on the dress. To take full advantage of the sheerness of the dress, Keira was fully nude underneath. This gave her an opportunity to work with the dress – to move it around her body, which provided a lovely view of her well-toned figure.
Setting 4: Intimate “Retro Boudoir”
The fourth and final look turned out to be the most versatile, because in different configurations and with different accessories we were able to derive multiple “sub-looks.” The common element throughout the series is a pair of authentic silk panties, 1920’s style. Elastic was not yet common in that era, so underwear tended to be loose and flowing, rather than form-fitting.
We wanted the sequence to have a boudoir feel, so we started with a light and airy night robe which presented nicely as a sort of racy bridal portrait. As it opened in the front, Keira was able to maneuver it into a series of progressively more revealing poses. In addition to the silk panties and robe, Caroline made two accessory pieces from 1920’s patterns: a night bra and bandeau sleep cap. Both these pieces are authentically styled to the period.
Keira quickly dispensed of the robe (maybe she was getting warm?) so she could play with removing the bra in a highly-charged, active sequence befitting a Roaring Twenties’ It girl.
In the final sequence, Keira removed the bra altogether and Caroline substituted a faux-pearl lace necklace with a white feather to complete the look. After a few three-quarter body shots, I changed the lighting to a more extreme side-lighting arrangement for a more intimate feel, moving in closer to half-body format and culminating with a very intimate head and shoulders portrait.
An Unforgettable Creative Challenge
In the world of fashion nude styling and photography, selecting a theme and coordinating all efforts and talent around that theme is a lot of fun and provides all the participants – especially the model – an opportunity to think outside the box and create memorable images. It’s a safe bet that Keira, who works all over the world and has hundreds, if not thousands, of shoots to her credit, will remember her time travel back to the 1920’s.
The Back Story
We started the full day session with Keira as a straight fashion shoot. Keira is best known as an art nude model; I wanted to provide her with some images for her book that demonstrate her fashion modeling skills.
While I rarely light a set the same way twice, when it comes to fashion I have a go-to key light: 7-foot (213 cm) parabolic PLM with diffusion sock that I normally position at a 45 degree angle from camera axis. This provides a broad, even and soft wall of light that wraps around the model. To provide some variety as we moved from wardrobe to wardrobe, I introduced some auxiliary lights (small strip lights) in different positions for highlighting. As the session was ending, I moved the PLM to a 90 degree from camera axis position, with the strip light exactly opposite – basically an edge lighting arrangement. The parts of Keira’s figure facing the camera are in a soft shadow; the PLM wrap-around effect provided shadow detail.
And, a bonus: while the first half day was devoted to Keira as fashion and fashion nude model, with Caroline Langdon as stylist (all three – hair, makeup and wardrobe), for the rest of the day Caroline joined in the fun modeling as Augusta Monroe.
We wanted to recreate the ambiance the Alfred Cheney Johnston’s 1920’s studio, where he famously photographed the Ziegfeld Follies girls. Although Keira and Augusta had never worked together before, in any capacity, their personalities meshed wonderfully. Here is a small sample of a large collection of some very sexy images the two ladies created. And in keeping with the mood of the period, a short fashion film emerged in the spirit of the Silent Film Era.