A while ago, I wrote about a Houbigant Chantilly perfume advertisement from the 1960s and its unlikely visual source (an altarpiece painting by Raphael!). The good people at Houbigant seem to have flipped through their art library more than once over the decades. This ad from the 1990s, which places its model behind a scrim of white Chantilly lace, is very probably influenced by an iconic work of modern photography.
In the 1920s, American photographer Edward Steichen was working for Condé Nast as the chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. In his memoir A Life in Photography, he recalled a 1924 sitting with the movie star Gloria Swanson:
At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey. You don’t have to explain things to a dynamic and intelligent personality like Miss Swanson. Her mind works swiftly and intuitively.
Steichen can be credited with bringing a fine-art approach to celebrity photography and fashion photography, and his work is still frequently imitated. His woman-behind-lace composition seems to have promptly inspired similar shots, such as Erwin Blumenfeld’s Violettes de Montezin of 1938:
But the intense, non-smiling gaze, the careful positioning of the lace’s botanical motifs to frame the features, and the close-up on the face in Steichen’s earlier photograph all suggest that it is the most likely source for the Chantilly advertisement (and many other ads and fashion shoots since 1924).
Houbigant had already used the idea of placing the Chantilly model in its namesake lace, as in this mid-1980s ad (which inspired more than a few of my classmates to copy its frosty-mauve makeup palette!):
“I feel very Chantilly today.” That tagline, silly as it is, sounded a bit provocative to me at the time. Perhaps it still does. In any case, the Steichen-derived 1990s image seems to be aging more gracefully. It feels more classical, and it really does steal from the best.
And here’s a shot of Edward Steichen at work, to close this post…
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Images: Houbigant Chantilly advertisements via Parfum de Pub; Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson (1924), Condé Nast Archive/Corbis, via Smithsonian Magazine; Edwin Blumenfeld, Violettes de Montzarin (1928), via Christie’s; Edward Steichen, Self-Portait (1929) [cropped], Condé Nast Archive, via Artnet.