Recommended Reading: Lillian Bassman: Lingerie

I’ve been really lucky to have been on the receiving end of only one troll-ish comment so far. I had reviewed . . . something, let me see . . . oh! The Panache Cami-Top. I love it, but we’re not really talking about the most glamorous of the glamorous lingerie. I found it a great, comfortable, practical addition to my casual wardrobe, thought I’d share my thoughts, and moved on with my life. A few hours after posting the review, the following popped up in my moderation queue:

“Please, ladies, accept the opinion from a humble man. Size doesn’t matter. Push ups make us laugh. Criss Cross lines…we know the trick…You know waht [sic]? The real secret for a perfect bra is the way you wear it. Be confident and with your own sexy attitude. Accept your body and love it, because it’s beautiful and unique. Do not fall into the trap of fashion mkt [sic] and just be yourself. That’s what a man likes more than anything else: a smart, pretty woman with a bit of self irony and a touch of class.”

OH. NOW I KNOW WHAT MEN (all of the men! men everywhere!) LIKE. WHAT A RELIEF. The anticipation/suspense from not knowing was KILLING ME SOFTLY. Also, pray, good sir, what the fuck is the “trick” of the “criss cross lines” of which you speak? I do not think it means what you think it means. Also, I do not think it means anything at all. OH MY GOD, I JUST GOT MANSPLAINED TO! Man, I feel like a woman.

If this concern troll had actually read my post instead of just spouting off his condescending benedictions all over the place, he should have had the decency/cognitive function/critical reading skills to notice that I never actually mentioned sexiness, attractiveness, the relative merits of my cleavage, dissatisfaction with my boobs, insecurity with my body, sexy lingerie, “class”, or my feelings on fashion. Come to that, I didn’t even mention anything about my sexual orientation. Instead, I assume he saw the words “boobs” and “lingerie” in close proximity and decided that I, as many do, believe that lingerie is for one thing and one thing only: pleasing a male viewer.

Bless him, he must be new here.



Yes, there is a gash down the front cover because I was careless with the scissors opening the box from Amazon. Yes, I wanted to cry like a child when it happened. (“The Mode of the Princesse- Everything Black and Lacy.”  Lingerie by Lily of France, 1954, for Harper’s Bazaar)

I checked this out of the library last year, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. I was checking out books about the history of lingerie, what lingerie meant, what lingerie was “sexy” (there are some really bad lingerie books out there), bra fitting, etc. etc., and then in one of my holds appeared this stunning oversized book of black-and-white photography. I don’t think I’d ever seen lingerie photographed like this before.


Model: Barbara Curly. early 1950s (advertisement for La Roche)

I received a gift card from one of my supervisors for Christmas this year, and as much as I told myself I “should” spend it on something practical, I followed Roommate’s advice of only using gift cards on things you wouldn’t ordinarily buy yourself and ordered a copy for myself. And a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And one of those clipless curling irons. And an ethernet cable, because I had to throw in one practical thing. ANYHOO.


“It’s a Cinch.” Model: Carmen. Lingerie by Warner’s, 1951.

Lillian Bassman started working in “feminine photography” (as described by Seventeen Magazine) for Harper’s Bazaar in 1948 and pretty much created the idea of the lingerie fashion spread as we know it today. She was keenly, passionately interested in women, their intimate moods, their style. In 2008 she told the New Yorker “I think my contribution . . . has been to photograph fashion with a woman’s eye for a woman’s intimate feelings.” The lingerie industry was starting to bloom again in the post World War II fashion scene, but it was also in upheaval: the end of post-war rationing, the dramatic decrease in demand for old-fashioned corsets, new developments in materials and technology, unionization of garment workers, and the New Look inspired by Christian Dior created an environment desperate for change, new perspective, and artistry. Lillian Bassman had it all.


Bassman working with one of her models.

What makes the photographs extraordinary is that not only were they ground-breaking and game-changing when she took them, but they’re still startling today, in an age of come-hither, Photoshopped uniformity. The women are lovely and unique (well, to an extent: they’re all white, young, and slim, but baby steps), and the photographs are breathtakingly intimate. Lingerie IS sexy. Women are sexy. Intimacy is sexy. Women in lingerie have historically been pleasing to the eye of the beholder. Lillian Bassman’s photographs don’t ignore that, but they’re so much more interested in the women in the photos, wearing the lingerie, than they are in the viewer. I want to BE that woman, instead of ogling her. I don’t want to BE her just because she’s pleasing to men. I want to tap into the intimate, relaxed, radiant ease. The privacy, the peace, the beauty.

The photographs don’t say “this is how all women should be.” They say “this is how this one woman is.” It’s true; I would love to wear this lingerie in the knowledge that a man I adored was looking at me and dying to unlace, unwrap, and uncover me, but that’s not the only thing I see in Bassman’s photos. I see women happy in their own skin, comfortable in their routines, finding moments of joy and relaxation even in the mundane activity of getting dressed. When I compare them to the straining, artificial, almost desperate come-hitherdom of, say, a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, I know which ones I find enticing. A woman luxuriating quietly in her own being and beauty is a glorious thing.


“Pink Looks Beautiful Overnight.” Nightgown by Van Raalte, 1954.

I’d like for all women to find lingerie that helps them tap into this radiance. It doesn’t have to be for every day or every occasion.  Bassman’s photographs are a wonder in that I don’t look at them and feel badly about myself, as I do when faced with many other kinds of advertising photographs (skin, hair, nails, belly, lips, makeup, etc. etc.).  There’s a sense of recognition, of friendliness, of true intimacy.

Here are a few more of my favorites.  I love them as much for the mood and beauty as for the lingerie.  Could someone please make me all of this lingerie?  Merci!


“The Yawn.” Model: Vicky Lyons, 1949.


“Nylon Tricot Dream Fabric for Lingerie.” Model: Margie Cato, peignoir by Vanity Fair, for Harper’s Bazaar 1948


This one is totally one of my favorites. Look at the absurd, nonchalant overabundance of that robe. Divine. Model: Dorian Leigh, c. 1950 stocking advertisement


“Southwest Passage Sunset: Pink.” Pajamas by Kickernick, 1951


“The Brown Chiffon Nightgown.” Model: Suzy Parker, nightgown by Fischer, 1951


Model: Evelyn Milroy, early 1950s. Advertisement for Delsey toilet paper.  That’s right.  Toilet paper.  This is the most beautiful toilet paper ad the world has ever seen.


“The Line Lengthens.” 1955.


“The Bride in a Carefree Cloud.” Model: Olga Nichols, nightgown by Carter’s, 1953


Model: Evelyn Milroy, early 1950s

Lillian Bassman: Lingerie
Abrams, 2012

Barnes & Noble
The Strand
Better World Books

9 Comments on Recommended Reading: Lillian Bassman: Lingerie

  1. Laura Brasinha
    January 25, 2013 at 11:53 am (10 years ago)

    Her photographies are amazing! I found her work along with the work of Helmut Newton, and from that instant I’ve been in love with them both (even if those are two very different photographers!)

    As for the man-troll… yeah, that made me laugh! Oh those guys that think lingerie is for them only….

    • Sweets
      January 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm (10 years ago)

      I haven’t ever really explored Helmut Lang’s work! I’ll have to check it out!

  2. Cora, The Lingerie Addict
    January 25, 2013 at 3:17 pm (10 years ago)

    I bought Lillian Bassman: Lingerie for myself last year, and I love it. Why don’t we have lingerie campaigns that look like this anymore?

    • Sweets
      January 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm (10 years ago)

      I agree! There are so many amazing collections available now, and it would be so inspiring to see ads like this run with a diverse cast of models.

  3. thelingerielesbian
    January 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm (10 years ago)

    I love this book! I’d been meaning to review it for a while but never got around to it. I love the way she illustrates a world, not just a body, even when it’s a single person on the page. It’s so lovely, I want prints of everything.

    • Sweets
      January 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm (10 years ago)

      Oooh, I love how you said that: a world, not a body. Perfect. I want prints too!

  4. Fussy Busty
    January 25, 2013 at 4:16 pm (10 years ago)

    Breathtakingly beautiful.

    Also, I want that piece on Evelyn Milroy in the last photo.

    • Sweets
      January 25, 2013 at 7:11 pm (10 years ago)

      ME TOO. Isn’t it lovely?

  5. lauriedancer
    January 26, 2013 at 7:04 pm (10 years ago)

    This entire post made me feel really good…troll notwithstanding. I actually think he meant well…but he doesn’t really have a clue, unfortunately. I just love the feel of these photos, the energy they generate, the atmosphere…everything. So womanly, so feminine…so divine.


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