How can you look so naughty and feel so nice?

I recently bought the book “Lingerie” featuring the beautiful photography of Lillan Bassman.

Bassman became a photographer in the late 1940’s. Her images of women broke the mould, emphasising a more intimate portrayal and establishing a niche in lingerie and night-wear photography.

Lillian Bassman, Black basque, LingerieHarpers Bazaar, March 1954

Lillian Bassman, Carmen Dell'Orefice, white basque

Carmen Dell’Orefice, Merry Widow 1951

Bassman was an avid watcher of women and in the book it describes how, in the mid 1940’s, she began to study the body language of those who made a living out of their sensuousness and were not afraid to show it.

“It was too late to get served at the hotel so I decided to walk down the Avenue. I spotted my corner carefully and then proceeded. It’s strange how similar and how different French girls are (to American girls). In the majority they look like old victory girls of B’way. High pompadours, long hair over their shoulders, skirt at above knee length and heavy high-heeled shoes. It wasn’t too light and I was shy about staring too much, so all I got were quick outlines”

A few days later. she watched the prostitutes make easy pickings of American GIs: “There’s no denying a French girl once she spots you along, it’s done on the streets, in doorways, anywheres. There’s a special drape to the way her body clings to a man and she takes the initiative on all occasions.”

And from there, Bassman embarked on a special relationship with her photography, where women felt comfortable in her company and who thus photographed with an air of effortless self-possession. Warner lingerie subsequently enjoyed a huge rise in sales with their Merry Widow campaign, shot by Bassman and named after the Lana Turner movie – with the tagline How can you look so naughty and feel so nice?”  

This campaign was so successful it continued right up to the early 1960’s.

Lillian Bassman, Merry Widow 1954, Venetian masks, black basque

Lillian Bassman, Merry Widow, Venetian Masks, Black Basque, white tulle skirt

Lillian would often take her models out of the studios, preferring a room with abundant natural light and a more reportage style of work.

Lillian Bassman, woman looking in the mirror, white basque

Corselet by Perma-lift 1956Lillian Bassman, black basque

Betty Biehn 1955Lillian Bassman, bra and pants, lady doing hair

Margie Cato late 1940’sLillian Bassman, smoking on the train, pyjamas

Pyjamas by Kicknernick 1951Lillian Bassman, Under the sheet, white basque

Advertisement for La Roche early 1950’s (my favourite!)Lillian Bassman, Suzy Parker, Nightgown, lingerie

Suzy Parker 1951Lillian Bassman, painting toes, Lingerie

Maidenform 1956Lillian Bassman, white basque, wallpaper, Lingerie

Warner’s advertisement 1957
Lillian Bassman, white basque, Lingerie

Barbara Vaughn early 1950’sLillian Bassman, Gossard Ultrabra 1997

Gossard Ultrabra 1997

Makes you want to go and buy a corset, doesn’t it!

I know they were probably extremely uncomfortable but the corsets with the tulle skirts do look pretty. I showed my husband to get his opinion and he said “I prefer sexy lingerie to pretty lingerie”. Men eh!

I suppose that’s exactly where Bassman differed – she photographed women for women. Personally, I think pretty can be sexy and these are very sexy indeed.

Lililan Bassman in the studio

Lillian died in February of this year. She was 94 and still working. The book Lingerie is a fabulous tribute to a woman who revolutionised women’s photography and the photography of the female form.

I can’t recommend it enough!


  1. Lyn Bell

    Great! What a gorgeous selection of photographs. I remember my grandmother in whalebone and corsets, ( she didn’t look like any of the photographs!) in the heat of Africa in the 1950’S. What a woman will do to look good, and look good she did!

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