Charting the life of Horst P. Horst, one the 20th century’s most prolific fashion and portrait photographers, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new exhibition Horst: Photographer of Style is a master class in style. Although the photographer spent most of his life shooting for fashion magazines, this isn’t an exhibition about fashion; it’s an ode to style and elegance, perfectly rendered in delicate tones of black and white. Over 250 photographs – taken from an archive that spans more than 60 years – capture the golden age of Paris couture – beautiful clothes modelled by beautiful people, captured by a man who understood the power of an image.

horst Lisa Fonssagrives

Many of the designers featured are familiar: Chanel, Lanvin, Patou, Schiaparelli. Horst is often credited with ‘inventing’ the supermodel – and indeed many of the sitter’s names are almost as legendary – from Lee Miller to Carmen Dell’Orefice and Comtesse de la Falaise, it reads like a who’s who of Parisian fashion. It all seems like a very natural fit for a young German-born boy who originally moved to the city of light to study architecture under Le Corbusier. It was there that he meant Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a star photographer at French Vogue who introduced the aspiring architect to photography, forever changing the course of his life.

Salvador Dali Horst

Horst’s images show off the clothes, but never overtly. He worked in an era before fast fashion and high street competition – before editorials were controlled by advertisers’ budgets – leaving him free to create images that emphasise beauty and craftsmanship. As a result, pleats and drapes are perfectly lit, models are framed by arches and pillars; this is beauty and style for its own sake. Perhaps that early training informed his sculptural compositions, or maybe Horst was able to create images that were so different because he had grown up with other interests. The first room concludes with a selection of dresses taken from the V&A’s archive, the highlight of which is a floor-sweeping black satin Mainbocher gown, hand embellished with gold sequins.

horst fashion photographer

Of course, Horst wasn’t immune to the artistic developments of his peers. During the 1930s he dabbled in Surrealist-inspired fashion imagery, creating mysterious and whimsical trompe l’oeil still lifes that wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary magazine. In one, a woven straw bag filled with twigs and chrysanthemums sits alongside a tea caddy and tray. Not very couture, but somehow Horst makes it work.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher

In this room is one of Horst’s most celebrated photographs – Mainbocher Corset (1939). The image depicts a model wearing a back-laced corset. Still and contoured, she’s as proportioned as a classical statue – but this wasn’t all down to Horst’s talent. Nearby hangs a non-retouched images (apparently the photographer’s preferred version) and an open sketchbook filled with composition ideas. A reminder that photographic manipulation was practiced long before Photoshop and – in an exhibition dedicated to perfection – a refreshing reminder of the illusion of style.

horst vogue

The undoubted highlight is the penultimate room, which is filled with large, full-colour shots of Vogue covers. It’s a welcome visual contrast with the small-scale, black and white images previously on display, but also an example of a master at work – a photographer who had found his creative vision and was given the freedom to execute it. Those stylised shots – women putting on lipstick, balancing perfectly red beach balls on their toes, or lounging in front of painted backdrops – have come to represent, and indeed helped to create, a golden age of fashion that seems far removed from today’s so-called fast fashion. And that, to paraphrase Coco Chanel, is the core of Horst’s legacy: fashion changes, but style endures.

Horst: Photographer of Style is showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until 4 January 2015. For more information and to book tickets, see the V&A’s website.