The Detailed History of Boudoir Photography

History of Boudoir Photography

While still considered taboo by some people, boudoir photography has evolved into a popular and respected genre. However, this progress didn’t happen overnight. This is why it’s essential to learn the history of boudoir photography to see the changes over time and appreciate this art form a little more.

History of Boudoir Photography

The history of boudoir photography started in the 1890s as lewd or obscene photos in France. The concept became more public in the 1920s, with nude or risqué pictures popularized by photographer Albert Arthur Allen in the United States. 

Boudoir became commonly accepted in the 1940s with pin-ups and curvy models used in propaganda to get men to join the military. Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, the sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s, took boudoir photography to a new level by making it empowering for women.

In the 1970s, feminists utilized boudoir photography to change the perception of women’s portraits. Fast forward to the 1980s, glam boudoir images became enticing to the general public. In modern times, boudoir photography focuses on self-empowerment rather than an object for the male gaze.

Etymology of the Word Boudoir

The word boudoir originally came from the French word ‘bouder‘, which means to pout or sulk. It refers to a woman’s private salon, dressing room, or bedroom where a lady can withdraw to be with her thoughts.

Furthermore, it’s a private room where women could freely change their clothes, put makeup on, or style their hair, away from the view of others. These elements play significant roles in the concept of boudoir photography, which is to allow women to express themselves freely through clothing, accessories, and sultry poses.

A Timeline of Boudoir Photography

Boudoir photography has evolved over several eras that have changed the way people perceive it now. It has a rich history of influential photographers and women who paved the way for the modern-day boudoir we enjoy today.

Controversial Start of Boudoir Photography in the 1890s

Boudoir photography started around the 1890s when the first boudoir photography album was published in France. Back then, it was thought of as highly pornographic. However, the country continued to sell the first boudoir postcards secretly across shops throughout Paris.

Since they were low on circulation, the erotic postcards even became collector’s items. The pictures and postcards mostly featured nude ladies and often showed them in groups.

Public Emergence of Boudoir Photography in the 1920s

Back in the roaring ’20s, when boudoir photography emerged publicly, the idea of taking nude or risqué images was still deemed disgraceful. During this time, it was more hired models than everyday women wanting to have their pictures taken.

After World War I, the 1920s boudoir clothing style followed the freewheeling and wild culture of the decade. The concept started with photographers creating elaborate setups in a studio or a luxurious hotel. Pearls, lace, and silk were prominent in this era of boudoir photography.

American photographer Albert Arthur Allen was among the most controversial boudoir photographers. His art style focused more on women with fuller figures. He sold prints and was indicted for sending boudoir photos through interstate mail.

Advertising Evolution of Boudoir Photography from 1930 to 1940

Boudoir photography continued even after the end of the Prohibition Era in 1933 and the start of World War II. The US Government used propaganda to encourage young men to fight for their country. 

Unfortunately, the military exploited the era’s beauty and sexuality standards. However, the appeal and styles discovered back then paved the way for contemporary boudoir photography.

  • With the popularity of an advertising concept called ‘sex sells’, the military used pin-up girls in posters, with slogans like “come home to your girl a hero” or “she’s worth fighting for”. 
  • Women with hourglass figures wore clothing to show their provocative side.
  • Betty Grable was one of the most iconic pin-up girls around the start of the Second World War, with images highlighting her long legs to encourage young men to enlist for the war.
  • Wives started commissioning pin-up photos and drawings to send to their husbands to motivate their safe return.
  • The Golden Age of Hollywood put leading ladies in glamorous yet downright sexy images.
  • The 1940s also saw the emergence of props such as corsets, elbow-length gloves, and men’s ties.

Feminist Progress of Boudoir Photography from 1950 to 1980

At this point, boudoir photography soared as an art form for women’s empowerment. Much of this is thanks to influential women who unapologetically embraced their bodies and sexuality.

  • Between the 1950s and 1960s, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren became boudoir icons, known for their confidence and playfulness.
  • The most significant change in boudoir photography happened in the 1970s as it became widely accepted as a professional art form, with portrayals of women more prolific yet raw. While boudoir remains taboo or scandalous in some cultures, there was much progress in the art world.
  • With the ’70s celebrating feminism, French actress Brigitte Bardot broke film taboos against nudity. She became a symbol for disregarding conventional standards, including in photos.
  • In the 1980s, the publishing industry became more inclusive with boudoir-style photoshoots. Sports Illustrated was among the first to do so, with model Christie Brinkley on the cover.

Boudoir Photography Today

In the 21st century, boudoir photography is more about you as the subject. You don’t have to be a model or actress. Whether you want a shoot to celebrate your pregnancy or want a special kind of portrait, there are many reasons why you should do a boudoir shoot

  • As people become more accepting of the concept of boudoir, other industries also incorporate boudoir photography in their craft.
  • The fashion industry develops boudoir-style shoots for campaigns and publications. Meanwhile, the wedding industry includes boudoir photography as an add-on package for soon-to-wed couples.
  • Going back to its roots, the meaning of boudoir as a private space for women brings the control back to the subject, especially in deciding on how they want to be seen.

This is why as a professional boudoir photographer, I make sure to help clients plan sessions and pick boudoir outfits to express their inner fierceness and fully appreciate the beauty that’s always been there.


Boudoir photography progressed from a scandalous concept to a widely accepted and empowering form of expression today. It also evolved from being female-centric to being inclusive regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race, and body size. In time, your unique boudoir photos will also take part in history. So, why not schedule your very own boudoir shoot in our Grand Rapids studio.

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