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An Eye for Vintage Fashion – Norman Parkinson

Eye for Fashion M-Shed, Bristol

What a lovely way to spend a Saturday. Lie in. Awake late to snow. Perfect chance to wear new 1960s style swing coat, faux fur hat and hand-warmer (crafted by my talented friend at Come Step Back in Time) Then off to An Eye for Fashion to see glamorous 1950s and 1960s fashion photos in a pretty, pastel-shaded space…

An Eye for Fashion at M Shed in Bristol (UK) focuses on influential fashion photographer, Norman Parkinson’s shots of British Designers from 1954 to 1964 as featured in Vogue and Queen magazines. Visitors can follow the intertwined fashion and societal changes from the austere 1950s though to the swinging 1960s, illustrating the shifts in lifestyles being sold to women through these magazines.

The show is a collaboration between the Angela Williams Archive and the M Shed. Sixty rare prints were chosen from the archive, many of which have not been displayed before. Angela Williams, a successfiul photographer in her own right, enjoyed a creative partnership with Parkinson starting in 1962 when she became his assistant.  The M Shed delves into its collection of vintage fashion to complement the photos on display so that we can see how the designer looks played out on the high street.

Vitality, cheekiness and 1960s optimism abound in the shots. Parkinson is well known for taking fashion photography out of the stuffy studio to outdoor locations in dockyards, streets and alleys as well as exotic locations. Parkinson said, ‘My aim was to take moving pictures with a still camera.’ (An Eye for Fashion catalogue) As fashion photography is of the moment, it is wonderful that these images have been preserved for future generations, especially the photos that didn’t make the final cut for the magazines.

The catalogue tells us that Norman Parkinson liked to take photos of ‘real’ women rather than ‘ice queen’ debutantes. Taking a different sense of ‘real’ women, as someone who buys Vogue as a guilty pleasure, it was interesting to see the way in which the models did indeed look more natural here and less ‘fake’ than their modern photo-edited versions.

10 years is a long time in fashion…

The 1950s  fashion magazine shots on display are targeted at the Vogue reader of the time – older, affluent middle class women. The photos reflect this with images of Ladies, “Mrs so and so” shopping, parties in stately homes, and twinsets and pearls. The aspiration is to be like these upper/upper-middle class women with their glamorous, champagne lifestyles. To complement, these shots, we see fashions of the day. A hyper-feminine, lacey pink prom dress with fitted bodice and full skirt caught my eye, which you could imagine a contemporary girl toning down with sneakers. Another display features two suits with fitted waists and calf length straight skirts – a common 1950s silhouette. Very ‘ladies who lunch’.

Swinging sixites

Then the swinging 1960s arrive – less Hardy Amies, more Mary Quant and Jean Muir. This decade saw shorter hemlines, nylons, bolder colours replace restrictive hemlines, stockings and dressing like your mother. The iconic shot used on the catalogue of Jean Shrimpton epitomises the decade’s cool confidence. Musicians start to appear in fashion shoots; see ‘How to kill five stones with one bird’ featuring Nicole de la Marge in Mary Quant with the Rolling Stones. From the M Shed’s archives, they pull out a cool Mary Quant style raincoat (which I would wear) and a psychedelic monochrome top (which interestingly feels more dated).

Jean-Shrimpton---Plain-Girl-campaign---Norman-Parkinson-catagloue

There is an energy and excitement in the photos and a cheeky sense of wit but also an innocence. Take Jill Kennington and Melanie Hampshire chatting to London bobbies on the beat (see a similar photo from the National Portrait Gallery) – Parkinson’s commission for Life Magazine in 1963 to promote Brit style state-side. You can imagine that these young women had just arrived in the big city intent on making their way in the world.

Another shot I love is a Daks advert in Vogue, 1961. The model is posed side-saddle on the cool mode of transport at the time, a vespa with leopard skin head scarf, tight cream skirt and tie blouse completed with ankle boots. A vintage style which could easily be given a 2012 twist.

If you have an interest in vintage fashion or social history, it’s well worth giving this exhibition a visit. An Eye for Fashion is on at the M Shed in Bristol until 15 April 2012. I’m in for the Vintage Weekend on 24 and 25 March. Hope to see you there!

Watch the private view and take sneak peek at the exhibition!

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