Those who gaze wistfully at anthologies of fashion photographs by the likes of Beaton or Horst, concluding that (sartorially, at least) we live in a postlapsarian age, are in for something of a shock when they turn to page 35 of this book. On it they will find a photograph of Norman Parkinson’s wife, Margaret Banks, taken in 1936 – when the glamorous styles of Chanel and Schiaparelli were at their apogee – depicting her in what one assumes is a “cycling outfit” comprising a pair of white plus-fours and a gigantic matching cravat, both repeat-printed with the London Underground symbol. Even the buttons on her pointy-shouldered jacket are little Tube logos. Interesting, certainly. Witty, even. But elegant? You could probably pick up a similarly Tube-themed outfit today in a Leicester Square souvenir shop.

From the start, then, it was clear that there was something quite individual about Norman Parkinson’s photography. He rejected the studio stylings of Beaton for their “effeteness” and “scent-laden atmosphere”; his models, by contrast, were supposed to represent real women – “they drove cars, went shopping, had children, kicked the dog,” and they also (on the evidence of this monograph) cycled, played with the tortoise, and ate spaghetti. This counterfeit realism is most pronounced in Parkinson’s 1938 advert for Matita. At first glance it has a certain Beatonish air, all cheekbones and chiaroscuro, with a caption reading: “My Matita house suit is so useful. I love it! writes Lady Marguerite Strickland”; but the rarefied atmosphere is dissipated when we notice that this enthusiastic aristocrat is lounging on her back, with a book on her lap, eating chocolates. What could better illustrate Parkinson’s subtle iconoclasm than his admission that yes, even the sveltest peeress occasionally gorges on fattening confectionery?

But even more than this, it was his pioneering use of location photography, in an era when even cruise-liner fashion shoots were mocked up in a studio, that really marked Parkinson out from his contemporaries. In wartime, he plumbed the patriotic Land Girl vibe by photographing haute couture in a rural setting; in the late 1940s, his models were frequenting East End alleyways, hanging around with home-knit street urchins. By the dawn of the 1960s, Parkinson had anticipated the Swinging London imagery that was later to become such a cliché, photographing trapeze-coated lovelies alongside keep-left signs, bobbies, and even red phone boxes. In all such external scenes, Parkinson played with the vérité imagery of Bill Brandt or Martin Munkacsi, appropriating it to his own ends in (ironically enough) posed fashion shoots. He created a new grammar of glamour.


First published in World of Interiors issue 269. Reproduced with permission.

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