Vogue 100: A Century of Style

Last year, the fantastic National Portrait Gallery played host to a marvellous exhibition, celebrating the last century of British Vogue. 


A beautiful photo taken on the eve of war, the final picture taken by the German photographer Horst before he fled from Paris to America. Featuring a  model in an loosely laced corset, the entire composition of the image leads the viewer to be drawn into the curves of the models figure, a stark contrast to the angular and rigid fashions of the era. The serenity of the image was a clear contradiction to the impending catastrophe. Horst himself sensed the importance of the photograph, “It was the last photograph I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4:00 a.m., went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7.00 a.m. train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. We all felt that war was coming. Too much armament, too much talk. And you knew that whatever happened, life would be completely different after. I had found a family in Paris, and a way of life. The clothes, the books, the apartment, everything left behind. I had left Germany, Heune had left Russia, and now we experienced the same kind of loss all over again. This photograph is peculiar – for me, it is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”

WENDA PARKINSON by Norman Parkinson 1951

British photographer Norman Parkinson began his career in 1931 as an apprentice to the court photographers, Speaight and Sons Ltd. In 1934 he opened his own studio, and later worked for both Harper’s Bazaar and Bystander until 1940, lending his skills to the war effort by serving as a reconnaissance photographer over France for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Parkinson first met his third wife, the actress and model Wenda Rogerson in 1947. She became one of his most important muses particularly in Parkinson’s revolution of fashion photography, taking the models away from the rigid studio environment and into dynamic outdoor settings. Of this photo Parkinson said; ‘Casual town quality: Like many of her fellow countrywomen, she carries an elegant version of the ‘tweed’ look to town; has her own national chic of easy tailored suit and simple hat. She keeps her country habit of walking: here, near Rotten Row, at Hyde Park Corner. Hardy Amies grey and white flecked Cumberland homespun suit. Black Persian lamb box coat: NAtional Fur Co. Wide-brimmed black felt pull-on hat: Scotts classic. Black kid gloves: Harrods. Black silk umbrella; Swaine, Adeney, Brigg.’ Wenda Parkinson photographed for British Vogue, February 1951, page 53. Wenda was Parkinson’s wife – an actress and model, they met in 1947 after she was introduced to Parkinson by Cecil Beaton who had seen her onstage. Parkinson photographed Wenda for Vogue on countless occasions – she was his most enduring muse and features in many of his most iconic images. In his 1983 memoir, ‘Lifework’, Parkinson wrote: ‘[Wenda] ….offered to my camera a quiet beauty that does not look so out of date today….it is frozen, it is permanent and it does not age.’

ANNE GUNNING by Norman Parkinson 1956

As previously mentioned Parkinson revolutionised the way fashion photographs were shot, taking the models away from the studio and into dynamic outdoor settings. Anne Gunning was an Irish fashion model who became a house model of Sybil Connolly. Photographed by the likes of  Norman Parkinson, John French and Mark Shaw, she was famously featured on the cover of Life magazine wearing Connolly’s red Kinsale cape and white crochet evening dress, under the headline “Irish invade fashion world”. A recent Jaeger article wrote of the image: “Let us set the scene. It’s 1956 and Norman Parkinson – the fashion photographer of the moment – is shooting model Anne Gunning in front of the magnificent City Palace in Jaipur. She is a statuesque brunette with more than just a likeness of Audrey Hepburn, and wears a sumptuous pink Jaeger mohair coat – accessorised only with sparkling jewels and a sheer headscarf. Even with such an incredible backdrop and well-dressed co-stars, it is that pink coat that steals the show. Diana Vreeland, the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar, said of the image: ‘How clever of you, Mr Parkinson, to know that pink is the navy blue of India’. How clever indeed.”


Vogue 100: A Century of Style was an overall fantastic exhibition, which I was extremely fortunate to have been able to see. It beautifully encapsulated the changes in fashion as well as the clear role Vogue played, popularising new styles and silhouettes, and starting the careers of some of fashions most influential individuals. Anyone else who was fortunate enough to have seen this remarkable exhibit, will surely agree it was a joy to behold, brilliantly highlighting the progression of fashion throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.


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