Mouvements de Femmes by Norman Parkinson, Curated by Roland Mouret
13 April to 12 May 2013, The Octogan at Milsom Place, Bath
“Concern for fashion and a lasting quality are the principles exemplified in Bath’s living spirit.”
From “A Spring Hat and the City of Bath’ feature, Vogue, February 1948
This special exhibition has been created for Bath in Fashion 2013 in collaboration with the Norman Parkinson Archive and Roland Mouret with support from Milsom Place and bo.lee projects.
Norman Parkinson commented in an interview in 1987 that the element of his work that had marked him out from his contemporaries was his willingness to depict women as he knew them – active, busy, employed, independent.
Parkinson observed that when he embarked on his career in the mid-1930s “most photographers showed women standing in scintillating salons with their knees bolted... I never knew any girls with bolted knees. I only knew girls that jumped and ran. So I just started to photograph these girls. Everyone said “how bold!” The movement referred to in the title of this exhibition is both literal and conceptual. Parkinson’s photographs, which he described as taking “a big bite out of the 20th century”, provide both a record of the evolution of fashion but also the shifting role of women over seven decades.
It is this same element of freedom, so obvious to Parkinson yet so groundbreaking when he started out as a photographer, that has resonated with guest curator Roland Mouret more than seventy years on. Mouret, a great admirer of Parkinson’s photographs, has identified this as the theme of this unique exhibition. “Norman Parkinson liberated women and allowed them to move” explains Mouret. He met Parkinson as a young designer in 1981, and recalls how he was a “little eccentric... very, very entertaining... and a perfect English gentleman”. Citing him as an inspiration at the outset of his design career, Mouret describes how he views “Parkinson [as] amongst the first to care about who women really are and not how they should appear”.
The significance of movement to Mouret is clearly evident in his own approach to design. The movement of the wearer and the fluidity of fabric are crucial. His garments are created by draping fabric on the body rather than drawing sketches. There is an affinity with Parkinson who stated in his autobiography that “if ever I took memorable pictures it would have been because I insisted on seeing the clothes live – walked in, whirled and twirled in”. For both men, fashion is something to be embodied.
The photographs, all chosen by Roland Mouret exclusively from the Archive, are a broad selection of the familiar and the unknown. Mouret describes how the collection was chosen “not so much because [they are] fashionable, instead more for how the women moved within them. Norman would approach his models with such a sense of humour that they reacted and would not remain static in front of his lens.”
The collection spans the breadth of Parkinson’s long career. Classic Parkinson images – his wife Wenda, photographed under the wing of a plane on a Nairobi airstrip in ‘The Art of Travel’, his neighbours in New York, Pippa Diggle and Robin Miller, running joyfully towards his camera with the Manhattan skyline silhouetted behind them – sit comfortably next to images rarely seen since they were first published. His portraits of Mrs Cass Canfield and Della Oake for Vogue, both taken more than sixty years ago, are breathtaking in their modernity. Alongside these are the wonderful shots of the city of Bath itself, exhibited here for the first time.
Bath served as a spectacular backdrop for several of Parkinson’s shoots, particularly early on in his career. He came here in the late 1930s to photograph for Harper’s Bazaar. He returned in December 1947, this time commissioned by Vogue to shoot their lead hats feature for the February 1948 issue; A‘Spring Hat and the City of Bath’. Accompanied by two of his favourite models of the time, Ann Chambers and Peggy Moffat, Parkinson used the graceful curves and elegant proportions of Bath’s architecture as a breathtaking backdrop to his images.
Parkinson returned to Bath again near the end of his life and it is particularly apt that this special, centenary exhibition is held in the splendid surroundings of The Octagon at Milsom Place. In 1988 Norman Parkinson’s 75th birthday was celebrated here with a retrospective exhibition and a birthday lecture delivered by the man himself (after jetting in from his home in Tobago). The brochure which accompanied the exhibition singled out Parkinson’s “ability to maintain a remarkable freshness of approach which is as evident today as it was in his early shots of fifty years ago”. It is testament to Park’s skill that twenty five years later this statement still rings true.
Coincidentally, this same sentiment (though in a different context) is echoed in the text accompanying the original 1948 feature in Vogue. The writer observed how “the Palladian bridge at Prior Park” shares with the shining elegance of the great chandelier in Bath’s Guildhall a rare quality: they were at the height of fashion when they were created by a master craftsman, yet so excellent was their workmanship that their style is beyond time’s effects”. This too could be applied to the work of Norman Parkinson, who always regarded himself as a craftsman rather than artist. His images – concerned with documenting the latest fashion, the new trend, the cutting edge – have gained a timeless elegance which transcends both fashion and the age in which they were produced.
About Roland Mouret
For over a decade Roland Mouret has created the most coveted of women’s wear collections. The designer has defined the era of the iconic dress which have become known by a single name – Galaxy, Titanium, Moon – and have earned Mouret a reputation as magician, master of structure and silhouette and as a man with an intuitive understanding of the female form.
Mouret was born in Lourdes, France. His mother worked in a hotel as a waitress and his father was a butcher. He first learned about fabric while working in his father’s shop, watching the folding of the butcher’s apron and learning to fold it to reveal a clean aspect, seeing the pattern of the blood on the white linen. A confidence, a directness and boldness, informed his aesthetic and his approach defined by these early memories. Mouret’s work is informed by the diverse experiences of his own life, “I consider my years in Paris, modelling, styling, being part of the social scene all a key part of my make-up. As are the years I have spent in London, opening a café gallery, video directing, and ultimately building my first store under my own name.
My fashion history is well documented. Building success and then losing my name, starting over, building a new unique partnership, getting back my name – it is all part of an inspiring and evolving journey. You have to learn so much and go so far to understand that the support of the team around you is indispensable and that happiness and simplicity is everything.
Then you take this on to the next stage, which in my case is keeping that fine balance between the personal connection and creating a brand. Both are intrinsically linked for me. That is the paradox.”