Norman Parkinson’s India photoshoot for Vogue

A model reclines on a boat in the middle of a lotus-speckled lake in Kashmir; another strides confidently across the pillars of the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque (Qutub Minar complex, Delhi) as a snake charmer plays his pungi. The year is 1956 and British readers of the Vogue Magazine were (once again) spellbound by these dreamy images that captured the elegance and glamour of Indian heritage.

‘Floating with Flowers’, Dal Lake, Kashmir, 1956

In the years after World War II, the global focus shifted to the newly independent colonies. This was a time characterised by political, cultural and economic changes. India, a new republic in the making, was in the limelight during these years when Vogue UK commissioned ace photographer Norman Parkinson a photo-shoot in the country. And so, he travelled from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir, photographing the models Anne Gunning and Barbara Mullen. The theme : Winter Sunshine Wardrobe.

Anne Gunning wearing Atrima while boating at the Dal Lake. The foreground shows the vastness of the lake. The background shows the Mughal-era bridge "Oont Kadal" (Camelback shape)
The Dal Lake in Kashmir

These are undoubtedly some of the most enduring fashion portraits created by Norman Parkinson— blending the rich Indian architecture with high fashion.

The fashion model Barbara Mullen poses in front of the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, India. She is wearing a white organza, silver embroidered dress with a moonstone-blue organza coat by Horrockses with jewellery from Paris House.
The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram / Norman Parkinson / British Vogue 1956

Parkinson set up a Chanel in contrast to the Mahabalipuram shore temple, a cotton muslin dress by Atrima found the perfect companion in Kashmir, a Jaeger in front of the City Palace in Jaipur, and Christian Dior on Chamundi Hill above Mysore & at the Quwwat-Ul-Islam Mosque !

The fashion model Barbara Mullen poses among the carved pillars of the Quwwat- Ul-Islam Mosque in Delhi at dusk. Mullen wears a gold lamé organza ball gown by Christian Dior as well as Dior jewellery
The Quwwat- Ul-Islam Mosque / Norman Parkinson / British Vogue 1956
The fashion model Barbara Mullen on a Shikara boat on the Dal Lake, in Kashmir (India) wearing a grosgrain dress with a scarlet skirt and strapless bodice in white by Frederick Starke .
Dal Lake, Kashmir / Norman Parkinson / British Vogue, November 1956.

The 1950s were not only about spending on luxurious brands but it this was also a time when the idea of fashion and being comfortable was established. In the west, resources were now available and consumerism became part of people’s lifestyle.

Barbara Mullen wearing Digby Morton and Daks in a rice field
at a Rice Field

Norman Parkinson’s compositions were not of his time. Away from the typical studio setup, he conjured images that sought to convey a story. India therefore was perfect – it offered a stunning narrative, a mood, an ambience, and vibrant colours.

Fashion model Anne Gunning wearing a pink mohair coat by Jaeger, poses in front of a decorated elephant outside the City Palace in Jaipur.
The City Palace in Jaipur

At a time when flight travel was still expensive, these sublime pictures offered a glimpse into a world that people couldn’t access.

Wenda Parkinson at the Dal Lake, Kashmir / Unpublished

Here are some black and white photos from the shoot :

Today these images may seem stereotypical – but in the 1950s, India had not been portrayed in a dreamy avatar. The exotic tag was intact but Parkinson was careful to show luxury as a compeer of the Indian aesthetic.

Photos: Norman Parkinson Archive by Iconic Images

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