In 1962 British Vogue sent their young star photographer David Bailey and his favourite model (and girlfriend) Jean Shrimpton to Manhattan, to shoot a fashion story. This being the start of the youthquake in culture that was to become a defining feature of the age, the story was part of a regular Vogue fashion item called Young Idea.
The cover line of the April issue in which it featured read, “Young Idea flies to New York by BOAC”, the first and only time, to my knowledge, an airline has been credited on its cover. The only explanation could be how exciting the idea of transatlantic travel still was at that time.
Bailey had only just begun to take fashion photos for the magazine, a graduation from the small, still pictures of clothes that he started with, but he had swiftly become one of Vogue’s most cherished contributors. He was demanding and talented, opinionated and imaginative, wild but with a seductive, irreverent charm that swept up many who met him. And this certainly applied to the staff of Vogue for whom the East End boy (along with his great mates Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy) represented a thrilling change from the more refined personalities of fashion photographers at that time.
Bailey wore his working-class credentials proudly, a badge of honour amid what he would often, and indeed still does, regard as the restrictions imposed by those he works for. Vogue with its then static poses and elegant ladies was the perfect place for his swagger to make its mark.
The famous “Young Idea Goes West” feature was shot mainly in black and white and, unusually, on 35mm, giving it the grainy quality of newsroom reportage that made it stand out. Instead of using a tripod, the camera was hand- held, allowing Bailey and the fashion team to dash around the city. This sense of movement was probably the most innovative element of the pictures, which contrasted with the perfect stillness of most of the fashion images of that time.
Although much fashion photography of the period took place in the controlled environs of a studio, a large number of shoots had already escaped. Hyde Park and houses in Mayfair were more often than not the backgrounds for Vogue stories but, that summer alone, the magazine featured fashion stories photographed on the streets and beaches of Spain and Portugal.
The team’s trip to America was not a new idea in itself, but what was innovative was the combination of the loose reportage feeling of the pictures and the manner in which they were mixed in with shots of everyday New Yorkers. Everyday was not something Vogue did. “Newest excitement on New York streets is, oddly, public telephone booths,” trumpets the writing that accompanies shots of Shrimpton emerging from these booths in simple box-jack- eted suits with her hair styled into the flick-up of the period.
“Jean’s gear consisted of four suitcases of clothes with young price tags… and a mini- mum of make-up,” we are told, adding that she was also accompanied by her “neurosis bear”, a teddy that features in most of the shots and adds a humour but also an innocence to them.
Of course, it was also the relationship between the lead players that brought a unique touch to the story and it was this mixture of innocence and knowingness that was one of the strengths of the Bailey/Shrimpton partnership, at least in the pages of the magazine. Bailey captured the girl behind the clothes (something he was always interested in achieving) and when he photographed Shrimpton you could see the beautiful 18-year-old rather than a cool, lofty model, the standard portrayal of most fashion models until that time. It was a love affair that captured the zeitgeist with its mixture of Home Counties beauty and rebel cockney photographer.
Such was the impact of the shoot that only two years later a young documentary-maker called Dick Fontaine made a film about the trip for the current affairs series World in Action. This forerunner of We’ll Take Manhattan entitled The Face on the Cover followed the experience of the two young stars when they travelled across the Atlantic, but also took a look at the general workings of the London fashion world with its coldly demanding model agencies and unap- proachable fashion editors.
The fact that this Vogue story was deemed interesting enough for a TV documentary shows that even by the mid- 60s, the importance of what was happening was recognised at the time. It instantly gave personalities and images iconic status and acknowledged that the changes in fashion, life- style, sexual mores and art were more meaningful than a passing fad.
Today the photographs Bailey took of Shrimpton are still some of the most referenced images by young photographers and certainly by fashion designers, who are continually inspired by their chic and youthful cool. It’s not the kitten heel, A-line skirts or swing coats that they want to emulate but the exhilaration of that moment, when everything had started to be possible and Bailey and Shrimpton appeared to have it all.
We’ll Take Manhattan is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine published 17 January