It’s that time of the year again and the bi-annual fashion circus is trundling through New York, Paris, London and Milan. So when better for the BBC, with it’s finger as ever on the style pulse, to recently screen the docudrama We’ll Take Manhattan (2012), which it simultaneously released on DVD. Starring Karen Gillan (of Dr Who fame) and Aneurin (Hunky Dory (2011)) Barnard, this fictional account of the affair between uber cool photographer David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton (the girl who it could be fairly said founded the cult of the supermodel decades before Linda, Cindy and Naomi), is as frothy, fun and shallow as the world it depicts.
The film follows the fateful week in 1962 when Lady Clare Rendlesham (Helen McCrory) the feared Fashion Editor of British Vogue, was forced to take a cocky young photographer called David Bailey (Barnard) and unknown model Jean Shrimpton (Gillan) to New York on a crucial assignment to shoot the new season’s collections. The resulting photographs, though not meeting the high expectations of hyper-conservative Rendlesham, went down in fashion history as groundbreaking, heralding in what became known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
As Miranda Priestly admonishes Andy Sachs at the end of The Devil Wears Prada (2006), there’s a part of everyone, whether they admit it or not, which would love to live within the ivory towers of high fashion. However where most people can now, to some extent, buy into this world through designer accessories and fragrances or reinterpreting for themselves what they see in magazines, in the early 1960’s it was still a dreamworld for the super-rich or landed gentry, far beyond the reach of the average working girl. The rarefied corridors of Vogue House in London’s Hanover Square (British headquarters of the glossy publishing empire Conde Nast) were peopled, as they still to an extent are, by the the daughters of the aristocracy, whilst models were often debutants and photographers like Cecil Beaton didn’t really need to work for the money.
Then, as depicted in We’ll Take Manhattan, Bailey and Shrimpton who (because they had nothing to loose) weren’t afraid to break the rules, shattered the walls that separated couture from the outside world, depicting in the iconic photographs on which they collaborated, a sense of fun and enjoyment in fashion which had been hitherto unheard of. Fashion’s ‘Queen Bees’ may not have liked what happened, but without Bailey and Shrimpton leading the way, it is safe to say that the freedom and expression which clothing gives the masses would be unlikely to exist to the extent it does today.
That said air of liberation is at the heart of this pacy outing written and directed by John McKay, who perfectly captures the essence of the decade and Bailey and Shrimpton’s exuberance as they symbolically stuck two fingers up at the establishment through their edgy and streetwise interpretation of contemporary trends.
Barnard and Gillan are wonderful as the photographer and his muse who seemingly approached the week long trip as an all expenses paid tour of the ‘Big Apple’ with a bit of work on the side, whilst your heart goes out to McCrory as Lady Rendlesham who appears to have been her own worst enemy, a product of a dying era terrified by what she saw as a younger, tasteless generation. The other fashion icons of the period, American Vogue’s legendary editrix Diana Vreeland brought to life by Frances Barber, and the grandmother of British modelling Lucy Calyton portrayed by Anna Chancellor, complete a vivid picture of an industry which was on the cusp of a vibrant new world often viewed with trepidation by the old guard arbiters of taste.
We may not all be able to work at Vogue, but this ninety minutes of glossy style set to the pulsating beat of 60’s Manhattan is the next best thing.