David Bailey & Jean Shrimpton: Breaking the Class Ceiling

This iconic swinging London couple embodied the ’60s shift of British culture from the upper class to the masses.
Photographer David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton, 1963. Photo by Terry O'Neill.

Aside from the advent of the birth-control pill, unleashing a wave of sexual permissiveness, perhaps the greatest change to occur in Britain during the 1960s was the posh, aristocratic establishment losing its place at the cultural vanguard — surrendering the zeitgeist to the aitch-droppin’ everyman.

Suddenly, after centuries of dominance, the toffs were no longer on top. ‘Sarf’ London lads Michael Caine and Terence Stamp succeeded the tony David Niven and Laurence Olivier to become the biggest movie stars of the day. London swung to the sounds of suburban Liverpudlians The Beatles, and middle-class Kent boys, Mick and Keef. Their Dartford neighbour Peter Blake and the son of “radical working-class” parents, David Hockney, ruled the art world. Meanwhile, arguably the most important British political figure of the decade turned out to be a proletarian topless showgirl, Christine Keeler, whose scandalous affairs brought down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government and ushered the party of the working class, Labour, into power.

The times they were a-changin’.

Replacing the upper-class likes of Hampstead-bred Cecil Beaton came a fresh crop of cocky cockney photographers, documenting London’s newly egalitarian society. The leading names were a trio dubbed “the Black Trinity” by usurped society photographer Norman Parkinson: Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan, and David Bailey.

Bailey’s father was an East End tailor and nightclub operator, who’d been given a nasty scar (the mouth-to-ear wound requiring 68 stitches) by the infamous Kray brothers. The young, dyslexic Bailey quit school at 15, utterly illiterate, and only learnt to read when he enrolled for national service with the Royal Air Force in 1956. It was during his time with the RAF, including a stint stationed in Singapore, that Bailey first took up the camera. After demobbing in 1958, Bailey won apprenticeships with prominent photographers David Ollins and John French. By the end of 1960, the handsome young scamp had finessed his way into a job with British Vogue.

A number of his earliest editorials for the magazine featured a young model Bailey had spotted when she was shooting a cereal advertisement with Brian Duffy. The powers that be at Vogue (whose to-the-manor-born fashion editor, Lady Clare Rendlesham, favoured aristocratic models doing sophisticated things in elegant settings) resisted Bailey’s casting of fresh-faced farmer’s daughter Jean Shrimpton, but the photographer insisted — and prevailed. Bailey and Shrimpton’s gritty, witty collaborations reshaped Vogue’s aesthetic and made them both stars. “I think we created each other,” Bailey told an interviewer several years ago. “You can’t create a portrait by yourself. I always tell people it’s them taking the photograph, not me. For me it’s always about the people.” Of Shrimpton, Bailey remarked, “She was magic. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world — you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and you had it.” (In fact, during her peak, Shrimpton would become the highest-paid model on Earth.)


August 2017


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