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Pirelli Calendar 1985: Norman Parkinson puts on a show for Pirelli

Fashion was the theme for the 1985 Pirelli Calendar and the celebrated photographer Norman Parkinson took us behind the scenes at a catwalk show with his series of glamorous shots

Home life Pirelli Calendar 1985: Norman Parkinson puts on a show for Pirelli
Pirelli Calendar 1985: Norman Parkinson puts on a show for Pirelli

When the one-time doyen of British fashion photography, Norman Parkinson, took on the Pirelli Calendar, he was in his seventies and had been working for more than 50 years. A legend of photography was required to take charge of that year’s edition, which would fully mark the Calendar’s comeback after a nine-year hiatus.

The Cal had been suspended in 1975 for reasons of austerity and only reappeared in 1984 with a new edition shot in the Bahamas by German photographer Uwe Ommer. But it was the follow-up in 1985 that Pirelli used to celebrate the relaunch of its globally renowned Calendars, harnessing the publicity generated by the involvement of several leading models and fashion designers.

The 1985 Pirelli Calendar was shot by British photographer Norman Parkinson in a hotel in Edinburgh and made to look like backstage at a fashion show. Model Iman (shown here in February) was one of Parkinson’s favourites and once likened him to Fred Astaire for his charm, talent and lightness of touch.


Backstage feel

Parkinson brought gravitas and theatricality to a Calendar that was as much an event as a publication – all on the theme of fashion. As a novelty, Pirelli’s art director, Martyn Walsh, suggested incorporating a fashion show with clothes featuring the P6 tyre tread as a decorative motif. Fourteen British designers were invited to create bespoke garments and accessories to be auctioned for charity at the launch. Among the custom designs were silk dresses by Zandra Rhodes and Gina Fratini; a fur cape of white mink, black-dyed musquash and blue fox by Maxwell Croft; tyre-track design jewellery by Butler & Wilson; high-heeled shoes by Manolo Blahnik; nylon stockings by Wolford; and a black straw and silver lamé cartwheel hat by John Boyd, with a tyre-track pattern around the rim. Other designers who took part included Bruce Oldfield, Jasper Conran, Caroline Charles and Yuki.

The 1985 Pirelli Calendar shot by British photographer Norman Parkinson was themed “fashion”. The models, including Lena (shown here in March), wore custom-made garments designed by British designers with tyre-track motifs, including this silk organza evening dress by Gina Fratini.


Parkinson shot the Calendar in a hotel in Edinburgh. The models Iman, Anna Andersen, Cecilia, Lena and Sherry were pictured against Corinthian columns, larking about in front of mirrors and in doorways, having their hair and make-up done, as if backstage at a fashion show. The pictures were bright, bold and very Eighties. The front and back covers featuring Iman and Anna Andersen were framed to look like magazine covers, with ‘PIRELLI’ emblazoned across the top in place of a masthead.

The launch party was attended by Parkinson and his model wife Wenda as well as numerous celebrities. Among those who successfully bid for outfits at the charity auction were Julie Anne Rhodes (wife of Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes), Claire Stansfield (Simon Le Bon’s then fiancée), costume designer Jackie Crier, Lady Rothermere, Paul Arden (then creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi) and Italian entrepreneur Sandro Veronesi. All of them later donated the works to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Anna Andersen was among the models shot by British photographer Norman Parkinson for the 1985 Pirelli Calendar. Her tyre-track design angora sweater was custom made by British knitwear designer Patricia Roberts. In a charity auction as part of the Calendar’s launch, it was sold to American actress and photographer Koo Stark and is now in the V&A’s permanent collection.


Royal connections

Born in London in 1913, Parkinson began his career aged 18 as an apprentice to court photographers Speaight and Sons. The firm was located on New Bond Street and had taken the first official photographs of the future Queen Elizabeth II. A few years later, Parkinson opened his own studios off London’s Piccadilly and began shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and The Bystander magazines. After the war, he was employed by Vogue, where he worked as a portrait and fashion photographer for 15 years, before moving to Tobago and taking a step back from photography. He raised pigs and even launched his own sausage company. But he was soon back behind the camera, shooting for Queen and Town & Country magazines, and publishing a number of books. His was a prolific career by any standard.

Although he captured some of the biggest names of his day, including Audrey Hepburn and members of the British Royal Family (he was official photographer for the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969 and the wedding of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973), Parkinson was an outsize figure in his own right. Quite literally – he was 6 ft 5in tall. His real name was Ronald William Parkinson Smith. But he took his working name from a business partnership he formed with Norman Kibblewhite, with whom he set up The Norman Parkinson Studios. When the two men parted ways, Parkinson held on to the nomenclature. As he later put it: “I didn’t see how anyone could make a business out of being a high-flying photographer with the name Smith.” Presumably “Ronald” filled him with similar ambivalence.

The tyre-track headscarf and velvet-lined coat worn by model Anna Andersen in the 1985 Pirelli Calendar, shot by photographer Norman Parkinson, were designed by Jasper Conran and auctioned for charity at the Calendar’s launch. The successful bidders were Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and his then model/actress fiancée Claire Stansfield.


Gentleman photographer

For much of his career, he was known simply as “Parks”. “An old-style gentleman photographer” is how his frequent collaborator Texan model Jerry Hall once described him. As a 1984 New Yorker profile stated, he sported a “big snow-white last-days-of-Empire mustache” and bore all the trappings of a retired British colonel. (Vogue’s managing director Harry Yoxall once likened him to an officer of the Bengal Lancers.) Emblematic of his eccentric personal style, he also wore a Kashmiri wedding cap when he worked and appeared to have an unending supply, a new one perched on top of the old until it had “picked up the energy”.

These outward affectations served a purpose. They helped him to charm and disarm his subjects. He was certainly adept at persuading models to take risks, although he always put his requests with the utmost politeness. “He’d ask if you didn’t ‘mind doing this, please’, and it was ‘thank you so much’ afterwards,” Hall related in a BBC interview in 2013. “But he wanted the picture.”

The 1985 Pirelli Calendar was shot by British photographer Norman Parkinson and featured a collection of custom-made garments with tyre-track designs, including this one-shouldered silk dress by Zandra Rhodes (worn by model Lena in September).


“A fifty-year love of, and respect for, women”

Parkinson was also good at adapting to the times. Over the years, he was an exponent of en plein air naturalism, exotic location work, ‘New Look’ fashion photography and society portraiture. His work was loose, witty and full of movement. He started off using black and white film and later excelled at colour.

In the same year as his Pirelli Calendar, Parkinson published his third book, Would You Let Your Daughter? It proved to be his last as he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990 at the age of 76. Billed as a “unique blend of art, sexuality and drama”, the book showcased what he called his “fifty-year love of, and respect for, women”. 

Model Iman featured on the cover and inside the 1985 Pirelli Calendar shot by British photographer Norman Parkinson. For November, she appeared in a Maxwell Croft fur cape with a bold tyre-track design. The piece was auctioned for charity at the Calendar launch and is now part of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection.


Fittingly, it included a number of shots from the Pirelli Cal. As he once said: “I respect women enormously, and there’s a razor’s edge to tread where you can take pictures of girls with a minimum of clothes on and they maintain their elegance, their beauty and their style.”

Elegance, beauty and style could have been watchwords for the 1985 Calendar. Together, Pirelli and Parkinson put on quite a show.

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