Monday 19 March 2018

A century en Vogue as the iconic fashion magazine turns 100

From war-time reporting to It-girls and supermodels, history is embedded in the pages of the British fashion bible, celebrating 100 years in 2016

The Second Age of Beauty by Cecil Beaton from 1946.
The Second Age of Beauty by Cecil Beaton from 1946.
Charlie Chaplin by Edward Steichen
Claudia Schiffer photoraphed in Paris by Herb Ritts in 1989.
Cover girl: Kate Moss photographed by Mario Testino in 2008.
British Vogue cover April 2016
Vogue 1916
Vogue 1926
Vogue 1966
Vogue 1986
Vogue 2006
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

'When I die," photographer Cecil Beaton once said, "I want to go to Vogue." I don't want to appear dismissive, but I can't really imagine anyone saying the same about Marie Claire or Hello! can you?

This year, we've been so frantically recalling the Proclamation and Patrick Pearse that we almost forgot to acknowledge another significant centenary celebration; British Vogue turning the big 100.

That's right; 100 years of couture seasons, catwalk shows, IT Girls, high heels, low dives, Kate Moss's nipples, blitzes, bombshells, knickers, and knife pleats.

To mark the momentous occasion, Vogue has launched a new exhibition: 'Vogue 100: A Century of Style' at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which is packed with almost 200 of the most evocative pictures from the Vogue archives. The exhibition is expected to attract the same crowds who flocked to the city for last summer's Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition - huge numbers of Irish fashion lovers among them.

The new exhibition has been carefully pieced together over the course of six years by former Picture Editor Robin Muir, who says British Vogue was born out of a mixture of economic necessity and opportunism.

The US edition, established in 1892, had been introduced to the UK in 1912. It was popular with American ex-pats and sold well. However, by 1916, The Great War was proving to be an awful nuisance for the imported magazine trade.

Paper shortages resulted in print numbers being reduced and shipping 'non-essentials' to England was severely restricted. Unfortunately a luxe fashion mag was not deemed a war time must-have.

"Condé Nast wasn't going to let something like a World War get in the way of Vogue," Muir says. And so, on September 15 1916 British Vogue hit shop shelves.

Eager to impress the upper echelons of English society, its pages were filled with pictures of Lords and Ladies. Mrs John Lavery, the wife of the Irish portrait painter and future rumoured lover of our own Michael Collins (later immortalised on Irish banknotes) featured in the first edition. So, British Vogue had something of an Irish flavour right from the get-go.

In the early days, there was some tension between the UK and US offices. The Manhattan branch dubbed British Vogue 'Brogue', and was none too pleased with the publication snaffling valuable UK advertising from under its nose.

It wasn't long, however, before the two publications reached a truce and worked their own side of the street.

The first editor of British Vogue was Dorothy Todd. A lesbian and an intellectual, Todd was an unusual choice of editor - given that she had no real interest in fashion.

Instead, she believed Vogue should have a literary bent. While Todd's vision was admirable - she featured articles by the Bloomsbury set, Noel Coward and Virginia Woolfe - Vogue failed to come into its own under her leadership. It was, rather bizarrely, the onslaught of World War Two that saw the magazine flourish.

"The War was the making of British Vogue," Muir says. "Many think fashion died during the war because Paris couture petered out, but British Vogue was given extra paper, even under rationing, to help boost morale on the home front."

Between 1939-49, Vogue proved it was more than a fashion magazine - it reflected and documented the events of the day. This was helped in no small part by model-turned-journalist Lee Miller who acted as Vogue's wartime reporter. Miller's photographs are among those on display at the new exhibition.

Vogue's place and positioning within British society was solidified thanks to a succession of strong and dynamic editors. Audrey Withers (1940-1960) and Ailsa Garland (1960-1964) were followed by Beatrix Miller. Known for her exacting standards, Miller remained at the magazine from 1964-85 and was idolised by her entourage of writers, or "Voguettes".

Miller fully grasped the importance of the sexual revolution taking place in the 1960s, and ensured that people "on the scene", rather than those in high society circles, landed in its pages. She was responsible for hiring the Cockney trio of photographers - Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan - and pushing new It-girls such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.

Miller retired in the 1980s, and was succeeded by Anna 'Nuclear' Wintour who remained in her corner office for two years until Manhattan came a-calling. Liz Tilberis, who persuaded Princess Diana to appear on the cover, was followed by the magazine's current and longest standing editor, Alexandra Shulman - who is celebrating her 24th year in the role.

Robin Muir has skilfully managed to convey the sense of history embedded in Vogue's pages in 'A Century of Style'. Irish model Anne Gunning poses in a pink mohair coat outside the City Palace in Jaipur; Fred Astaire dances frantically; Claudia Schiffer straddles a motorbike; while Morecambe and Wise jostle and joke.

Muir has also caught the progressive nature of the magazine. It's worth remembering that British Vogue was the first mainstream magazine to feature a black cover model, Donyale Luna, in 1966. Vogue has and continues to remain culturally relevant; the editors seem adroit at spotting talent who embody the cultural zeitgeist - they featured a gap-toothed and topless Kate Moss in 1992, named Alexa Chung as London's It-girl, and have promoted and have pushed Irish designers including JW Anderson, Simone Rocha and Danielle Romeril.

"Hopefully, the exhibition will alter pre-conceived notions of what Vogue is," Muir says. "We don't stand around for hours on end discussing the colour mauve - there's a lot more to it."

It can be easy to dismiss the magazine as "fluffy" with lots of air kissing and champagne swilling, but that does Vogue a disservice. British Vogue is not only an institution, it's a trooper. This was a magazine that sprung out of conflict - sandwiched between two wars. And perhaps that explains its success. It's unafraid of the good fight; to wrestle for relevancy, readership and currency - while maintaining an effortlessly chic façade.

'Vogue 100: A Century of Style', sponsored by Leon Max, is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 22

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