Known far and wide as the ultimate style bible, Vogue needs no introduction. A celebration of iconic models, cutting-edge photography and the latest styles, its glossy pages bring the world of high fashion to life. As 2016 marks the magazine’s 100th year anniversary, a commemorative exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery takes us on a journey through the century of its publication – and beyond illustrations of changing handbags and shades of lipstick, reminds us of the greater cultural richness at the heart of Vogue’s status.
The British edition of Vogue magazine first came into being in 1916 when imports of the American magazine were halted because of WWI. Presenting itself as the leading light of the fashion sphere, the opening line of the inaugural issue read as follows: “‘The time has come,’ designers say, ‘to talk of many things, – of shoes and furs and lingerie, and if one flares or clings, and where the waist-line ought to be, and whether hats have wings.’ They have confided in Vogue all the most intimate things about autumn fashions. Really and truly, such amazing things are going to happen to you that you never would believe them, unless you saw them in Vogue.”
A hundred years later and all aims have been exceeded. The exhibition emphasises the power and influence with which Vogue has grown and shaped its field, and taken on a life of its own. Tastefully curated to perfection, the images on display remind us of Vogue’s unique ability to evoke and lure us into this high fashion utopia. We wander from the Art Deco covers of the 1920s to the illustrated models of wartime Britain; from the soft Hollywood glamour of the 1950s to the striking portraits of Scarlett Johansson, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, whose career sprang from the ‘heroin chic’ images in the mid-1990s.
We’re also shown how the magazine transformed fashion photography into an art form in its own right. The exhibition features some of the most defining photographic images of the 20th century: Erwin Blumenfeld’s famous ‘doe eye’ of January 1950, Irving Penn’s black and white Jean Patchett in June 1950, and Cecil Beaton’s ‘The Second Age of Beauty is Glamour’ in February 1946. Their images roar with experimental and creative confidence, and their creative legacy continues to be felt in the sophisticated grandeur of Vogue’s aesthetic.
And yet the magazine has achieved so much more than to ‘talk’ of the latest fads within ‘shoes and fur and lingerie’. The exhibition is cleverly organised as a timeline starting in the 2010s and ending in the 1910s, with each room themed as a different decade. The resultant effect is what Dr Nicholas Cullinan describes as ‘a panoramic image of the latest century’: a historical journey that takes us through the political, social and cultural currents of Britain that have themselves shaped both the country and magazine as we know them today.
Indeed, out of a catalogue of supermodels, clothing and photography, he exhibition creates a brilliantly visual narrative of 20th century Britain. On display, there’s Edward Steichen’s July 1932 cover of a swimmer holding a beach ball, the magazine’s first ever use of a colour image. There’s David Bailey’s March 1966 image of supermodel Donyale Lulu, the first ever cover of Vogue to feature a black person. There are also the famous covers of Princess Diana, Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, reflecting the magazine’s recurring influence by (and on) politics.
Speaking at the exhibition launch event last year, Vogue’s current editor Alexandra Shulman said: ‘As well as the fashion bible it has now become, it is a cultural record of the times.’ This is exactly where the exhibition succeeds on a deeper level, as an intelligent and vivid historical archive. It’s an illustration of the intrinsic, genuine relationship between fashion and the ever-changing aspects of society that it moulds itself around; a depiction of that often intangible interrelatedness of different cultural spheres, rendered with real style and substance.
You don’t have to be a die-hard fashionista to appreciate this exhibition. Nevertheless, its display of works pay excellent testament to the magazine’s mounting tradition of artistic, stylistic and creative vision. One of its leading photographers Norman Parkinson commented after the Great Depression, ‘People want style, they need romance; they need beautiful women in beautiful provocative surroundings.’ A century on, and this is the magic that Vogue continues to bring.