I have to admit that I have an ambivalent attitude towards Vogue and other fashion magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Tatler, Town and Country). Sure it’s sometimes nice to look at pictures of wonderful clothes and jewels, stunning locations and even read an interesting article or two. I can also find some inspiration among its pages for how to style my clothes, visit a particular place or even read or see something as recommended by a magazine.
However, what gets my goat is the is not the amount of adverts but rather the subliminal messages that the likes of Vogue peddle – that one has to be rich, be of a certain size or age to be fashionable; the obscene price tags attached to clothes, accessories and beauty products and the pointless vacuity of the parties and events featured where everyone seems to look the same. Crucially what is galling is the celebration of mediocrity and nepotism; the glorification of certain individuals who owe their newsworthiness for who their antecedents are rather than for any real talent, ability or hard work.
So I approach Vogue more from a historical perspective and hardly buy the magazine unless there are articles or features that really interest me. One of the times where I made an exception was to buy this month’s issue which celebrates the magazine’s centenary. The interest in how the magazine has evolved and chronicled the transformation in society is what drew me to visit Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
One can see the effort put into staging the exhibition with thoughtfully curated photographs, footage and old magazine issues that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Despite the sheer number of people when I was in the exhibition, it was well organised with a good layout and what impressed me was that I was still able to navigate the space without any problems at all and I was able to view and appreciate the displays without having to stand on tiptoe or strain my neck.
Displays are arranged by decade with iconic images placed side by side with more obscure ones giving the public a taste of what it was like during the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s and down to the present through the eyes of the magazine. While the magazine does make forays into current events, society, politics, art and literature it’s always fashion that takes centre stage charting the looks that have entered the public consciousness from the flapper fashion of the Twenties to make do and mend in the Forties to the power suits of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties.
More than anything, Vogue has always been known for its photography and from its inception in 1916 has worked with the best photographers of the age as well as being credited with launching the careers of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon). It was also through photography that Vogue attempted to show that it wasn’t just about fashion and frivolity as demonstrated by the images taken by Beaton and Lee Miller during the Second World War.
As this blog focuses on British history from 1870 to 1939, most of my time in the exhibition was devoted to examining the displays from 1916 to 1929 and from 1930 to 1939. While there were portraits of famous personalities of the age such as the writer and society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, actresses Sybil Thorndike and Marlene Dietrich, theatre designer Oliver Messel and Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor); fashion photography was the main focus. During this time, the photos centred on the clothes rather than the settings and who was modelling them. The likes of Baron Adolph de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton produced ground breaking photographs that served to enhance the subject rather than overwhelm it.
The exhibition over all doesn’t really reconcile the fact that while Vogue features, celebrates and encourages creativity on one hand, on the other it celebrates this unrealistic image and lifestyle that hardly anyone can realistically attain. However, therein lies a certain irony where in the 1916 to 1929 and 1930 to 1939 galleries, Vogue manages to subvert our popular notion of flappers and extremely thin women as exemplified in the illustrations by featuring women – such as Maxine Elliott and Edith Sitwell – who do not fit our notion of the typical 1920s woman, or by showing the photograph of a “Modern torso” by Arnold Genthe where the body with its gentle womanly curves was out of step with the models wearing the latest fashions by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.
Perhaps therein lies the rub that no matter what Vogue may claim, in the end it has become nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle magazine that has held a mirror to the last 100 years albeit through a very narrow prism, and I feel that it has retreated a long way from the early years when high fashion and society gossip was combined with serious reportage and ground breaking photography.
The bloggers visited the exhibition on 21 May 2016
Photos of the exhibition catalogue, blogger’s own
Vogue 100: A Century of Style was at the National Portrait Gallery (London) from 11 February to 22 May 2016 and will be at the Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June to 30 October 2016 http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/vogue100/
For a review of the exhibition from a different perspective: https://haggartymuseumgeek.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/fashion-art-or-vanity/