Celebrating its one hundred year anniversary this September, fashion bible British Vogue has an unlikely origin in the ashes of the First World War. The surreal and glamorous pages we have come to expect heavily contrast with the image of a ruined Europe, but due to paper shortages in the US and restrictions on overseas shipping, the British incarnation of the popular magazine was born. The first copy was published in September 1916 and cost one shilling.
One hundred years later and British Vogue is a powerhouse of the fashion industry, presenting its offerings with a distinctly British skew. A rich history is celebrated in The National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Vogue 100: A Century of Style, curated by Robin Muir and displaying a multitude of the magazines finest – and often refreshingly obscurest – moments to date. Every room showcases a different decade of illustrious images and faces, from the early days when writers such as Aldous Huxley wrote contributing articles for a rather more literature based Vogue, to the modern era where pictures of superstars One Direction and Keira Knightley grace the pages.
The exhibition follows a reverse chronological order, beginning with the latest decade and working backwards to the magazine’s conception. Although strange at first, this begins to make sense when the huge, extravagant images of modern day Vogue give way to the smaller, unfamiliar hand-drawn illustrations of the 1920s, and also gives the gallery a peculiar fluidity reminiscent of falling backwards through time. The rooms devoted to the earlier part of the century provide a real treat, containing authentic copies of a selection of early issues, some displaying the cover, others open to particular articles.
Familiar faces abound, even to those who have little interest in the fashion industry – Claudia, Linda, Cara, Naomi and Edie all make an appearance, and of course there is the obligatory Kate Moss portraits – but many of the subjects are also surprising: Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Dylan and Boris Johnson all feature, as does a steely-eyed Margaret Thatcher and the floppy haired The Beatles. There are portraits too of those who normally dwell behind the lens – influential designer Vivienne Westwood features, whilst a large portrait of Alexander McQueen offers up one of the exhibition’s most poignant moments. To simply dismiss the exhibition as being relevant only to those interested in fashion is to deny the huge cultural impact and influence that Vogue has had.
Many of the photographers whose works are featured in the exhibition forged their names working for Vogue magazine: it is hard to imagine another publication that would have embraced and encouraged the surreal worlds of Tim Walker, whose career started with archiving the works of defining photographer Cecil Beaton in the 1990s, or allowed Testino a showcase for his intimate and alluring portraits of iconic figures. In fact, the gallery is so full of photography greats – Nick Knight, Patrick Demarchelier, Cecil Beaton, Erwin Blumenfeld, Herb Ritts and Irving Penn all feature to name a few – that the exhibition is a visual delight.
There are those who would argue that Vogue is not realistic; that the beautiful glossy pictures that fill its pages are little more than an absurd and materialistic manufactured lie. In many respects this is true, but to view Vogue in a purely rational manner is missing the very essence of what the magazine is endeavouring to do. Vogue is a visual journey through the surreal and the fantastic, an opportunity to escape the mundanity of everyday life by exciting the imagination, and is so much more than just a collection of frivolous images! It presents an incarnation of history snapped through a fashion photographer’s lens, from the violent Alsace campaign at the end of the Second World War, captured by ex-model and photographer Lee Miller, to the sultry glamour of the fifties, the rebellion of the seventies, and finally to the contemporary modernity of today. For those with a keen interest in culture, it is an exhibition not be missed.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 11 February – 22 May 2016, sponsored by Leon Max.