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A Century of Vogue in Review

Kay Lee, LLB Law

On a sunny day in February, I entered a room laying out the timeline of Vogue and its defining issues from every era since its creation. Each period had its own section, demonstrating the shift in creative journalism, photography and overall vision.

Art has always been a form of escapism in times of terror. During the war in the 1940s, Vogue trudged on doggedly, with Lee Miller as its official wartime correspondent. As Hitler did his work, so did Vogue, covering the likes of the Blitz and the rise of Hitler alongside wartime picture stories by Cecil Beaton on London bombsites with the caption, “Fashion is indestructible.” What struck me most was the distinct “Vogueness” of it all—to be edgy and controversial, but to recreate the meaning and significance of the time period. Today it would almost be blasé to have a well dressed woman posing in the middle of a demolished road, but at the time the need to look past the horror and the tenacious desire for survival was understood and accepted as a symbol.

In June 2011, the Road to Revolution by Rana Kabbini detailed the writer’s feelings of being an Arab in a time of regional change, and Paolo Roversi sought to abate the pains of the Japanese tsunami with his shoot Neo Geisha. In 2012 a controversial Boris Johnson posed in an Olympic Park construction site. By then, Patrick Demarchelier had already documented the Princess of Wales in December 1990 and the Iron Lady had been photographed and profiled in the same decade as Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford.

Vogue had made legends out of David Bailey and Grace Coddington, and Kate Moss had solidified her status as the eternal London It Girl. The artistic direction also changes with the times. I noticed the covers used to be handpainted and drawn, but from the 1970s the photographic covers that we know today started to take over. I found the cover illustrations to be illuminating, detailed and intricate, something which isn’t as obvious in the photographic covers which are more sanitised and generic, especially within the last few years. It’s a loss that present day magazines of such calibre can sometimes resemble a slightly more expensive tabloid, and the showcase made me appreciate the artistic direction when the camera was still a luxury.

The exhibition is not just a showcase of what the Condé Nast archives have to offer, but a jarring realisation as to why we even bother to put up with this frivolity in the first place. It is a glimpse into the trials and culture of our contemporaries whilst recognising that in times of despair, in the words of Norman Parkinson—“people want style. They need romance.”

From teaching its readers the social graces of the 1930s to jumpstarting the careers of fashionable modern designers and pushing its patchwork quilt of long-form journalism on pressing issues, the show is more than just about fashion. It is about photographers, creators, designers, haute couture, photojournalists and the women (or men) that define our eras and those throughout history.

There is no doubt that whether you love it or hate it, the influence and mystery of the magazine and its editors has spanned generations. In the last hundred years or so since Vogue debuted, it has always been at the forefront of art, introducing the world to the likes of Picasso and Sonia Delaunay. In 1916, Virginia Woolf commented on the letters of the navigator and professor, Walter Raleigh, and last April, Christiane Amanpour’s interview graced its pages. From Naomi Campbell to Cara Delevingne, it has defined the names and designs for my mother and her generation as well as mine. Whether or not it will make its mark in the lives of my children is yet to be seen, but its place in history has already been set in stone.

The exhibition runs until 22 May 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery and will then move to Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June until 30 October 2016. See here for further information.

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