The Vogue 100: A Century of Style Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London
When I think of Vogue, I simultaneously think of glamour, beauty, haute couture and a world of unaffordable luxury that I will never be a part of. As I turn page after page of the latest edition, sipping my almond milk latte in a Parisian café in the septième I am, however, momentarily convinced that I am indeed a part of this world.
I identify with the models, recognising them as though they are close friends, and marvel at some of the exotic locations, noting to self between sips, that they would be the perfect spot for my next holiday. But as the waiter approaches to hand me the bill, I am jolted back to reality and abruptly reminded that my time with Vogue is an essential component of my escapist dreams. But that is the hypnotising power of Vogue and its image and the reason for its success.
British Vogue has enchanted the imagination of its readers for a century and the commemorative exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Vogue 100: A Century of Style is as magical as the pages themselves. Curated by contributing British Vogue Editor, Robin Cuir, the exhibition retraces the footsteps of one of the world’s most iconic magazines from 1916 to the present day. Created near the mid-point of the Great War, when it was no longer safe to transport American Vogue across the Atlantic, British Vogue was an instant success and has remained so to this day.
As you glide from room to room and from image to image, its success clearly resides in its top quality photography, creative direction and innovation, all of which Vogue has prioritized through the decades. Not one image fails to captivate the attention. And no image more spectacularly than Herb Ritts’ photograph of Claudia Schiffer in Paris, October 1989.
On the back of a motorbike, wearing haute couture, nonchalantly clasping the homme parfait clad in a leather bomber jacket, black skinnes and pixie boots, this image of Schiffer epitomizes this elusive thing called good taste - the DNA of the magazine itself. A quick glance at her piercing gaze transports you away from the hustle and bustle of the gallery to a bohemian Parisian fantasy. But what becomes startlingly obvious as you progress through the beautifully curated space in the downstairs gallery is Vogue’s wider socio-cultural influence.
Indeed the war years for Vogue saw it take on an unimaginable dimension. The magazine pulped its entire archive of fashion and beauty pictures during the Second World War when paper was rationed more strictly than sugar and meat to help the war effort and industry specialists turned their hand to documentary journalism. The unlikely American model, Lee Miller, became British Vogue’s war correspondent while fashion photographers Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson lifted morale on the home front by juxtaposing the frivolity of haute couture with the devastation and destruction of Blitzed London. Beaton’s iconic image, Fashion is Indestructible, September 1941, sees a svelte woman in a Digby Morton suit, framed by the ruins of London’s middle temple. Vogue provided an idyllic escape for its readers in war-torn Britain and has continued to do so ever since.
But Vogue is more than that. Vogue has provided a creative platform for the world’s most talented designers, photographers, creative directors, stylists and models to flourish and develop as artists. Its pages have nurtured creative talents that have defined the tastes and actions of individual consumers for a century. What may seem like an indulgent luxury is in fact the lifeblood of an industry that continues to innovate. We may not all live like the celebrities that come to define Vogue and its glamorous world, but these pages give us hope, inspiration and an imagination.
What Vogue has achieved in the last century is nothing short of remarkable, and this exhibition, comprising original illustrations, 1920s prints, black and white photographs, never-seen-before 1990s polaroids of Kate Moss by Corinne Day amongst other timeless images of Royals, movie stars and waif-like models, is testament to its cultural power. If you look beyond the image and treasure its heritage as one of Britain’s most renowned sources of creative inspiration, British Vogue takes on a cultural significance equal to any Turner or Hirst. 10 years of collaborative effort have paid off, as Vogue 100: A century of Style tells Vogue’s momentous and iconic history in a once in a lifetime spectacle.
Written by Lucy Scovell, contributor to Arteviste.