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100 Years of British Vogue

Before Anna Wintour stepped into Vogue House, the leading fashion title had already seen a slew of formidable editors document the roaring twenties and the swinging sixties. As it enters its centenary year, Colin McDowell looks back at a heady 100 years of British Vogue.
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — In 1916, the British edition of Vogue was brought into the world by Condé Montrose Nast, an Anglophile American and the eponymous founder of the now world-famous publishing house. The publication of a British edition of Vogue was, however, met with a certain reluctance by American Vogue, which, in the hope of bolstering its income by attracting advertising from British companies, had been distributed in affluent boroughs of London since 1912.

That ‘ruse’ was successful, but only up to a point. By 1914, American Vogue was selling around 4,000 copies in England, which was quite impressive in a country that at that time still believed it had a God-given monopoly on style, taste and class. The English readers certainly didn't buy American Vogue for the advertisements of American luxury goods any more than the coverage of American high society, dismissed in Mayfair and ‘the shires’ as vulgarly arriviste. Perhaps the real buyers were the American expats.

May 1926 cover by Eduardo Benito | Source: Condé Nast

However, as World War One continued, the situation changed with dramatic speed. English women had always preferred magazines from Vienna and Paris to those from New York, but the European magazines stopped coming as the hostilities stepped up. As a result, by 1916, the sales of US Vogue had quadrupled. Then came the blow. In the United States, paper shortages meant that print numbers were substantially reduced and shipping 'non-essentials’ to England from America was almost entirely banned. Condé Montrose Nast’s formula was destroyed by the imperatives of the U.S war effort.

Thus, after a certain amount of head-scratching and number-crunching, Condé Montrose Nast and his business team decided to risk publishing a British edition of Vogue. British Vogue would carry British advertisements for financial expediency, but would be supported by editorial fashion pages predominantly commissioned in New York.

On September 15, 1916, the first edition appeared, along with assurances that “each issue will be supplemented with carefully selected articles dealing with English society, fashions, furniture, interior decorating, the garden, art, literature and the stage.” All for a cover price of one shilling. Photographs of society figures including Lady Wellesley (by Hoppé) and Mrs John Lavery, wife of one of London's most successful portrait painters, were prominently featured in issue one, no doubt carefully chosen as a sop to the English upper classes.

Right from the beginning, photography was a powerful selling point for British Vogue, as it was for the American edition. Although fashion drawings featured heavily, and remained in the magazine until the 1950s, film was bringing a new reality to entertainment. Photography would gain an early foothold and come to dominate fashion completely. It is true to say that some of the world’s most iconic images of style in the 20th century originated on the covers and in the editorial pages of Vogue magazine. Some even had humour, like the famous 1970s cover of perfect white teeth tearing into a vivid green jelly — hardly glamorous but stylish nonetheless.

During the 20th century, American Vogue commissioned Cecil Beaton's pictures of the Duchess of Windsor on her wedding day, high fashion from the likes of Richard Avedon, including a famous picture of model Dovima wearing a Yves Saint Laurent designed Dior evening gown surrounded by elephants, as well as portraits of Hollywood stars, such as Sophia Lauren photographed by Irving Penn. The images would appear first in American Vogue and then in the pages of international Vogue editions — including British Vogue. Even in the great swansong days of haute couture during the 1950s Paris coverage was normally shared by the editions.

By this system the high-level of glamour so essential to the Vogue philosophy and its image could be serviced and controlled from New York. In 1950, there was a famous occasion when Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of all the Vogues, took exception to a picture in British Vogue of a modern woman, cigarette in mouth, fumbling in her bag for her lighter. So not Vogue. So inelegant. To show the true Vogue way, she mailed a highly stylised Penn picture of a model in a Dior dress, smoking elegantly with a long cigarette holder. One can imagine the reaction in London where it was generally felt that British Vogue could look after itself, thank you very much.

The first editor of British Vogue was Dorothy Todd who, even at the time, was considered a strange choice. An intellectual and lesbian, she had no interest at all in fashion, including American fashion. She immediately set out to ignore the fact that Mayfair was Vogue's natural environment and, encouraged by her friend Virginia Woolf, pinpointed the magazine’s home as Bloomsbury. Her tenure was brief, lasting a single year. She was replaced by Elspeth Champcommunal, who had previously worked in couturier Worth's London office. By contrast, Champcommunal was entirely focused on high fashion and style.

January 1974 cover by David Bailey | Source: Condé Nast

By the end of the war in 1918, a balance had been achieved: a tacit acceptance that England had class and America had glamour, a balance that was broadly adhered to in the pages of 'Brogue' (as the American office called the English edition). But problems remained, and, in 1924, British Vogue was losing at least £25,000 a year — a lot of money in those days. Having proved she lacked commercial sense, Elspeth Champcommunal was replaced by Dorothy Todd, who was reinstated as editor-in-chief.

Things were so desperate that Edna Woolman Chase was drafted to England to sort everything out. A clever businesswoman, a born editor and a martinet — in New York she insisted that the female staff on Vogue wear hats, white gloves and silk stockings in the office — she immediately appointed a new editor, Alison Settle, who stayed for nine years. It was during her reign that the unique formula for British Vogue began to emerge. In essence, it was to champion dress with common sense, so as long as it was stylish.

Anyone looking through copies of the magazine from the 1930s and 1940s will see that, although there are plenty of beautiful couture gowns, photographed by the world’s top glamour photographers such as Horst P Horst and Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, Erwin Blumenfeld and, of course Cecil Beaton, there are also just as many everyday clothes as well as Vogue dress-making Patterns — a big money-spinner on both sides of the Atlantic.

British Vogue was next edited by Elizabeth Penrose, but it was with the appointment of Audrey Withers in 1940 that true confidence came. Withers arrived for her interview in borrowed clothes, having nothing suitable to wear or buy, having been out of work for some time. Her starting salary was £5 per week. She believed that Vogue's job was to give service and pleasure in equal parts to its readers. She stayed at Vogue until 1960 — but lived to be 96.

It is true to say that the middle years of the 20th century saw Vogue opening out to encompass not only new attitudes but also a wider readership. It introduced new features with catchy headings: “People are Talking About…” which covered the high–brow arts; “More Dash than Cash,” which looked at clothes at more accessible price points; and “Mrs Exeter,” a feature set up to prove that, as the readership relentlessly dropped in age, upper-class values were still being upheld.

Strong editors like Ailsa Garland (1960-1964), who left the magazine to go to the Royal College of Art in order to run its fashion course, and Beatrix Miller (1964-1986), the doyenne of Vogue's modern editors, oversaw many of these changes. Miller was a woman respected for her judgement and held in awe by her adoring 'Voguettes' who worked under her (always calling her Miss Miller). Privately educated in Canada and then at the University of Paris, "Bea" Miller was given the editorship of Queen by its owner, Jocelyn Stevens (grandfather of Cara Delevingne), before becoming editor of Vogue in 1964, where she remained until her retirement over 20 years later. In style, originality and determination she was British Vogue's answer to Diana Vreeland.

January 1987 cover by Patrick Demarchelier | Source: Condé Nast

Miller may now be remembered as formidable but she ‘got’ swinging London. Although very patrician in manner and speech, she understood ‘The Cockney Trio’ of photographers: Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan, all working class guys much less interested in the dress than in the girl wearing it. The girl was usually Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton or Penelope Tree, the dress was increasingly from a London designer such as Thea Porter, Ossie Clark, Mary Quant, Jean Muir, Bill Gibb, Foale and Tuffin and, almost inevitably, the hair was by Vidal Sassoon.

Miller created a Vogue that spawned an amazingly wide range of radical young talent. Photographs of impossibly elegant, statuesque models like Barbara Goalen were reserved for the coverage of Paris couture, shot by Penn, Avedon, Beaton or Norman Parkinson. But the Kings Road, Biba and Mary Quant were now at the heart of British Vogue. Those sorts of clothes required a much less formal image, provided by young photographers such as Ronald Traeger, Peter Knapp and Barry Lategan. With the help of brilliant stylists such as Grace Coddington and Liz Tilberis (who replaced Anna Wintour as editor in 1987), Miller re-aligned British Vogue. When, in 1985, she retired, she handed on a magazine in line for the next development — which happened to be in the shape of Anna Wintour.

From a family of journalists, with experience in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, Wintour was every bit as single-minded as her predecessors, and possibly more so. Other journalists were scared stiff. They made up plays on her name — Nuclear Wintour, Wintour of our Discontent — they had no effect. She continued to make Vogue's pages both cool and exciting. She put the trade in a spin by making London fashion as sassy as the best New York could muster, and her message was always delivered with dramatic directness. Of all the stories that have clustered like barnacles around her London years, my favourite is that after a coats shoot, the samples were all returned with at least six inches sliced off the hem. I like to think it is true.

March 1993 cover by Corinne Day | Source: Condé Nast

When, inevitably, the call from New York came, offering her the role of editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Wintour was off like a shot. Her role as editor-in-chief of British Vogue was taken — to the surprise of some — by one of 'Bea' Miller's protégés: Liz Tilberis. Miller described her as having "boundless energy and high aspirations," she should have also added 'unbeatable determination'. How else could Tilberis have achieved her greatest coup: The Princess of Wales, on the cover of British Vogue, photographed by Arthur Elgort? In a second coup, she brought Bruce Weber over to the magazine. Tilberis, who had worked as a stylist at Vogue for 20 years before becoming editor, was like her mentor, a no-nonsense editor. For many, her greatest moment took place in Paris while waiting in a jostling crowd outside a show. A security guard pushed one of Tilberis' 'Voguettes' roughly into the queue and clearly hurt her. Instantly, Tilberis punched him, shouting, "don't you dare touch one of my girls!" It was a moment of joy for all of us who witnessed it and she became an instant heroine for the rest of the season.

Tilberis left British Vogue to edit U.S. Harpers Bazaar. Her place was taken by the present editor, Alexandra Shulman, who has held the role for 24 years — longer than any other British editor. During her tenure, the movements towards youth, freedom and informality, begun in Milller's Vogue and carried forward by Wintour and Tilberis, have largely overwhelmed Vogue's old standards of high-fashion dress. Now, competing with Condé Nast's own Love magazine, and the many infant fashion magazines that are more accurately described as 'attitude' magazines, British Vogue has the highest sales it has ever had, with a combined print and digital circulation of 200,058 per month (ABC Jan - Jun 2015).

Since Shulman took over British Vogue's editor's desk, its breadth of subject matter has grown appreciably — a reflection of two things for which few editors of fashion magazines are famed: her education and her intellect. Fashion must be widely eclectic in order to satisfy a growing readership. As Shulman herself says: “Vogue is a mass market magazine and it can never be as far out as more trendy rivals…. It is great to have a public voice, although it is always a collaborative voice… more of a chorus perhaps.”

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