Illustration by Hannah Dixon
This month we got the fantastic invitation to cover the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. As we both studied the 3rd year course, Fashion and Photography: Viewing and Reviewing Global images of Dress with Rebecca Arnold, we had already spent a lot of time with Vogue and were excited to see its one hundred year history first hand.
As you enter the exhibition you’re invited to look up at a cluster of tall pillars, covered from floor to ceiling with magazine covers spanning ten decades. The effect is one of overwhelming colour. From detailed portrayals of women working in the war and 20s illustrations next to fifties collages by Irving Penn beside more recent images of Kate Moss and Jourdan Dunn, the display succinctly highlights the variety the brand has had on offer over the years. Beyond the columns is a show reel of behind the scenes footage from recent shoots, content which has become popularised on Vogue’s websites and social media, giving the viewer a glimpse into the future of fashion photography. These displays give the viewer a sense of the unity within Vogue’s brand, concisely showing its history as well as its future.
Moving into the main space we found the exhibition organised into a decade per room, moving you from the 2000s back in time to the 1920s. We however are going to discuss this backwards in order to show the development of styles through the decades, giving a more theoretical reading, which the exhibition due to its size didn’t have room to expand on.
The 20s and 30s rooms chronicled the shift from pictorialism to modernism. Photographer Baron de Meyer dominated the early 20s with his dreamy, soft focused society portraits. These however became outdated in the run up to the Second World War with the rise of industry and the role of machines in everyday life. Although machines would soon wreak havoc on the world, Vogue presents machinery as the future, a break from the constrictive corsetry and studio settings of De Meyer. Fashion photography was unleashed into the modern city.
The oppressive red walls of the 40s room indicated the presence of war. However we were saddened to note how the exhibition simplified the impact the war made on fashion. The room is split down the middle to present the exotic location photography used to transport Vogue readers away from their realities on one side, comparing it on the other side to the harsh documentary images by war correspondents. However, The British Ministry of Information stated that magazines were a key outlet of propaganda during the war, meaning Vogue would have been representing and refashioning the home front just as much as showing fantasy escapism.
Despite the huge progress for women made during the war, the 50s saw a return to order, with waistlines cinched and voluminous skirts. The Norman Parkinson photographs here represent old colonialist values of empires and expeditions being reasserted. The 60s in comparison was a shock. Here we felt Vogue was striving for a youthful outlook despite the traditional history of the preceding decade. Utilising the the new talents of David Bailey, Mary Quant and Jean Shrimpton, Vogue attempted to keep up with contemporary culture.
Vogue now moves away from youth culture in the 70s, leaving London’s subcultures to newer magazines and instead pursues a glamourous, commercialized aesthetic which places prominence on celebrity and sex. Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin’s high contrast, staged compositions appear as if they have been snatched from a Hollywood movie. These photographs toe the line between self awareness and highly constructed glamour, all teetering on the brink of collapse. The photographs here are uneasy in their artifice. The 90s saw the collapse of the 70s artifice, whilst carrying over the voyeurism and the slippage between reality and fantasy. Here Corinne Day and Juergen Teller constructed a new type of chic that brought fashion into the uneasy everyday. Day’s depictions of a young Kate Moss grounded the world of high fashion, making the supermodels of the 80s in Demarchelier photographs appear unreachably polished.
Even though Vogue can be seen to adapt to societal changes, the overwhelming sense at the end of the exhibition was of the domination of white men. In the 2000s which was overridden with images by Mario Testino, we noted how little views on race and women had changed since the 40s. Despite featuring landmark issues such as Donyale Luna as the first black woman on the cover of Vogue in 1966, or Jourdan Dunn’s 2015 cover as the first black model in 12 years, no comment was made. Vogue is obviously proud of their legacy, and they should be, but to gloss over their less glamourous history is as bad as saying it never happened at all. We feared it was because they showed little sign of changing. It should also be noted that the exhibition avoided commenting on their global reach, further whitewashing their history as well as their future.