British Vogue is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a truly marvellous exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, curated by Robin Muir. Seeing these fascinating images made me curious about the ways the magazine’s succession of female editors have shaped it over the decades and so I investigated and discovered a diverse group, each bringing their unique insight and vision to bear. A life-long Vogue fan, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for its role documenting and shaping our tastes and society. So here’s a brief history of the extraordinary and gifted women who edited it through the years.
At its foundation in 1916, the magazine was initially edited by Dorothy Todd but handed over to Elspeth Champcommunal in 1917 until 1922. During her editorship she broadened the range of the magazine to include society articles, travel and sport – a scope apparent from some of the covers. Her innovations served to separate the magazine from its US origins, imprinting it with its first British identity.
In 1922 Dorothy Todd returned briefly to the helm but her strong literary focus, drawn from her close connections with the Bloomsbury set of writers, alienated the readership. Despite having the distinction of engaging the multi-talented Cecil Beaton as a contributor, who would go on to shape so much of the magazine’s future, circulation fell and she was replaced in 1927 by Alison Settle. In an age in which women were newly claiming the right to a career, Settle was a respected journalist, working on newspapers as well as magazines like The Lady. She also started to establish the magazine’s unique identity, offering practical style advice to its readers.
In 1934, Elizabeth Penrose came to the helm of the magazine and presided over a period in which Cecil Beaton became one of the magazine’s foremost collaborators. Two of his contributions during this period are particularly significant. First, the publication in February 1937 of an extraordinarily lovely watercolour by Cecil Beaton showing Mr and Mrs Harrison Williams (later to become Mona Bismark) at home in Palm Beach. A painstaking search by curator, Robin Muir, turned up the original in Paris at the Mona Bismark American Centre for Art and Culture and this show gives it its first exhibition in the UK for some decades. As far as I was concerned, seeing this picture was worth the price of admission in itself – it is a wonderful image and so completely redolent of the gilded inter-war lifestyle of America’s most wealthy magnate and perhaps the world’s most stylish woman of the day.
Another landmark was Beaton’s portraits of the soon-to-be Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson on the occasion of her marriage at the Chateau de Cande. Published in June 1937, it was clearly a story with a wide journalistic appeal at the time and a coup for the magazine.
If Beaton’s work documented gilded society of the 1930s, Vogue was also instrumental in engaging a ground-breaking photographer who would become associated with some of the most famous and disturbing images of the following decade. Towards the end of her editorship, Elizabeth Penrose appointed a new freelance photographer named Lee Miller, predating by four years Miller’s accreditation to the US Army as a war correspondent.
In 1940, Audrey Withers took over as Vogue editor. By all accounts a formidable woman, during the war she cycled to Vogue’s offices, qualified as a volunteer fire officer and gained her Heavy Goods Vehicle licence. She made good use of Lee Miller’s talent, publishing her wartime despatches from Normandy, liberation Paris and even Buchenwald. Not a career fashion journalist, she delegated fashion to others but broadened the scope of the magazine to include articles by intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, the food writer Elizabeth David and literary figures like Dylan Thomas.
This “non-fashion” fashion editor was succeeded in 1960 by Ailsa Garland, another career journalist but very much a fashion specialist who has even been cited as one of the most influential of the 60s. After leaving Vogue in 1964, she continued to work in fashion magazine journalism and also ran the Royal College of Art’s fashion course. Her focus on the fashion identity of the magazine led it towards one of its most legendary editors.
In 1964 Beatrix Miller became editor and was to see the magazine through some of fashion’s (and society’s) most revolutionary changes. She moved with the times, nurturing the youthful, anarchistic tendencies of 60s fashion by engaging photographers like David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton, championing new British designers of the 70s, Ossie Clarke and Thea Porter, and ultimately bringing the magazine to personify like no other the glitz and glamour of the 80s. Polly Devlin’s tribute to her leadership is a pen-picture of a driven, dynamic and charismatic woman with a clear vision and an ability to deploy talented people.
1986 saw the appointment of another legendary editor – Anna Wintour herself, who served for a year before transferring to New York, where of course the rest is history. Elizabeth Tilberis picked up the reins in 1987, having worked alongside Grace Coddington for Beatrix Miller. Another formidable female (the tale of her assault on an over-zealous security guard at Paris Fashion Week has passed into legend) she increased Vogue’s circulation and presided over a period of fundamental social shift that saw the super-models of the 80s start to be replaced by a celebrity and red-carpet culture: she put Diana, Princess of Wales on the cover twice.
In 1992, British Vogue gained its current and longest-serving editor, Alexandra Shulman. At a time of almost unprecedented change – in society, the industry itself, in magazine consumption and social media – she has managed to increase circulation further and has helped Vogue embrace these changes without losing its unique identity forged by the collective efforts of her predecessors. As we celebrate the role of women in shaping our society with the annual Women’s Day, this succession of visionary and diverse women offers yet another example of the particular qualities of female leadership and insight.
Vogue 100 is a wonderful exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Of course it is a fashion-lover’s dream but, as the inspiration and enthusiasms of its editors and contributors show, the magazine has also endured because of its continued relevance to wider society as a mirror of the way our taste, art, culture is shaped by our times.
If this leaves you wanting to know more, you can read Colin McDowell’s excellent article about the Vogue heritage on the Business of Fashion website here.
1916-17 – Dorothy Todd
1917-1922 – Elspeth Champcommunal
1922-26 – Dorothy Todd
1927-35 – Alison Settle
1934-40 – Elizabeth Penrose
1940-60 – Audrey Withers
1960-64 – Ailsa Garland
1964-86 – Beatrix Miller
1986-87 – Anna Wintour
1987-92 – Elizabeth Tilberis
1992 – Present – Alexandra Shulman