This year marks the 125th anniversary of Vogue – arguably the world’s most famous and most influential fashion and society magazine. In its lifespan, Vogue has contributed over 400,000 pages of articles to a worldwide readership, claiming to reach 11 million readers in the US and 12.5 million internationally. With such credentials, it is hard to ignore the magazine’s dominance. If Vogue is, as it is claimed, such a masthead in international fashion, what does it have to say to its readers? Its celebrated covers provide a snapshot glance at a chronicling of both sartorial and societal shifts – covering culture at its finest, decade after decade.
The first issue of Vogue was published in the United States in 1892 by an Arthur Baldwin Turnure. Little is known about Turnure himself but we do know that ‘his’ Vogue had a focus which was rather removed from what we know Vogue as today. With an aim to celebrate the “ceremonial side of life,” Vogue’s inaugural issue was one that Turnure hoped would attract “the sage as well as debutante, men of affairs as well as the belle.” It was a publication enthralled with the glamour and artistry of the new New York upper class and published its issues with romantically illustrated covers, appealing to the sentimentality of only the richest, and most elite, society.
In 1905 Condé Nast purchased Vogue, and, while maintaining its heritage of elitism, shifted its focus to solely women’s fashion – discarding its male readership. The covers’ artistic illustrations and the simple Vogue masthead banner continued throughout the introduction of international editions and it wasn’t until the 1930s until this changed. July 1932 saw American Vogue publish its first colour photography on the cover of the magazine. This signalled the direction in which Vogue was destined to follow: no longer shying away from colour printing and the “two-page spread”, the magazine became a business.
In the 70s and 80s business thrived. First under editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, the magazine threw away its shackles of elitism and high society and followed the East Village youth of the sexual revolution. Covers featured models that soon became pop culture superstars (Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Lauren Hutton) and everything about Vogue’s content and its styling pointed towards the engaged and vibrant youth scene of New York which championed vintage boutiques (such as Limbo) and ‘downtown’ personalities (Andy Warhol and the Beat Generation).
When Grace Mirabelle became editor-in-chief in 1971, there appeared a natural progression from the experimental Vogue of the 60s. With photographic covers adorned with text and catchlines, Mirabella presented an incredibly laid back Vogue. In her book, In and Out of Vogue, Mirabella writes:
“Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue took a real beating on the newsstand in the late 1960s and early 1970s because women weren’t interested in reading about or buying clothes that served no purpose in their changing lives. That moment of women turning their backs on the old rules of fashion was my moment. I was selected as editor in chief to bring Vogue in step with that change, to make the magazine appeal to the free, working, “liberated” woman of the seventies. We showed her clothing that moved, that breathed…[w]e beefed up the magazine with text, with interviews and arts coverage and serious health pieces because we knew we were publishing for a new kind of woman, and we didn’t want her to think that we couldn’t keep up with her.”
And yet, by the mid-eighties, Mirabella’s approach to American Vogue was deemed “beige” and boring. Sales had stagnated and competitor Elle was on the rise. Mirabella was – somewhat brutally – replaced with Anna Wintour who sought to revitalise Vogue with a youthful and more approachable edge. In her early years Wintour’s covers embodied the blending of high and low culture, removed from the predictable and repetitive model close-ups of the 70s and early 80s. But by the 90s, America’s favourite celebrities adorned Vogue’s front pages – a delight for some, not so for others.
Certainly, Vogue has performed a grand leap from its early days of etiquette and elitism, and its covers demonstrate that. With a focus on the ‘healthy’ body, sexual freedom and equality, Vogue performs a crucial role in the fashion community. As Alexandra Shulman – British Vogue’s editor 1992-2017 – wrote in her June 2012 editor’s letter: “as one of the fashion industry’s most powerful voices, Vogue has a unique opportunity to engage with relevant issues where we feel we can make a difference.” And with Edward Enninful being announced as British Vogue’s new editor in chief, it’ll be interesting to see where Vogue is taken in the future…hopefully to somewhere with less advertisements.