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From Elspeth Champcommunal to Edward Enninful, Culture Trip takes a look back at the individuals who have shaped British Vogue throughout the ages.
Vogue started life as a small New York society magazine. It was born in 1892, the brainchild of Arthur Baldwin Turnure who founded it as a weekly newspaper, focusing around the ceremonial side of life. It was a publication that attracted ‘the sage as well as debutante, men of affairs as well as the belle.’ From its inception, the magazine targeted the New York aristocracy, and the publication was primarily concerned with style, sports coverage and social affairs for the male readership. The small, weekly society magazine that went by the name of Vogue was staffed by the same New York high society that they were writing for.
In 1905, Condé Montrose Nast began pursuing the acquisition of the magazine, and following delays due to Turnure’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1906, Nast acquired the magazine in 1909. His focus shifted to a female, fashion-oriented audience. In 1916, during the First World War, German U-boats imposed restrictions on overseas shipping, meaning that Vogue could no longer be sent from America to Europe. In addition to the paper shortages, it was deemed a ‘non-essential.’ The answer to this problem was the conception of British Vogue. Nicknamed ‘Brogue‘ by its employees, British Vogue was largely a reproduction of the US edition. However, this changed with the appointment of the first British-based Editor-in-chief in 1916.
Elspeth Champcommunal was a well-connected woman who rubbed shoulders with the infamous Bloomsbury Set: a group of forward-thinking British intellectuals, who had modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism and sexuality. Her close friends included with photographer Man Ray, writer Virginia Woolf and artist Roger Fry.
Her views no doubt reflected those of her peers, and Champcommunal thought it was important that Vogue be more than just a fashion magazine; she also included articles on health, beauty, society, sport, travel and opinion pieces. Her editing style pushed boundaries, but the post-Victorian Vogue readers were perhaps a little more reserved, and as a result, circulation of British Vogue dropped below 9,000 in 1922. Champcommunal was exceptionally fashionable – she later became a fashion designer and owned a boutique in the 18th arrondissement in Paris – but she had little experience in publishing. Nast decided to intervene, and replaced her with the woman who he had originally lined up for the job.
Post-War Britain was a time of change and upheavals, perhaps in response to the political, social and economic problems in the period that followed. This flux manifested itself in a new-found confidence, with socialites exhibiting liberated, wild and often debauched behaviour. London saw the birth of the paparazzi, It Girls and young aristocracy running riot. These were the people who had been too young to fight, but witnessed so much death during the Great War that their attitude was one of carpe diem.
Openly lesbian, Dorothy Todd had a different vision for Vogue. She wanted more literary content, and less ‘stays and petticoats.’ The American Vogue office took offence to this, as they believed the magazine had always been a stimulating guide to the arts, and could continue to do so without focusing primarily on literature. Ultimately, this led to Todd’s replacement, which was an unpopular decision, particularly with the avant-garde, intelligent and hardworking Bloomsbury crowd.
Todd’s replacement was a prolific journalist, a design and taste adviser to British government bodies, a champion of women’s rights, and credited with British Vogue’s readership picking up again. Her name was Alison Settle. Born in Brighton in 1891, Settle had attended secretarial college, before taking a journalism course, and soon started writing for various magazine such as the Sunday Herald, Sunday Pictorial, Eve and the Daily Mirror.
After Settle took the helm of British Vogue in 1926, the magazine grew in popularity, laying the foundations for the success of the publication. She shaped the magazine as a sophisticated product of culture, with exceptional writing at the core of the magazine. She also supported articles with brilliant graphic design, illustrations, photography and models. Contributors under her name included Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville West, George Lepape, Eduard Benito, Edward Steichen and Lee Miller.
She grew the readership beyond the cultured ladies of the aristocracy (a category to which she herself belonged) to the working women of the middle classes and first-wave feminists. Subjects such as politics, art and cooking were covered in British Vogue for the first time. Young women were increasingly able to buy cheap clothes, and Vogue began to translate haute couture into accessible advice on clothes that women could actually wear.
Although she left British Vogue in 1935 under strained circumstances (she was dismissed), Settle went on to become Fashion Editor at The Observer shortly after, and stayed there until her retirement in 1960. Her archive comprises of papers offering insights into fashion, textiles and clothing manufacturing, as well as domesticity, women in the workplace and design promotion. Her archive can be viewed at the University of Brighton Design Archives.
At this point in the publication’s history, the relationship between Condé Nast and British Vogue was similar to that of a parent and an adolescent child. The Americans did not believe that the British Vogue staff could be trusted to do anything important without supervision, and in 1934, British Vogue was struggling again. Lord Camrose, the British press baron, bailed Mr Condé Nast out to become Vogue’s biggest shareholder, while New York retained editorial control.
Betty Penrose was sent from the US to helm British Vogue. She was already working at American Vogue, and was Nast’s protégé and likely mistress. She was tasked with infusing American rigour into the British publication, and to reduce its ‘excessively sprightly nature.’
In 1939, Penrose announced that she would be going back to America for a few months in order to renew contacts in New York. She left Assistant Editor Audrey Withers in charge. When Penrose could not return to the UK due to the start of WWII, Audrey Withers was formally made the Editor-in-Chief.
In the second year of WWII, Audrey Withers took the helm of British Vogue. During the war, paper was rationed more strictly than sugar, and the magazine had to pulp its own archive to survive. It went from a fortnightly to a monthly publication, and new subscribers were put on a waiting list – someone had to die for you to get it.
A few years before she became Editor-in-Chief, Withers had answered a magazine advert for a sub-editor job on British Vogue, for the princely sum of £3 per week. Penrose’s enforced exile left Withers permanently in charge. Withers went on the steer the magazine through the difficult war years, playing a vital role in maintaining morale on the home front.
With men away, and women bearing much of the responsibility of domestic and family life, magazines – read by almost every woman in the country – were a vital source for information and advice. In times of ration, beauty tips were understandably low-budget. Such advice included animal dripping as a cure for dry or spotty skin. Women working in factories were refusing to wear unattractive caps to protect them from catching their hair in the machinery, and Withers was asked to persuade her readers that short hair was chic, which, of course, she did. During this time, there was an emphasis on women keeping themselves well turned-out in order to boost the morale of the British soldier on leave. ‘When he came back, you had to be something special for him. That’s what you lived for,’ said Withers.
Lee Miller was appointed contributing photographer, and her war front photojournalist skills were second to none. Magazines, unlike books, were, and still are, about the here-and-now, and Miller’s photographs took Vogue readers into the heart of the conflict.
As an editor, Withers was no-nonsense. She would snap at the sight of a wrongly placed comma. She ate sandwiches at her desk, rather than lunching at grand restaurants. She preferred taking public transport rather than taxis. ‘I am very well aware that I would not have been an appropriate editor of Vogue at any other period of its history,’ Withers recalled.
Having had no fashion training, Withers’ copywriting and administration skills coupled with her strict disciplinarian attitude and headmistress-like manner perfectly suited the austerity of the times. When the air-raid sirens sounded, Withers would lead her staff of five – two art editors unfit for active service, a sub editor, a fashion editor and a staff writer – down five flights of stairs at their 1 New Bond Street office to the basement, where they would continue working. Eventually, they stopped bothering to go downstairs, and remained seated at their desks while London was bombed around them.
Withers remained the editor of British Vogue for 20 years, until her retirement in 1960. Throughout her tenure she was one of the most influential women in the country. Devoted, passionate, avowedly left-wing yet unashamedly high-brow, she is widely credited with transforming the magazine into the one we hold in our hands today.
Loosely defined as ‘the cultural decade,’ and colloquially referred to as the ‘Swinging Sixties,’ the turn of the decade brought it sweeping changes around the world. The new decade brought with it the concepts of sexual liberation and the emancipation of women, as well as Civil Rights protests, the Pill and massive advances in space exploration.
This shift in zeitgeist, as always, was reflected in fashion, and in the pages of British Vogue. Whereas fashion had previously been aimed at a wealthy, mature elite, the tastes and preferences of young people had now become important. Whereas the market of the 1950s had been dominated by Parisian haute couture; women’s fashion in the 1960s underwent structural change, resulting in looser lines, brighter colours, cheaper production and shorter hems. Mary Quant herself said, ‘Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses.’
Clothes were heavily influenced by the 1960s British pop scene, and the new ideas that were emerging from music culture. It was the mod look that first popularised the geometric shapes typical of the 1960s. Around this time, a group of young artists, film directors and socialites gravitated towards the King’s Road, where Mary Quant, credited with the invention of the mini skirt, had her avant-garde boutique, Bazaar. Locals were known The Chelsea Set, and the area became synonymous with a new way of living and dressing.
Vogue needed someone to fill the shoes of Withers, and the woman for the job was affluent fashion writer Alisa Garland. She has been listed as one of the most influential British fashion writers of the decade. The Spectator reported that Garland had been headhunted from her job as Fashion Editor of the Daily Mirror in order to join British Vogue as part of a greater plan to change the magazine’s focus away from luxury and exclusivity.
Alisa Garland left Vogue in 1964 for greener pastures: she became Editor-in-Chief of Woman’s Journal, which at the time the largest women’s magazine in the UK.
Born to a doctor and a nurse who met on the Western Front, Beatrix Miller started her career working for MI6 in Germany on the Nuremberg Trials. Sworn to secrecy, she rarely spoke about those years of her life. Her journalistic career began at The Queen, a British society magazine. When Miller was appointed as Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, the first issue she published was the largest in the magazine’s history so far, at 470 pages. She was made of stern stuff. She often rallied her staff like troops, and when she thought the publication was stagnating, it would be all change as she shuffled employees into different jobs.
Bea, (as she was known) was credited with starting the careers of ground-breaking photographers such as David Bailey, Terry Donovan, Brian Duffy and Lord Antony Snowdon, husband of Princess Margaret. Vogue became the go-to place for royal portraits, and cover stars included Princess Anne, Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Diana.
Miller’s witty quips and modern headlines laid the groundwork for progressive thinking and longevity. She made every sub-heading sparkle and every cover quote eye-catching. She started Vogue’s renowned ‘More Dash Than Cash’ section, and put quotes from avant-garde bands such as Queen. ‘I AM AN EXPORT’ shouted a 1970s cover, while others had provoking headlines covering such topics such as birth control, masculinity and change.
Miller made sure that London’s Swinging Sixties scene unfolded with adventure, intelligence and curiosity between British Vogue‘s pages. She retired after 20 years, in 1984. She was awarded a CBE, joined the council of the Royal College of Art, and became an adviser who served as a link between the government and the fashion industry. She died in 2014.
Arguably the most famous and revered fashion editor of all time, Anna Wintour was born in London in 1949. Her father, Charles Neville, was editor of the Evening Standard, and arranged a job for her at Biba on the King’s Road when she was fifteen years old. She took classes in fashion at a nearby school, and landed her first experience on a magazine through much older boyfriend Richard Neville, at his controversial magazine, Oz.
In 1970, Harpers Bazaar UK launched, and Wintour was hired as a junior fashion editor. She then moved to Viva, an adult woman’s magazine, a job which she rarely talks about. Here she hired her first assistant, and her reputation as a difficult and demanding boss began. The Devil Wears Prada is the best-selling roman-à-clef written by former assistant Lauren Weisberger. In 1980, Wintour began working at Savvy, and later New York Magazine, before becoming Creative Director of American Vogue.
In 1985, Wintour became Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, where she implemented wide-ranging changes. ‘There’s a new kind of woman out there. She’s interested in business and money. She doesn’t have time to shop anymore. She wants to know what and why and where and how,’ she told The Evening Standard.
She has been described as emotionally distant, intimidating, ruthless and volatile by those who know her. Sobriquets include ‘Wintour of Discontent’ and ‘Nuclear Wintour,’ the latter being so disliked by her that she has banned The New York Times from publishing the moniker. She reportedly told Oprah to lose weight before she appeared on the cover of American Vogue; likewise, she banned Hilary Clinton from wearing a blue suit.
Wintour’s time at British Vogue was brief: she moved to New York in 1987 to take over House & Garden, and a mere 10 months later succeeded Grace Mirabella as Editor-in-Chief at American Vogue. Many speculate that this was a tactical geographical move on Wintour’s part. She remains Editor-in-Chief at American Vogue to this day.
Born Elizabeth Kelly, Tilberis studied at an all-girls school, before being expelled from her fashion degree at Leicester Polytechnic for having a man in her room. Picking herself back up, she applied to the Jacob Kramer Art College in Leeds. Yet the tutor who interviewed her was unimpressed with her portfolio. Demonstrating a gift for persuasive talking, Liz gave him about speech about why she was, in fact, a good enough candidate, and won a place there. Her tutor would later become her husband.
In 1967, Tilberis entered a British Vogue essay-writing competition, and won an internship earning £25 a week. She made tea, picked up dropped pins from dresses and ironed clothes for fashion shoots. Ever shrewd Beatrix Miller noticed her good nature and enthusiasm, and she was promoted to Fashion Assistant in 1970.
In 1987, after two decades at British Vogue, she was offered a lucrative job in New York City as part of Ralph Lauren’s design team. She had sold her London home, and packed up her belongings, when then Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour called her into her office, and offered her the job as Editor-in-Chief. She accepted, and British Vogue’s circulation began to rise under her editorship. Liz recalls, ‘My staff are respectful of me, rather than frightened.’
In an industry known more for bitchiness than beneficence, she was famous for radiating warmth and making everyone feel loved, even being described as the ‘snap, crackle, and pop’ of the fashion world.
In 1992, Tilberis was lured across the Atlantic to become editor of the American edition of House & Garden. The following year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and became the president of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. She blamed the IVF treatments she had gone through in the 1980s, before she had elected to adopt. She published a memoir, No Time To Die in 1998, and was holding meetings in her hospital bed until her death in 1999. Fashion was not simply a career for Tilberis; it was her life.
Born into a family of journalists in the wealthy London neighbourhood of Belgravia, Shulman was adamant she wouldn’t follow her parents’ career path. With early ambitions to become a hairdresser, she studied anthropology at the University of Sussex, and was left ‘in tears’ upon graduating with a 2:2 (a lower-tier Second Class Honours).
After a brief foray into the music industry, in 1982, she began her fashion journalism career and joined the Condé Nast-owned Tatler magazine, and subsequently The Sunday Telegraph, American Vogue and GQ, where she became Editor-in-Chief in 1990. Upon her appointment as Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, the press were less than kind. They deemed her inexperienced compared to her predecessors, and many remarked on her appearance (she was not a size zero, and didn’t have a ‘fashion’ haircut), comments that are still made to this day. In 2004, she told The Telegraph, ‘Leaving aside the obvious but unlikely criteria of beautiful and thin … I am a 47-year-old businesswoman and journalist. The pictures unfortunately, tell the whole story.’
In the early 1990s, Shulman found herself in the firing line as the magazine drew criticism for photos of a waif-like Kate Moss, that were dubbed ‘heroin chic,’ a look that was popularised by the success of young, emaciated models such as Moss and Jaime King (and their alleged drug use). Characterised by extreme thinness, dark circles, and an unkept look, the criticism of Vogue was part of a larger discussion about whether fashion magazines presented an unhealthy body image that contributed to a rising instances of anorexia in young women. The trend was worlds away from the vibrant, healthy look of supermodels in the decade before, such as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Giselle Bündchen. Shulman denied that there was any correlation between Vogue and eating disorders, and told TV show Frontline in 1998, ‘Not many people have actually said to me that they have looked at my magazine and decided to become anorexic.’ In 2005, she demonstrated a more sensitive approach, and told The Scotsman, ‘I really wish that models were a bit bigger. There is pressure on them to stay thin, and I’m always talking to the designers about it, but they’re not going to do it.’
Then, in June 2009, Shulman wrote an open letter to major international fashion houses including Chanel, Dior, Prada and Versace, complaining that their ‘minuscule’ sample sizes were forcing fashion magazines to use models with ‘jutting bones’ and ‘no breasts or hips’. Shulman doesn’t think it made much difference, but she is resigned to the fact that she has to continue to talk about it. She refuses to publish diet tips or cosmetic surgery advice in the magazine.
Since her editorship, British Vogue’s circulation has risen to over a million readers. She is credited with fostering the careers of Mario Testino, and Tim Walker, and has been named on countless lists of influencers and power-holders. She was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to the magazine industry. Shulman is, to date, the longest-standing editor of British Vogue, and her successor will have a sizeable legacy to uphold. Read our interview with Alexandra Shulman here.
Scouted as a model during his teenage years in London’s Ladbroke Grove, Edward Enninful became the fashion director of i-D aged only 19. This was to be the start of many firsts for Enninful, who has now been announced as editor-in-chief of British Vogue. As the only male to lead this prestigious fashion title, Enninful assumes the mantle at a challenging time for the publication, and the media industry at large.
Ghanian born Enninful, who was awarded an OBE for his services to fashion in 2016, has long been a champion of diversity and innovation. He was responsible for Vogue Italia’s “Black Issue” in 2005 (which sold so well Condé Nast ran an extra 40,000 copies) and most recently during his time as creative and fashion director at W magazine has helped to increase ad sales and brand awareness. The combination of marketing know-how, coupled with an innovative approach to visuals means that Enninful is well placed to take British Vogue into the new age.