To say everyone here was conscious about what they were wearing is an understatement; nevertheless and though we may not all be on trend, everyone had tried their very best to look as sophisticated as possible in all their labels. This is our life now, a temple of style that somehow Vogue represents, and weirdly we feel as though we all belong to it. The absolute mystery, questions of inclusion and exclusion represented as fashion by the Condé Nast brand, and art and lifestyle at the centre of the cultural psyche, all lie at the heart of Vogue’s glossy appeal – questions that are immediately prompted by the pristine portraits lining the gallery’s perfectly white walls.
At first, any novice to the fashion world would assume this is an exhibition that just showcases pretty people, pretty clothes, and all things pretty in general. Whilst this may be true, everything at first sight seems to say otherwise. It goes without saying that this seminal celebration of Vogue – curated by contributing editor Robin Muir – features only the best in fashion photography. From Bailey to Testino, these are the photographers who are not only synonymous with the Condé Nast label, but who have become bigger than the publishing houses they represent. Though many will think this is an exhibition for those in the know, the glossy, powerful and provocative portraiture is far from the dry, often misconceived world of fashion many associate with the magazine.
Cara Delevingne swallowing and spitting out a rose, Naomi Campbell waving her shiny locks, and countless other stars of the fashion world gracing the giant mirrored cinema screen immediately evoke the playful world of the industry, settling any presupposed fears you may have upon entering. Looking left to right, you get the sense that fashion is fun, playful, and cheeky. After watching footage from Vogue’s video archive, a bewildering diversity of prints hits you. From Alexander McQueen cradling a smoking skull, Horst P Horst’s erotic ‘corset’ image of 1939, to Mario Testino’s ‘Kate Moss’ flashing her crotch in a glaze skirt and Union Jack leather from 2008, the great photographers and designers of the last century are all featured.
After walking past a display of a few classics, the exhibition proceeds backwards in time, from the present to 1916, a room per decade. The layout is at first confusing and makes the timeline less than obvious, but its chaotic order is exciting nonetheless. As you pass from decade to decade, it is as though you are flicking through the pages of Vogue, skipping the classy ads and sometimes soulless editorials, presented with only the best in what the magazine has to offer. The great Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, Edward Steichen, David Bailey, Tim Walker, Lee Miller…the list goes on and on, and they all have their finest moments put on display. There’s less emphasis on the big supermodels here, Moss, Campbell, and images of the royals are very few; instead we are presented with snapshots by photographers who are represented in their lesser-known moments, Bailey’s regal-looking ‘Margaret Thatcher’ to name one.
Walking through the exhibition it becomes clear that this is not just about a series of magical covers and pristine photographs. The cultural message is very clear. Whether it be literature, art, politics, questions of sexuality, or the power of the female figure, British Vogue has always sought to blend fashion with the broader questions of our time. The war photographs of the 1940s, the skimpy outfits of the 1960s, the iconography of the 2000s – everything hanging on the walls has something to say about women, their objectification, their style, and their sense of the world as captured through film.
Journeying back through time, you feast your eyes on a century of social and cultural change, seen through the lens of fashion and fame. Questioning the artificiality of our own times in the rooms dedicated to the 2000s and 2010s, it becomes apparent that the past feels less staged, less stylised, less self-conscious, and in many ways more real. The photos are rigid, the clothes less intriguing, but there is a brutal honesty in what their forced poses represent in comparison to the airbrushing and abundance of nudity in our own times.
With digital reverting to old-school film, and with lighting reigning supreme over the latest edition of Photoshop, style, elegance, and reportage take centre stage, expelling our modern day fears of perfection. Was this a statement cleverly crafted to comment on the state of the fashion world and our own culture from Muir himself? Whatever the reasoning behind this backwards chronology, it’s clear the magazine and its photographers confront our own issues of image and pursuit for bodily perfection. From the fully clothed, elegant models of the 1920s straight through to the thinner, bare-breasted, crotch-grabbing superstars of the 1990s, the exhibition faithfully captures the progression of femininity and female sexuality in some of its most powerful forms: through warfare, death, and political and social turmoil.
Before you walk through the roaring 1920s, there’s a charming library of bound, glossy, and original copies from the Condé Nast archive, surveying the century of Vogue as a mass consumer product. A quick glance at the pages display the major events of the last century from the ethereal beauty of the Art Deco age, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the wedding of Charles and Diana to the horror of World War II, as reported by Vogue’s very own war correspondent (and former model) Lee Miller. Pivotal moments of fashion history reflect the societal leaps of modern history, such as the launch of Dior’s ‘New Look’, celebrating the end of austerity and depression with lavish and extravagant 15m-layers of fabric. If not the more controversial is Donyale Una gracing the cover of British Vogue as its first black model in 1968. It would be a whole ten years before Anna Wintour would do the same at the helm of U.S. Vogue.
Whilst the pictures speak for themselves, it’s the quirky details here that make all the difference. The cocktail menus of credits in the 1930s room, the fairytale magical worlds of Tim Walker, the heroine-chic and the broken documentary aesthetic of the 1990s to the present, framed alongside milliner Stephen Jones and model Ben Grimes, united in electric feathery pink color schemes. A side room showcases a series of slides from the 1940s to the 1990s, making you feel as though you are in the cutting room, watching cells go from snap to page.
Whatever your thoughts are on the industry – of fashion, photography and modeling – Vogue 100 confronts the issues of our times and mirrors them in the magazine’s most provocative form, photography. Its central message is clear. This is an exhibition about people in front of and behind the lens. It is about what they are wearing, who they are wearing, and whose art they inspire and evoke in response to the politics of gender, society, and reform. This is the story of how one magazine ultimately shaped a nation of style through culture, art, and fashion.
Cecil Beaton wanted to call his autobiography When I Die I Want To Go To Vogue. This may not be everyone’s idea of heaven, but for lovers of fashion and reportage, it comes pretty close.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May 2016.