2016 is a significant year for British Vogue, and to celebrate, it has produced an exhibition that will mark this centenary in absolute Vogue style. Vogue has created a retrospective display of its creativity by sharing some of its most memorable photographs from their 100 years in publishing.
On entering the exhibition, housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London, it almost feels as if you are walking through a life sized version of Vogue magazine, one that spans the course of an entire century. From the moment you walk through the doors the rooms light up and grab your attention. The entrance shows a colourful selection of various Vogue covers displayed on floor to ceiling stands, and the walkway leads you straight into a three-walled room where a moving image on rotation is projected onto two walls, and this is emphasised further with a full sized mirror on the third wall. The moving image shows behind the scene footage of Vogue photo shoots, and mini clips of everyone from Cara Delevingne to Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer.
The layout can be at times slightly confusing or off-putting as the exhibition works backwards, housing a room for each decade starting with the 2010’s room and moving all the way back to 1916. Robin Muir, curator of the exhibition said that he felt it was important to begin with what’s happening now, and so chose this reverse chronology for the exhibition. Despite the somewhat difficult to navigate layout, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with the beauty of what they have produced and how they have created a benchmark for fashion and the way we view it and enjoy it.
By the time you reach the end of the exhibition you have been transported back to a time when colour photography didn’t exist in the magazine and Vogue was completely illustrated by hand. The room named ‘The Vogue Library’ includes some of the most beautiful hand-drawn magazine covers, a style which remained in place until the mid-1930’s when colour photographs were introduced. Studying the craft and sheer talent portrayed in these covers it is difficult not to be mesmerised and enthralled of a past generation that equally inspires.
Given that this is the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition is centred on portraits that have been commissioned for British Vogue since its inception in 1916. These select portraits have multiple elements which add to their intrigue. From Princess Diana in her wedding dress to Kate Moss in her underpants, these images span the course of a century and cover hundreds of events which occurred in this passage of time. A historical record, a social timeline, call it what you will, Vogue 100 is a remarkable collection of images, capturing the zeitgeist of each decade through the history of the magazine. The exhibition charts a whole century of social and cultural change and the continuous cultural impact that British Vogue has had on a century of readers. While each edition is reflective of the times in which it was published, Vogue magazines also contain dreamlike qualities in both the stories that are told and the narratives which underlay the photographs. This enables readers to escape the trials and tribulations of daily life whether it be war times, recession, or any other period of social unrest. Vogue has the power of giving its readers the hope and possibility of change and escape.
This is especially significant when making your way through the rooms of the 1940’s through to the 1970’s. The room title for the 1940’s room is ‘The Art of Peace’, and the 1930’s is ‘Glorious Twilight’ which is perhaps a subtle suggestion of the hard times to come. From displaying the hardship of wartime in the 1940’s, and a crafted image of what social realism really meant in the 1950’s, Vogue encompasses these periods through the art of photography. Vogue was considered to be vital in boosting morale on the home front during the Second World War, and was even supplied with extra paper during rationing in order to continue publishing. An image by Cecil Beaton which was featured in British Vogue in 1941 and is entitled “Fashion is indestructible” shows an impeccably dressed woman clad in a two piece skirt suit, hat and loafers as she stands gazing into a building destroyed by a bombing. It appears that bothVogue and fashion itself stood the test of time even when the country was in the midst of such turmoil.
As you discover each room and its dedicated era, it becomes clear that the 2000’s and the 2010’s rooms are somewhat disappointing, at times even making you wish you could have belonged to years bygone. Perhaps it is because the earlier decades feel more genuine. As photoshop and other photo enhancing tools develop throughout the decades as can be seen in the later rooms (specifically the 2000’s and 2010’s) although strikingly beautiful, the images seem more extraordinary and less relatable. The later rooms seem more focused on celebrity and the face behind the clothes, while the earlier images appear more focused on the clothing and overall creation of the photograph. This idea of celebrity culminates in the 1990’s room when the famous Supermodel cover was published in January of 1990. From here on in the exhibition it is rare to see an image that doesn’t include either Kate Moss, Cara Delevigne, or one of our other most famous contemporary models or celebrities. That’s not to say that Vogue didn’t feature famous faces before the ’90s, in fact it often included images of famous people, but it appears in the earlier editions that the fame takes second place.
As you move through the 1970’s and 1980’s rooms, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and Grace Coddington all feature heavily, but there remains a large sincerity in these images and a backstory which sometimes isn’t fully present in the more contemporary portraits.
Overall, this exhibition is about storytelling, image-making, and dream creation, which is essentially what Vogue is, and has always been about. As Alexandra Schulman, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue since 1992, says: “Vogue has always been very true to its initial aim to report on the world of contemporary style using the best talent available to do it. Although styles and fashions change, Vogue has remained constant as a chronicler and to some extent creator of a certain type of world that fascinates. And a large amount of the content has been about culture in general, which is a great complement to fashion and which gives it a broader base than some other fashion magazines.”
As this illustrious publication enters its second century in 2016 at a time where fashion reporting is moving further away from print and becoming more digitally based, this exhibition is a pleasant reminder of the traditional fashion magazine and how it all began. Vogue 100: A Century of Style is an extremely special collection of photographs and memories, a collection that marks the colourful and impressive past of British Vogue, a magazine that has stood the test of time for one hundred years, and counting.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from February 11 to May 22, 2016.
If you can’t make it to the exhibition in person, you can get a digital guided view from Curator Robin Muir and Vogue’s Creative Director Jaime Perlman here.