Whether or not you follow high fashion, Vogue, of all the glossy magazines out there, holds a particular intrigue. Those thick, lustrous pages, the endless adverts for high-end brands, the unapologetic luxury of it all even in times of economic restraint.
Thus the National Portrait Gallery’s celebration of the magazine’s centenary, which opened last week, was bound to be a draw. And it’s exactly what you’d expect; a treasure chest of opulent gowns, sparkling diamonds, and gorgeous, gorgeous people. Everywhere you look there are perfect pouts and vertiginous heels; sweeping couture and perfectly toned limbs.
What the exhibition shows, perhaps most of all, is that Vogue has always been about unattainable glamour; that the impossible standards of beauty and style in its pages today are nothing new.
With a display for every decade, it’s as much a look back at the trends of the last century as it is an examination of Vogue’s cultural footprint and how magazines generally have changed. From 1980s power dressing to the androgynous, practical styles of the 1940s, a large part of the fun is to be had in gawping at what was once considered the height of chic.
It’s also a game of spot-the-celebrity; magazines may be derided now for their obsession with the ‘cover star’, but Vogue had a head-start. The earliest editions celebrated Ziegfeld girls and Broadways dames, a decade later it was socialites and by the 1930s and 1940s it was writers and filmmakers. Everywhere you look there is a famous face; a boyish Rupert Everett on the cusp of notoriety, a pre-scandal John Galliano shot gothically in the shadows. There’s glamorous Naomi and heroin-chic Kate, Liz Hurley and Jerry Hall, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.
But just as much of the ‘celebrity’ comes from the photographers themselves; you really see how much Vogue elevated the person behind the camera and how many careers the magazine has shaped. With names like Patrick Demarchelier, David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Man Ray, this may be about highlighting Vogue’s history, but it’s equally a whirlwind tour of some of the last century’s most impressive portraiture.
The emphasis is on show rather than tell, but there are some fascinating insights nonetheless. You discover, for example, that ‘photoshopping’ is hardly a modern phenomenon, at least in the sense of why one might do it. After all, the early editions featured exquisite line drawings to show off the designs, with the models all curves and sharp edges and the clothes looking fabulous on their impossibly angular frames. And it’s amusing to see some of the cover lines of days gone by; a 1961 issue asking ‘where’s fashion going now?’ must have been recycled a few times since.
Every decade holds its own fascination – look, there’s that supermodel cover from 1990; there’s Dylan Thomas photographed waist deep in a graveyard – but it was the 1950s that I found most mesmerising. The era of Norman Parkinson, of nipped-in waists and attention to neat, flattering tailoring, of elegant travel and perfect coiffing, it seemed to mark a turning point; the moment at which fashion became a young (and wealthy) person’s game. And equally, the moment at which fashion, advertising and glamour converged.
The modern era held less appeal; perhaps because it felt like I could just go to a newsagent to see these kinds of covers and photo shoots. That said, it was fascinating to see the progression from then to now and the outrageous nature of some of the more contemporary photo-shoots. With modern life so saturated with sex and style, Vogue today has to do so much more to capture our attention.
Those expecting a century’s worth of covers will be disappointed, since a large part of the exhibition is dedicated to photographs used on the inside pages. To an extent, you feel a bit of a sucker; surely this is a big advertising exercise being presented as a cultural experience? After all, there’s virtually no social context given, and no discussion of the role of Vogue in perpetuating unrealisable standards among women.
And yet there’s something to be said for an exhibition that celebrates fashion at its most ridiculous, lavish and wonderful, without trying to make it about anything more. This is light entertainment rather than an examination of the influence of women’s magazines, or the darker side of high fashion, and it’s all the better for it.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style, National Portrait Gallery, London, 11 February – 22 May 2016, sponsored by Leon Max