In 1916, during the chaos of the First World War, Condé Nast authorised a British edition of Vogue after transatlantic shipments of the American version was made impossible. It was an immediate success and nearly 2,000 issues later, British Vogue continues to be a cultural barometer by placing fashion in the context of the wider world. To celebrate the magazine’s 100th year, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has just opened called Vogue 100: A Century of Style.
Showcasing the photography that has graced its glossy pages the show takes us on a decade by decade journey. On entering, we’re greeted by columns of past British Vogue covers illuminated like beacons – it’s the kind of lighting used in professional make-up mirrors and this feeling of glamour is echoed throughout the exhibition. Designed by Patrick Kinmouth, a long central corridor acts as a physical timeline for the show and small rooms branch off signifying each decade as well as a separate section for The Vogue Library which houses multitudes of back issues in glass cases. Each room has its own defined style through the lighting, colour and even wall texture. It subtly transports you back to the corresponding decade whether it’s the fresh-faced, clean lighting of the 1990s or the sultry lipstick-red walls of the 1940s.
Speaking about the exhibition, Robin Muir, curator and contributing editor to British Vogue noted that the magazine has always been about more than fashion and clothes, and instead it’s served to “shape our understanding of people”. This rings true in the 2000s-2010s room where there’s a marked inclusion of not just models but artists such as Damien Hirst and director Sophia Coppola, even the beaming face of Boris Johnson sits proudly in the array of beautiful faces. These contrasts create a wonderful dialogue with celebrity and fashion photography existing side by side as one.
The whole show is a who’s who of big name photographers and exclusive works, including Corinne Day’s notorious Kate Moss underwear shoot back in 1993, Peter Lindberg’s 1990 cover shot that “defined the supermodel era” and vintage prints from the first professional fashion photographer Baron de Mayer. But it’s the more historical and poignant moments like a series of images taken during the Second World War by Vogue’s war correspondent Lee Miller that reminds us why the magazine remains not only a publishing institution but a cultural one.
Away from the frontline action, Vogue also patriotically pulped its archive to help with the war effort. This is partly why the show has been six years in the making as the team had to source prints from numerous international archives to build a coherent collection. Rather than using copies of images and spreads, Vogue has focused on compiling original vintage prints to signal photography as the true “tool of its trade”. So among the immaculately clustered works and pristine frames, there’s cracks, folds and markings on the photographs which adds to their richness. With all the glitz throughout the exhibition, these moments ground the beguiling world of fashion magazines and make it slightly more tangible for the viewer.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is a seamless portrayal of British Vogue’s editorial eye and highlights its ability to commission world-class photography whether it’s an established name or up and coming talent. With over 280 prints and a magic that emanates from every wall, as a very specific notion of British style, the show could feel a little intimidating as you wander around wearing your coat and scruffy trainers. But the beauty of Vogue has always been a chance to indulge in something bigger than yourself, so you can feel at home in the grandeur as Kate Moss’ carefree smirk catches your eye.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style, National Portrait Gallery, London, 11 February – 22 May 2016, sponsored by Leon Max.
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