“Not a show for neophytes”, the London Review of Books said of Vogue 100: A Century of Style‘s previous run at the National Portrait Gallery; however, while at some level Vogue’s visual grammar may be arcane, it is also alluring and instantly recognisable. The magazine’s relevance, and the interest it is capable of generating, run deeper still.
In this new run at the Manchester Art Gallery – entry to which is free – visitors are given a lens through which to look at the magazine’s British incarnation and the culture it evolved in from all its best angles.
Introduced in 1916 due to wartime difficulty in importing the American original, British Vogue was born, and thrived, through historic events. Fashion, after all, is inextricably tied to history; whether art imitates life or visa versa, it is a barometer of them both.
Following a period of decadence in the twenties and thirties, original prints from which are on display and include an ultra-rare (and very small) photograph by Man Ray, the magazine flourished during the Second World War. Already hugely popular, the wartime government saw British Vogue as essential for raising morale, and so it largely escaped the limitations that ruined many of its contemporaries. Not only this, but photographers such as Lee Miller – who followed the Normandy invasions to Berlin, taking increasingly graphic and historically important photographs along the way – gave the magazine a relevance far exceeding expensive clothes and elegant models.
Engagement outside of fashion has long been part of the magazine’s culture and, to the show’s credit, this is reflected in the gallery space. Alongside Miller and others’ work documenting wartime life and style at home and abroad, there are also examples of socially conscious work from the 50s, as well as a whole host of portraits of important cultural and historical figures: Josephine Baker, Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, Germaine Greer, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. Unique to the Manchester show, there is additionally a Schiaparelli dress on display that was owned and worn by Wallis Simpson.
The exhibition progresses reverse chronologically. Visitors enter to a video edit of familiar contemporary models and styles (set to a soundtrack that is exactly as you’d expect) before moving back into the past. There are, in fact, several different kinds of timelines in the exhibit, the most interesting of which includes an issue of the magazine from every year since its inception, some of which are fantastically rare.
It’s not all about history, of course, but the show does benefit greatly from such objects and details. Beautiful as some of the many blown up prints from each decade are, looking at fashion photography in a gallery space is a strangely unmoving inexperience. The disposableness of magazines and the works’ commercial raison d’être rob them of any aura.
Nonetheless, in spite of its inherent commerciality, fashion photography is an artistically rich form, and necessarily a beautiful one. From Cecil Beaton, to Irvine Penn, David Bailey to Corinne Day, the work is eclectic and individual. Though viewers might not spend as long looking at an individual print as they might on another form, there is much pleasure to be had in seeing these images so prominently displayed.
All of this is without mentioning the subjects these photographs are orchestrated to frame: the works of designers and the models who wear them. Of the former we see examples from the most prestigious designers in fashion and, of the latter, we see the change from a period where the model was a virtual unknown to one where she is often more important than the clothes she is modelling. Kate Moss and co abound.
Ultimately, what British Vogue has managed to do so well for the last hundred years lies somewhere between the models, their clothes, and the camera: it is in the idea of style, in the understanding (and influencing) of the Zeitgeist. Through the lens of the Vogue photographer, documenting the hedonistic elegance of the twenties right through to a hedonistic elegance of a wholly different kind in the nineties, and much else besides, even the most neophytic visitor will find something of interest here.
Ned Carter Miles
Vogue: A Century of Style runs at Manchester Art Gallery until 30 October. For more information: www.manchesterartgallery.org
1. Marlene Dietrich in London by Cecil Beaton, 1936. Condé Nast Archive London © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd