Ambition, power, whim – behind the world’s most famous fashion magazine

The 130-year-old history of Vogue is not just a study in brand-building but also an overview of issues that have plagued Western society in this period – from war widows to consumerism, racism and sexism.

By Neha Kirpal

From a little-known society magazine to one of the world’s most recognised glossies, the 130-year-old history of Vogue is not just a study in brand-building but also an overview of issues that have plagued Western society in this period – from war widows to the consumerism, racism and sexism that are entrenched in high-fashion and corporate leadership.

Many of these stories are encapsulated in Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue (Quercus / Hachette, Rs 899), the debut book of Nina-Sophia Miralles, an award-winning London-based writer and editor specialising in the arts, history and lifestyle. The author traces the trajectory of what is one of the world’s most famous magazines including backstories of editors and important stakeholders who ran it through two world wars, many successes and failures.

Launched in December 1892 by a well-connected New York gentleman, Arthur Turnure, Vogue was bought by media magnate Condé Montrose Nast in 1909 and soon expanded to the UK. The popularity of British Vogue, or ‘Brogue’ as it was known, soared during World War I.

With most men off fighting the war, women’s magazines assumed new importance in shaping social outlook. It was amidst such an environment – one in which the women suffrage and emancipation movement was gaining steam – that the Vogue brand took off.

“By the end of the war, women had begun to see themselves beyond their reproductive abilities and fashions were beginning to mirror the change in mindset,” writes Miralles. When suffrage was finally granted in the UK in 1918 and 1928, there were multitudes of war widows – women who had to support themselves without husbands or fathers.

Miralles connects the designs of the time – such as more practical and looser silhouettes – with the mental strength that women donned as they stepped out of home. “A landscape of death and devastation on this scale meant gender could no longer be relied upon to govern social norms,” the author notes.

In 1920, Vogue Paris was launched – incidentally, it is the only Vogue out of its 27 editions known by city rather than country, identifying itself with the home of haute couture.

Nina-Sophia Miralles (Photo: Anna Orhanen)

Miralles also delves into the idiosyncrasies, contradictions and rivalries of some of Vogue’s most iconic editors over the decades. The magazine’s longest serving editor, Edna Woolman Chase joined the magazine in 1895 and was the editor-in-chief of three Vogues – British, American and French – from 1914 to 1952.

Then there is Anna Wintour whose character is immortalised by Meryl Streep’s performance as the terrifying fashion editor Miranda Priestly in the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada. The 72-year-old Wintour has been at the helm of the American Vogue since 1988 and was promoted to global editorial head in 2020.

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, 2006

It is interesting to note that while Vogue editors were largely women, the magazine proprietors were always men. When editorial decisions became too feminist or inclusive for advertisers’ comfort, no time was wasted in letting the women editors go.

This included Dorothy Todd, the second editor of British Vogue from 1922 to 1926, who was out gay, and who was fired by Condé Nast for making the magazine too “bohemian”. Diana Vreeland, editor of American Vogue from 1963 to 1971, had already made a formidable name for herself as fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and had launched many iconic careers. Known for her idiosyncrasies, she established several trends and brought an unprecedented perspective to sixties’ Vogue before she was suddenly let go.

Diana Vreeland during an editorial meeting at Vogue, New York, May 1, 1963 (Photo: Ben Martin/Getty Images)

Her fate was shared on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean by Frenchwoman Edmonde Charles-Roux, who wanted fashion to be more than an art form and saw it as a vehicle for social change. She planned to put African-American model Donyale Luna on the cover of Vogue Paris in 1966, but the New York proprietors, both white male, would have none of it: “She went to the accounts department to pick up her pay check and was informed it would be her final one.”

Vreeland’s successor Grace Mirabella, editor from 1971 and 1988, too faced the corporate chopping block. She wanted to do features on women’s evolving role in society and on affordable fashion. Despite readership growing threefold during her stint, the owners did not see eye-to-eye with her editorial vision. She was not even informed that her services had been terminated; her husband learnt about it while watching the news on television. She went on to launch her own fashion glossy, Mirabella, in partnership with Rupert Murdoch.

Grace Mirabella standing in her soon-to-be headquarters for her new magazine, Mirabella, 1988 (Photo: Mario Ruiz/Getty Images)

Another notable name is Colombe Pringle, editor of Vogue Paris from 1987 to 1994, who dared put African-American opera singer Barbara Hendricks on the cover of the Christmas 1987 issue. She had hoped that “an accomplished and powerful black personality could serve as a sort of loophole to the unwritten ban on black cover stars”. She also had Nelson Mandela on board as guest editor in 1993. However, advertisers were not too thrilled with her experiments in inclusivity and Pringle was asked to leave.

Further, the book also throws light on some of the cut-throat competition that took place between various leading glossy magazines of the time, such as Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Tatler. Along the way, the author discusses some of the changing fashion trends during various eras in history from the “ultra-feminine fifties” to the “midiskirt seventies”.

Coming to the technology boom and the advent of the internet in the 2000s, Miralles talks about the influence exerted by several new-age tools – social media, blogging, mobile phones, e-commerce and influencers – on the fashion industry as a whole.

Forced to adapt to the new realities, the Vogue brand diluted from fashion glossy to bridal shopping events and high-end cafes and restaurants. And yet, despite Condé Nast’s wide repertoire of 25 publications – including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and GQVogue continues to bring in 28 percent of its entire global revenue.

Herself the founder of a UK-based culture magazine, Miralles is no doubt an admirer of Vogue and what it stands for. Even so, her book is an enlightening peek into the global fashion landscape over the past century. It’s also informative for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the history of modern publishing, particularly magazines.

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