Inside Vogue magazine's fabulous show-off show in London

New exhibition, Vogue 100: A Century of Style, celebrates the iconic images the glossy has showcased over the decades. From Kate Moss to Princess Diana, Suzanne Harrington takes a look.
Inside Vogue magazine's fabulous show-off show in London

IMAGINE falling through a rabbit hole, and landing inside a giant copy of Vogue, but one without all the adverts.

Instead it’s a gigantic walk-through one that spans a century, each decade a in a different room, each room a different colour, each wall blazing with images of one hundred years of beauty represented as art.

That would quite hallucinatory, wouldn’t it?

Especially when so many of those faces are some of the most famous in the world.

British Vogue is 100 this year, and to celebrate its birthday, it is having the most fabulous show-off show at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

The night before they let us in, there is a party hosted by Vogue’s UK editor, Alexandra Shulman, crammed with many of the models who are posing down from the glossy heights of their portraiture — Lara Stone, Lily Donaldson, Jourdan Dunn, Erin O’Connor, Jerry Hall, Elizabeth Hurley, various LeBons, as well as a handful of their photographers.

Mario Testino and Juergen Teller mingled with the fash pack, Kate Moss (who has appeared on British Vogue’s cover 36 times, and internationally, over 300 times) was represented by her younger sister Lottie Moss, and Dakota Johnson, wearing liquid gold, wandered in from a premiere of her new film around the corner in Leicester Square.

Everyone else seemed to be wearing black.

“I shot my first Vogue cover when I was 16 years old,” Jerry Hall told the New York Times.

“But ever since it’s been like a beautiful lifelong courtship between us.

“I still use it to decide what to wear 40 years on.” (That’s fashion for you — the rest of us use a mirror).

The glitter has been swept away the next day, leaving a vast space full of the very best of the very best fashion photography.

Before we go on, I should confess — I have zero interest in fashion and who is wearing what by whom. None whatsoever.

But Vogue rather transcends the basic ‘girl in a dress’ thing — even though it is always a girl in a dress, the magazine has taken this very basic premise and elevated it into an artform.

Walking through its decades is to time travel through one hundred years of cultural glamour, so that by the time you exit through the gift shop, you have been half blinded by beauty.

You might be forgiven in thinking that beauty equals thin, white and rich, because that is almost exclusively what is represented here — but that’s what Vogue is all about.

It reflects the thin, white, rich fashion industry.

Anyway, the exhibition. Wow.

Everyone’s here, and not just the models.

Beauty on its own gets a bit samey, but these are not ordinary fashion shoots — as it’s Vogue, the photos have been taken by the best photographers in the world, from Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson to Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts.

It’s photography as art, rather than commerce — Lee Miller is here, and Man Ray.

Snowdon and Irving Penn David Bailey, Herb Ritts and Nick Knight and Patrick Demarchelier.

Mario Testino, naturally.

Curated by Robin Muir, one of British Vogue’s contributing editors, many gorgeous vintage prints have been included – Horst’s famous and much imitated corset shot from 1939 (the Vogue caption read “Where there’s a will there’s a waist”) is one of the 280 images taken from the Conde Nast archives for the show — Horst’s image inspired Madonna’s hit Vogue, the simplicity of the image launching a thousand copycat fetish shots.

The overlap between art and fashion is very much in evidence — I take a selfie next to a black and white portrait of a young, intense Francis Bacon.

Henri Matisse is here, and Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Damien Hirst.

As are culturally prominent individuals over the past hundred years — Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich and Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana inevitably, and David, Victoria and Brooklyn Beckham are dotted around, as are Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Prince Charles (looking a bit daft with some chickens).

There is a baby-faced Jude Law from 1996 and baby-faced Beatles from 1964. A man in black and white turns out to be Christian Dior.

A huge portrait of American artist Cindy Sherman dressed as a clown has its own wall, as does the late Alexander McQueen, smoking a fag, and leaning on a human skull, also smoking a fag.

There are so many Kate Mosses you go Moss-eyed after a while, although the most interesting is her very first Vogue cover from March 1993, when she is still a wide eyed Croydon teenager.

The show also features those early underwear shots of her by the late Corinne Day, which gave us words like waif and heroin chic, as well as all the pouty glossy super-styled covers which defined her career.

British Vogue began life in 1916 essentially for pragmatic reasons.

In the middle of World War I, there was no guarantee that the original magazine, founded in 1892, would make it safely across the Atlantic from America.

So its publishers, Condé Nast, authorised a British edition, which was instantly successful and has remained in continuous print ever since.

Reflecting the wider world, the magazine shot its fashionable ladies in the context of the world around them — amid the rubble of bombed out post-war London, on scooters in the Swinging Sixties, lounging decadently in 1970s swimming poors, posing as glamazons of the 1980s, and within the carefully glamorised grunge of the 1990s.

Each decade has its distinctive look, made even more distinctive by the passage of time — the Noughties is perhaps the exhibition’s blankest era, lacking the character and opulence of earlier decades.

MY FAVOURITE are the classic mid century shots — in terms of pure Vogueiness, of fantastical magical realism, it’s hard to beat Norman Parkinson’s shot of Anne Gunning in Jaipur, in a pink fluffy coat and giant fan, accessorised by an elaborately decorated elephant and several men in pink.

The magazine is more than aware of its own fabulousness — a 1991 shot of Linda Evangelista mirrors the golden age goddess look of classic Vogue covers.

Early Vogue didn’t use photography, however.

At its inception, photography was not yet the medium of choice — so early covers were done by artists and illustrators.

Art deco and modernism featured heavily, in clear, clean covers uncluttered by promises of what was inside.

Back then Vogue cost one shilling, came out fortnightly, and sometimes featured images which had little to do with fashion — August 1917 had a stylised illustration of a fur-clad woman violently harpooning a polar bear.

(Although perhaps there’s a link — Anna Wintour of US Vogue remains a keen promoter of fur as fashion item, despite wider cultural abhorrence).

One of the most beautiful non-photographic covers — in an era where photography was now firmly the norm — came in October 1945, as World War II ended.

It was simply a clear blue sky, the issue titled ‘Peace and Reconstruction’. The iconic Vogue logo was not devised until the 1950s.

But the most popular format for Vogue covers is the ubiquitous girl in a dress — and interestingly, if the girl is famous for something other than being beautiful, the magazine tends to sell more.

So it’s not just beauty that lures us in, but beauty with a story.

According to Robin Derrick, former creative director of British Vogue, a famous beautiful girl always looks more beautiful than an identical non-famous beautiful girl.

A cover with Penelope Cruz on it, for instance, once outsold a cover with Kate Moss, because Cruz had just started dating Tom Cruise. We like a story.

For its 90th anniversary, Robin Derrick put together a coffee table collection of 230 Vogue covers from the then archive of 1,500 past editions.

A decade later, Vogue is getting its very own show, which — even if fashion bores you to death — is most definitely worth a look. It’s too beautiful to miss.

Vogue 100: A Century Of Style, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, now until May 22. www.npg.org.uk

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