THE MARTIANS could probably tell a lot by flicking through a selection of Vogue’s covers.
To celebrate 120 years of the world’s most influential fashion magazine, its editors have published a collection, Postcards from Vogue: 100 Iconic Covers, which chronicles snapshots of western culture and its preoccupations over the last century.
Arguably no other cultural forum has so accurately captured the zeitgeist. The magazine was founded in 1892 by Arthur Baldwin Turnure as a weekly publication, but came into its own when the American media mogul Condé Montrose Nast added it to his portfolio in 1909, transforming it from a small New York society magazine into the fashion bible it is today.
Under Nast, its covers mixed a surrealist style (Salvador Dalí, amongst other early 20th century artists, provided artwork) with reportage-type images, including its striking pose of a nurse shot against a Red Cross during the last year of the Great War, which appeared on the cover of its May 1918 issue; while its covers from the 1920s are a paean to jazz and the age of the flapper.
Vogue was one of the first magazines to publish a cover with a colour photograph in
1932. The innovation meant that for the first time intricate detail on models’ dresses could be celebrated.
Designers were chuffed, which prompted a surge in the placement of ads, marking a tipping point in the marriage of advertising and journalism. With photos taking over from artwork, landmark covers of screen icons such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly ensued.
In the 1960s, as America and Britain were overrun for the first time with youth culture, Vogue discarded its curvy models from the previous decade in favour of skinny, androgynous models like Twiggy, who graced its May 1967 cover as a flower child, all spaced out with face paint, looking about 14 years old.
Not for the first time the magazine reflected great social change. In 1974 — a year after it became a monthly edition, and 60 years after it first published a photograph of a woman wearing a bob hairstyle — it caused a sensation when Beverly Johnson became its first black model to appear on its cover.
It wasn’t until March 2008 that a black man (previous men to adorn its covers included George Clooney, Richard Gere and Bono) surfaced on a cover. The issue displayed a chargedlooking LeBron James, the basketball star, clutching the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
The photo attracted criticism for racial prejudice, as it was claimed it aped the famous 1933 movie poster for King Kong. Bündchen, interestingly, is one of the most featured models to appear on Vogue covers, with 11 notches. The others on the list are Kate Moss (eight), who caused a splash with her prewedding cover last year; Veruschka (12); Amber Valletta (16); Jean Patchett (16); Claudia Schiffer (18); Cindy Crawford (18); Karen Graham (20); and Jean Shrimpton (20), who is remembered for helping to launch the miniskirt to the masses.
The queen of Vogue covers, however, is the gap-toothed Lauren Hutton, who led 26 issues. Famous for parlaying a particular kind of almost wholesome blonde American beauty in the 1970s, she once turned down $1 million from Larry Flint to do a nude photo shoot, an exercise she relented to in 2005 when posing in an eight-page spread in Big magazine at 61 years of age.
If Hutton is the most prominent face of Vogue, Annie Leibovitz, who was the last person to photograph John Lennon hours before he was murdered, is the magazine’s most influential photographer. Since her cover photo of Lennon for a Rolling Stone issue in 1970, Leibovitz has been the great chronicler of popular American culture. She’s done 33 Vogue covers, from Iman to Rihanna, as well as the millennium special edition issue, which could display either way round on newsstands and featured Hutton, Naomi Campbell and several other seminal models in pale gowns.
Two years earlier, Leibovitz cajoled First Lady Hilary Clinton into discarding her trademark stiff navy blue suits for a black ball dress for Vogue’s Christmas issue, the cover appearing at the end of an annus horribilis for the Clinton couple, the year of her husband’s impeachment.
Perhaps no one is more synonymous with Vogue than its notorious editor, Anna Wintour. She has held the tiller at the magazine’s New York office since 1988.
Oprah Winfrey reportedly shed 20 pounds before being allowed to appear on the cover in 1998.
Wintour’s first cover in November 1988 caused a stir by blending the casual with haute couture when she kitted out a 19-year-old Israeli model in a $50 pair of faded jeans and a bejewelled Lacroix jacket worth $10,000.
The cover was also notable because it marked a shift in the magazine’s reverence for the face, pulling back the lens to focus on the body and clothing instead. Designers were enamoured with the development.
Wintour knows her market. The average age of a Vogue reader is 34 years old; she’s also moneyed.
Wintour has pandered to this elitism — the insatiable appetite for glamour — in her cover selections, which included several of Lady Diana, one of which appeared in July 1997, a month before she died in a car crash in Paris.
Wintour’s elitist tendencies, of course, reflect the magazine’s other great editor, Diana Vreeland, who reigned in the 1960s. “I love royalty,” she once said. “They’re always so clean.”
Postcards from Vogue: 100 Iconic Covers is published by Penguin, €16.99