The word ‘iconic’ is often overused, but it feels like an accurate description of the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, covering 100 years of British Vogue. A century of fearless editors, photographers and contributors has been whittled down to 287 photos and a selection of the most eye-catching covers, showing why the magazine has always flown off newsstands. Polly Devlin, in the foreword to the official exhibition highlights book, writes: ‘Photography is a language, and no one speaks it better than Vogue.’ What began with Baron de Meyer, the magazine’s first paid photographer, led to Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Paolo Roversi and Nan Goldin, to name but a few.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style runs in reverse chronological order, taking you backwards from the familiar faces of recent decades towards less familiar (but equally arresting) shots of the 40s, 30s and the first issue of the fashion magazine way back in 1916. Unfortunately the Condé Nast archive is very sparse from 1916-1941, as a wartime economy drive saw paper and photos pulped, no matter how glamorous their contents. However, the curators trawled tirelessly to fill those gaps, securing loans from other museums (Getty, the Smithsonian) and private collections around the world. Copies wouldn’t cut the mustard – Robin Muir, exhibition curator and also a former contributing editor to Vogue, wanted the original prints, with “tears, cracks and the patina of age, with a story to tell,”. No wonder this exhibition was six years in the planning.
Kate Moss worshippers will love her famous Corinne Day portraits from 1993, but La Moss isn’t the only star of the show. She’s jostling for attention amid the ethereal Guinevere Van Seenus, Lara Stone and Gemma Ward, not to mention the moody brilliance of Steven Meisel’s Anglo Saxon Attitude shoot (December 1993), styled by Isabella Blow and featuring Stella Tennant and Bella Freud.
Then there’s the one and only Naomi Campbell, whose debut Vogue cover, in 1987, is one of those featured in the Planning Room, which shows the wide selection of photos the Art Director and Editor had to decide between. Negatives were cut out individually and projected onto the wall to be mulled over in the darkness – something recreated here, right down to the click, click, click of the slides. Look for shot after shot of Campbell in a desert landscape, wearing a lavish gold pannier-covered Chanel dress with satin knee-high britches (not an easy ensemble to carry off).
Vogue has always been able to capture dramatic photos like these, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that action shots in everyday situations really began to take hold, challenging the prevalence of fashion illustrations and static poses. Peter Knapp’s unmissable June 1971 shoot, Is Bad Taste A Bad Thing?, is a typically dynamic and controversial Vogue moment. He captures a model running through Hyde Park, pushing a pram just like the uniformed nannies around her, but wearing gold hot pants and vermillion tights, with her red hair spilling over her shoulders. That’s the essence of Vogue – an enthusiasm for fashion, no matter how flamboyant, as an art form in itself.
There have also been regular collaborations with artists like Man Ray, Tracey Emin and Cindy Sherman; the incredible sets and props created for the surreal Tim Walker share this artistry, not least his famous memento mori photo of the late Alexander McQueen (2009). Plenty of the images on show – not just Walker’s – could work as paintings, such as a Snowdon shot of Azzedine Alaia in his atelier, surrounded by piles of bound papers.
Beyond the constructed drama, Vogue has always included sharp editorial and photojournalism. It captures the zeitgeist and isn’t afraid to juxtapose fashion with Lee Miller’s intrepid coverage of WWII and its aftermath, or Marie Colvin’s post-war report from Baghdad (1993).
However, there’s still a long way to go to ensure Vogue mirrors body diversity. Walking around the exhibition, you can’t help but notice it’s predominantly white, save for the likes of Josephine Baker, Naomi Campbell, Talisa Soto, Iman, and a painted 1927 cover starring a Picasso-esque model. A year ago, Jourdan Dunn became the first solo model cover star of colour in 12 years. With 12 issues published each year, that’s 144 consecutive covers featuring white models. Meanwhile, in terms of body shapes, only one plus-size photo stands out in the exhibition, buried in the waif chic of the 90s room. You’d be forgiven for thinking skinny white women are the only Vogue readers.
Diversity issues aside, Vogue 100 is a really comprehensive and enjoyable exhibition and, just like the magazine, it’ll make you reach for your credit card. The NPG shop is filled with tie-in products, most of them affordable, letting you buy into this century of style. This is one fashion bandwagon you really should jump on.
Vogue 100: A Century of Style is showing at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 22 May 2016. For more information and to book tickets, see the NPG’s website.