The Notebook

'Imagination will take you everywhere'

A Century of British VOGUE

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British Vogue cover, July 1926, by Eduardo Benito.

British Vogue celebrates it’s centenary this year; 100 years since the glossy fashion bible was born amid the turmoil of World War I.

As part of the magazine’s birthday celebrations, it’s collaborated with another respected cultural institution – the National Portrait Gallery – for Vogue 100: A Century of Style, with over 280 photographs by famous image-makers such as David Bailey, Corrinne Day, Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino, Norman Parkinson, Tim Walker and many more.

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Some of the many British Vogue magazines on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: Jessie Williams

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Inside the exhibition. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The interior of the exhibition was designed by a theatre and opera set designer, Patrick Kinmonth, so the architecture echoes the style of each decade and enhances the imagery; art deco pillars to represent the roaring twenties, while a bright red room compliments a striking red photograph. The design has clearly been well-thought out – it makes for an immersive experience – however the small rooms did get crowded easily, which made it difficult to fully appreciate the photographs.

The exhibition is set out in reverse chronological order, so you begin with the latest photographs before walking through a visual timeline of the magazine; from the bold hedonism of the Swinging Sixties to the elegant illustrations which adorned the early covers in the Twenties (Eduardo Benito’s artwork is particularly stunning, see above). Some of the people I spoke to disliked this layout, as they wanted to start from the beginning of the magazine’s history in order to see it’s development.

And what a development it is. The magazine has gone from being a substitute for American Vogue to a renowned international publication in its own right – a magazine which celebrates the fantasy world of fashion as well as being an outlet of creative expression for talented writers, photographers and designers.  Creativity at its best; without boundaries.

But this isn’t just a bland conveyor belt of supermodel after supermodel. Images of Margaret Thatcher, Martin Amis and Francis Bacon appear alongside Lee Miller’s striking photographs of World War II. An amalgamation of politics, literature, and art, all depicted through the paradigm of fashion. This exhibition highlights how fashion is not just a trivial pursuit reserved for vain, rich women; it is a thread which weaves our society together – a significant cultural indicator of our times and an art form in its own right.

Of course the magazine has faced criticism – and deservedly so – for portraying an unrealistic notion of beauty: airbrushed and skinny being two words that come to mind. Definitely not a true representation of real women. But it is arguable that in recent times, Alexandra Shulman (the current Editor-in-Chief) has pushed for a more diverse and wholesome collection of women to grace the magazine’s pages. In 2012, all of the 19 international editors of Vogue pledged to not use models under 16 years-old or ones that appear to have eating disorders. A step in the right direction, indeed, but something which needs developing – what about using models from a range of ethnic backgrounds? What about using transgender models? It is an important debate which needs to be had at Vogue House.

One thing’s for sure; there were plenty of real women viewing the exhibition. Old and young, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and religions (and some men too). I asked a few of them what they thought of the exhibition…

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Lily Donaldson in Galliano by Nick Knight. British Vogue 2008.

One of my favourite images from the exhibition is Nick Knight’s photograph of Lily Donaldson suspended in mid-air wearing a frothy fuchsia Galliano gown in a cloud of pink dust. It looks as if Donaldson is experiencing a moment of pure ecstasy. The image is ethereal, dramatic, and breathtaking; something which perfectly captures how I feel when reading Vogue – it is somewhere I can get lost; a place where my imagination can run wild; a fantasy world far removed from my own reality. And this exhibition encapsulates the sense of aspiration that the magazine exudes.

Furthermore, who better to have as the centenary cover star than the Princess of Perfection herself, Kate Middleton, looking natural and relaxed in the Norfolk countryside. Vogue has certainly pulled off a bit of a coup – it is the Duchess of Cambridge’s first magazine shoot (shot by legendary photographer, Josh Olins). Here’s hoping that the accompanying interview (if there is one) is a revealing and intimate portrayal of a much-loved public figure and arguably the most scrutinised woman in the world. After all, it isn’t just about the pictures – the words are often just as magical.

Two of Josh Olins’ photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge will be on display at Vogue 100: A Century of Style from today. The exhibition runs from February 11th – May 22nd 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery.

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The Duchess of Cambridge on Vogue’s June 2016 cover.

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