Editor’s Choice April 2007

“Show the Dress”

What to read this month
  • In Vogue

    By Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva

Gorgeously designed, handsomely bound, and abundantly illustrated with some of the best photography of the last century, this swank volume—with its 410 pages of sumptuously thick matte stock—has the look and impossible- to-read-in-bed heft of the highest-end coffee-table book. But In Vogue is a serious, sometimes minute chronicle of the 115-year history of Vogue magazine—or “The Bible,” as the fashion-afflicted call it.

Oddly, the authors, Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva, who are magazine historians rather than schmatte scribes, begin by averring that “no book has yet recounted [the magazine’s] history,” and that theirs is one of the “few titles published about Vogue.” Although it’s true that theirs is the first comprehensive account of American Vogue (Georgina Howell wrote an unusually polished and intelligent history of British Vogue, the first of the at least 14 international editions and a magazine whose grace and stylishness in the 1920s through the ’50s often surpassed its parent), I can think of very few magazines that have been as widely and deeply probed.

Polly Devlin, for instance, wrote an excellent history of Vogue photography (Angeletti and Oliva obviously follow Devlin’s schema in their exploration of that subject, which is the focal point of this book); there’s a history of Vogue illustrations; there are even two histories of Vogue covers. Condé Montrose Nast—who bought the magazine in 1909, brilliantly reconceived it as the incontrovertible arbiter of taste and style to “the woman of fashion” and as the meeting ground of the well-born and the flashy, and directed it toward those ends until his death, in 1942—is the subject of what I reckon as one of the two best biographies of an American magazine publisher (The Man Who Was Vogue, by Caroline Seebohm). All of the major photographers in the magazine’s history—including Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon—have been scrutinized in at least one major book. Vogue’s most illustrious art director, Alexander Liberman, is the subject of an exceptional biography (Alex, by Dodie Kazan­jian and Calvin Tomkins) and of his stepdaughter’s recently celebrated reminiscence (Them, by Francine du Plessix Gray).

The current creative director, Grace “The Cod” Coddington; a former fashion editor, Bettina Ballard, who covered the great, waning years of haute couture; and four of the past five editors in chief have written compelling memoirs or books about the fashion world. (Coddington, once a renowned model and editor at British Vogue, has noted of life at American Vogue, “You’re either having dinner with 300 people or groveling on the floor with pins in your mouth.” She and her partner, the acclaimed hairstylist Didier Malige, have just published The Catwalk Cats, a winsomely revealing and chicly off-kilter account of their lives with their, uh, five cats. Those creatures, “bouncing between Paris, London, and Milan,” must be leading the most glamorous feline lives in world history.)

The Vogue years of the magazine’s most famous deputy editor, Carmel Snow, who was later the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, are treated at length in her memoir and in a recent biography, A Dash of Daring (which I reviewed in the July/August issue). The magazine’s most flamboyant past editor—the loopy, loping, jolie laide Diana Vreeland—is the subject of two biographies, and the current editor, Anna Wintour, is dissected in a pretty trashy tell-all. Mary McCarthy analyzed Vogue with humorless bite, and Gay Talese, who described its editrixes as “a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women … who can speak in italics and curse in French,” sketched it with uncharacteristic smugness.

What accounts for this scrutiny?

For nearly a century, the magazine’s cultural sway—perhaps even more than the content—has lent glamour to the enterprise. Soon after Nast acquired it, Vogue became the authoritative voice in high fashion—the most evanescent art form, as well as a formidable area of commerce—and has never relinquished that position. In fact, since Vreeland’s reign, in the 1960s, Vogue’s role and influence have in certain ways swelled. Until then, the magazine was content in its Olympian task of reporting trends and anointing “just the right coat, the smart shoe, the really elegant bag,” as Edna Woolman Chase, the Quaker-born editor who had worked at the magazine from 1895 to 1951, put it in her charming but forgotten autobiography, Always in Vogue (1956). But now it helps shape and create fashion, as its editors—with antennae exquisitely sensitive to various avant-garde, subcultural, and even transgressive developments—collaborate with designers to create the clothes and the various looks the magazine seeks to promote.

Authority, however, has its downside, a fact of which Angeletti and Oliva are oblivious. Indeed, those looking for critical judgment—including an appraisal of the current Vogue—won’t find it here. Although the authors assure us that they were granted editorial control and “encourag[ed] to write freely” (one wonders by whom), their book is very much a Vogue project, and its narrative of “The Anna Wintour Era,” which swallows up fully 30 percent of the volume, is perforce unrevealing and rah-rah.

More disappointing because less predictable is the authors’ somewhat gingerly treatment of Vogue’s past. An innovative magazine graphically and editorially—it was the first to print an image across a double page, the first to use a full-color photograph on the cover, and the first in America to run a “bleed” photograph (in which the picture runs to the page’s edge; Angeletti and Oliva, who clearly like this sort of thing, fail to note this innovation)—Vogue was nevertheless, up to the Vreeland years (when it ran a bit too wild), constrained by its self-assigned role, which is clear when you compare it in the mid-1930s through the late ’50s with its only competitor, Harper’s Bazaar.

Snow, who left her post as Chase’s deputy at Vogue, presided from 1933 to 1957 at “the Bazaar (with her art director, Alexey Brodovitch, and her fashion editor, Vreeland, who after Snow’s retirement would leave Bazaar to edit Vogue) over the most distinctive and inventive fashion magazine in history. With its varied, Bauhaus- and constructivist-influenced layouts containing the groundbreaking action photography of Martin Munkacsi, the meticulously balanced and corrected pioneering color photography of Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and the innovative work of the young Richard Avedon, Bazaar was often daringly supreme during a crucial period in fashion history: the late, brilliant flowering of haute couture in the work of Dior (Snow famously hailed his spring 1947 collection as the “New Look”) and, above all, Balenciaga (whom the magazine discerningly, aggressively, and at times almost solely championed), as well as the burgeoning of American high fashion in the designs of Charles James, Hattie Carnegie, and Claire McCardell (whose creations inspired some of Dahl-Wolfe’s most exuberant work).

Vogue, astonishingly, had dismissed the work of Munkacsi—whose 1933 snap for Bazaar of a model running on the beach permanently altered and profoundly enlivened fashion photography (models had previously been elaborately posed and lighted in studios) and signaled the new verve of the magazine for which it was taken—and of Dahl-Wolfe, whose cool, formal perfectionism cleanly conveyed the buoyant ease of her models and their clothes. Chase pronounced Munkacsi’s photographs merely “country girls jumping fences,” and her art director thought that the 30-something Dahl-Wolfe, whose work would largely define the look of Bazaar, was too old. The high-flying Snow could take chances that the more rigid Chase wouldn’t and—more important, given the role Vogue had arrogated—couldn’t: As Ernestine Carter, the London Sunday Times fashion editor, put it, “Edna Chase was Vogue’s creation, while Harper’s Bazaar was Carmel’s.”

But in neglecting to assess the intense and creative rivalry between the two magazines—a rivalry that was fueled by Nast’s and Chase’s undying sense of Snow’s treachery, and that shaped Vogue’s sense of its style and mission—the authors distort a central period in the history of Vogue and of fashion. (By the way, ICP/Steidl has just published the definitive work on Munkacsi’s work, Martin Munkacsi, featuring more than 300 photographs and exceptionally penetrating and detailed commentary.)

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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