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.)
Strikingly but entirely appropriately, this fat history devotes essentially no attention to the reams of glossy print that Vogue has given over to reporting and probing the subject—clothes—to which the magazine dedicates itself. (Non-fashion pieces by fancy writers, almost always mediocre work, have regularly adorned its pages, but largely, it would seem, so that those contributions can be noted in books like this one; as a former art director said of one such writer decades ago, “She’s like a piano player in a whorehouse. She may be a very good piano player, but nobody goes there to hear music.”) You might expect fashion to be a great subject for sparkling, accessible criticism: It’s a popular and tactile art form that sensitively reacts to (and has even at times engendered) cultural, technological, social, and economic forces both sweeping and minuscule; that possesses a highly developed set of techniques; and that holds a rich and complex history to which its practition‑ ers continually respond. But not only has fashion failed to produce its own Mencken, M. F. K. Fisher, or Kael (and that the theorists in academe have embraced it as a trendy subject should extinguish all hope that it ever will); seldom does any fashion writer clearly define the essential qualities of a design or concretely convey the workings of cut and construction.