I can remember reading my first copy of Vogue magazine. My parents had taken my sister and me away to the Loire Valley in France for a family holiday. We were staying in a beautiful house with a comfortable living space and a small conservatory that overlooked a brook that teamed with dragonflies and midges. Each day we left the cottage and set out to explore the valley. Due to a particularly warm summer the river had almost completely dried up and my sister and I would peer out of the back windows of the car staring at the expanse of mud that stretched to the other side of riverbed where dense trees stood. My sister and I were at the tricky (and presumably very annoying) age where we deemed it almost obligatory to turn our noses up at absolutely everything our parents suggested. We therefore spent a lot of time in protest about the planned day trips, the time spent in the car, what to eat, where to go, who had to pass the map to whichever parent was navigating, and the list goes on. We moaned about everything. An occasion where moaning reached a great new height and where levels of anguish peaked was the day we were driven to a mushroom museum – a dimly lit cave documenting the growth of various breeds of fungi. My sister refused to leave the hire car so whilst she sat in the overly-perfumed Hertz I trooped round the museum- utter boredom mixing with a sense of glee that my parents would be proven wrong in thinking that a mushroom museum might be at all interesting. We headed back to the cottage where an evening of Scrabble (my sister and I were raised on Scrabble and knew more high-scoring words containing the letter Q than we did pop lyrics) and leek and feta pasta was guaranteed to unfurl.
One evening when frustration at being beaten by mercilessly competitive Cambridge-alumni parents and a freakishly intelligent sister got the better of me, intrigue led me to the pile of women’s magazines that were stacked in a corner of the living room. Curled at the edges and out of date there were copies of Vogue and Elle and I started flicking through. Elle came first. Tan lines, waxing and reviews of hairspray all fascinated me.
Up next was Vogue. Even the cover was beguiling – Kate Moss posing in a black suit on a cover that was matte and shiny at the same time. It was an exciting start to say the least! As I pored over the pages I became mesmerised by what unfolded before my eyes. I paused at every advert, analysing each for several minutes, eager to take in every detail and gain an understanding of what I saw. The clothes were nothing like those in the shop windows of Chelmsford High Street back home. Greying drop-ceiling tiles, mannequins with ill-fitting joints (and wigs for that matter) and Miss Selfridge sale rail– it all seemed a world apart from the high octane glamour of the magnificent pages of Vogue. Fashion shoots invited me in, sparking my imagination and leaving me thirsty for more. I knew at this moment that I wanted to get a piece of this magical world. This world that was so far removed from my life as a nerdy schoolgirl (something which I feared would be chronic, and am still wondering whether it is) who went to church, ice-skated and watched back-to-back episodes of Friends at 7 o’clock each evening. It was a new world which set my heart racing. I wanted to be part of the shoots, I wanted to touch the clothes, I wanted to learn more, I wanted to know what it was like to be an adult and to see whether this captivating world would in fact become more tangible as a grownup.
Fashion and Vogue then became my ‘thing’. My clothing choices were still questionable and I found it to be challenging trying to replicate Lucinda Chambers’ styling. It didn’t help that all I had to work with was GAP and Boden childrenswear and the social pressure to fit in with the cool girls at school who were clad in velour, nylon gillets and Playboy G-strings. Whilst navigation of pre-teen fashion was a steep learning curve, one thing that did come more naturally was an ambition to be a fashion journalist (still a work in progress) and a knack for finding space to house my every-growing magazine archive.
My family would despair when, as we sat around the pool of a Mediterranean villa each summer, I would thumb through the pages of Vogue and agonise over which winter coat trend was ‘most me’ and which I would buy. I would try to calculate how far my meagre pocket money savings would stretch to allow me to get a herringbone trench coat bearing in mind alteration costs to make it two foot shorter. Birthday and Christmas lists would detail lists of coffee table books I wanted – Tim Walker, Lee Miller, Dogs in Vogue and Coco Chanel biographies are still old favourites. My room became full of these heavy tomes and I would get home from school and flick through them hoping that some of their otherworldly glamour and beauty would rub off on me. Now that I work for Vogue magazine I do find it slightly embarrassing when friends come round to my flat and observe that approximately 87% of the books on my shelves are in fact written about or written by my employer. A clichéd dream come true or over-eagerness to swat up and become employee-of-the-month? Either way, their judgement doesn’t bother me because I still love reading every single one of them.
When I found out about the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I quickly scooped up tickets for the first day of public viewing. In part this was to avoid the jealously of seeing my Instagram feed flooded with spoilers of what was the come. The prospect of an exhibition celebrating 100 years of my favourite magazine was exciting and I expected it to be an aesthetic masterpiece like any other fashion exhibition.
What I didn’t expect was a jolt of nostalgia and for the exhibition to completely transport me back to my pubescent years that followed that week spent in the Loire Valley. Images from the 2000s sent me speeding backwards along the timeline in my head – the timeline of my life from the early days when my nose was the size of a button through to life now as a 22 year old, the Loire Valley right of passage plonked right in the middle. I found myself placing each image on my personal storyline and remembering where I was and what I was doing when I first saw each image in the magazine having eagerly ripped it out of the cellophane wrapping on finding it on the doorstep after school, university or a day at work. I relived the sense of magic. I came to realise that Vogue has been more than just a dreamy magazine to me but a constant through the second half of my lifespan. It has been the monthly punctuation throughout the ups and downs of teenage angst, university life and moving to London. It could be counted on and it always arrived, never late. When school was rubbish, when I wasn’t winning my figure skating competitions, when I had untameable curly hair, when I was lonely, when I was happy and when life was changing I always had Vogue. I always had that dream and that hope that one-day I too could be in a world where Agyness Deyn poses with a leopard, Lily Donaldson models spring/summer fashions in Peru or where Kate Moss poses topless in a desert. Of course it wasn’t the be all and end all. I had parents, I had a sister, I had friends (and still do may I just point out) and Vogue didn’t necessarily fix anything, but it was always there.
Vogue taught me a lot about becoming a woman and getting to know myself. It taught me how to care for my clothes, how to look after my body (without even the suggestion of a diet) and how to embrace my flaws (something few credit Vogue or the fashion industry for doing). It is thanks to Vogue that my desire to read more books has been reignited and had it not been for a 2013 article about Arup International I wouldn’t know about the importance of engineers in reshaping communities after natural disasters. Equally, I wouldn’t have been taught the value of giving a good bunch of flowers (I suspect my friends are thankful for the acquirement of this gem of wisdom) or how to roast meat well or how to host a dinner party, albeit for 4 rather than 20 people.
The fashion pages of Vogue change month on month, each time offering a fresh and creative way of styling the season’s pieces. These pages have helped me to navigate, understand and define my own sense of style. I have come to learn what I like (scruffy masculinity that centres primarily around denim, cashmere and jersey are my sartorial preferences) and equally I have come to learn what I don’t like. Personal style is more than just being fashionable or following trends but rather it is a means of expressing yourself, feeling comfortable and feeling like your exterior is a good match for who you feel you are and how you wish to present yourself to the world. I feel that this is too often undermined yet it is an important part of our identity. It’s not about what labels you’re wearing or how short your skirt is or whether your colours are on-trend but instead it’s about seeing the bigger picture and learning who you are and what that looks like.
At university I was in a seminar group that focused on social change in the 1960s. Throughout the final year we learnt about civil rights, Black Panthers, the Swinging Sixties, student protest, police brutality, Watergate and Vietnam. When it came to choosing our dissertation topics many chose to study the weighty contentious historiography of these hard-hitting topics, the racial agenda of historians, political tactics and the history or guerrilla warfare. Whilst these are all worthy and interesting, my focus remained on Vogue. If I was going to have to spend all day every day reading books and studying I might as well make it something I enjoy and something that mattered to me. I studied how Vogue was more than just a fashion magazine but rather a mirror of social change and the wants and mores of its eager readers. I was interested in the everyday, the lives of ‘normal’ people and how a household name like Vogue made a difference, if one at all. I found that Vogue didn’t just exist alongside a complex social narrative but rather rode the wave and held its readers’ hands along the way. Social change was inexorably linked with what Vogue chose to put on its pages. Whilst I found this to ring true for the 1960s I discovered as the exhibition traced Vogue back through time that this has always been the case ever since Vogue’s creation in 1916.
It is clear that Vogue was a constant and a cheery spark of hope in the lives of women in times of war, strife and social change right though the twentieth century as well as a constant for my life growing up as a girl in Essex. The magazine contributed its archives to the war effort, printed Lee Miller’s experiences in post-Nazi Germany and pioneered new talent to photograph the changing face of Britain. Life isn’t easy now and it would be naïve to think that it was any easier prior to my arrival into a fairly stable Britain in 1993, so it is presumably a given that the solace I seek in the pages of a magazine that photographs and documents beautiful things, ugly things, real life, fantasy, new talent and old faces was also a much-needed and very welcome escape to women of generations before my time. Vogue’s accomplishment should therefore not be underplayed and I take my hat off to Robin Muir for curating an exhibition which so perfectly celebrates and acknowledges Vogue’s tenacious and persistent ability to make life just a tad better.
I don’t know what’s round the corner for me or for Britain (an EU referendum is on the horizon that has the potential to reshape the political landscape) but one thing is for sure that is that British Vogue will endure and it will be my lifejacket, inspiration, consolation, aspiration, cheer and comfort – unfailing and unfaltering. Vogue will continue to narrate the bigger picture of life in the twenty-first century whilst also helping us steer and narrate our own lives with our head’s held high.