Mid-February 2011, at a train station in Norwich, I emerged from a little W H Smith with my very first issue of British Vogue clutched to my chest. I had thought very carefully about making the £4.10 investment for a few months, and had finally decided it was worth the cost when March’s edition arrived with a meaty size to it, a then fresh face Rosie Huntington-Whitely dressed in red on the cover. After years of lusting over my cousin’s collection, I finally owned my own Vogue.
British Vogue was first published in 1916, after paper shortages and shipping restrictions meant that the original Vogue from America could no longer be imported. It’s first issue was published in September of that year, and grew to be the pinnacle of style that it still is today, one hundred years on. To celebrate the century of publication, The National Portrait Gallery teamed up with the magazine to create Vogue 100: A Century of Style in a huge display showcasing the biggest collection of material ever seen outside of the Vogue archives.
The exhibition opened in February, and runs only until this weekend with it closing on Sunday 22nd May. In it’s three month stint at the National Portrait Gallery the exhibit has had a variety of events and visits; as it hosted a late night event where celebrities from Kate Moss to Victoria Beckham were in attendance, and also a visit from the Gallery’s patron HRH Duchess of Cambridge – Kate Middleton. It was through her patronage to the gallery intact that led to Kate’s cover appearance on May’s official century edition of Vogue.
Lately I’ve found myself almost totally disappointed by recent exhibitions. While I can appreciate the art on display, it feels just that – art framed on a white wall. It’s exhibitions that totally immerse you that I love! Exhibitions like the Tintin: Herge’s Masterpiece one hosted by Somerset House at the start of this year which I wrote a big blog post about in January. Vogue 100 was absolutely one of the latter type of exhibitions. Everything was beautifully extravagant, showcasing the journey that Vogue has been on for the last 100 years from illustrated covers to a book type magazine to the glossy embossed magazine we know and love today.
You enter the exhibition through a room filled with LED pillars covered with Vogue covers from 1916 to today that tower above you. Ahead of you is a room; one side mirrored, the other two showing film clips by Vogue including art films, behind the scene looks into photo shoots, and anything else from the Vogue archives. It’s set to a dreamy piece of music and is the perfect introduction to Vogue’s intention and the feeling it tries to generate.
To your left are a series of rooms, each dedicated to a decade of Vogue work. To your right is a corridor which leads to rooms hosting the most recent decades. The end of the corridor is filled with a huge image of Lee Alexander McQueen shot by Tim Walker for Vogue not long before his death in 2010. It’s stunning. I didn’t take any photos as you weren’t supposed to, but luckily for you people have been sneaking away on Instagram.
It really is visually stunning.
Though you’re advised to turn right and begin the exhibition from modern day and work down to it’s origins, I went right down to the beginning first. Each decade is split into rooms; each different themes & colours of the decade. Plaques or wall prints of contributing photographers & artists are presented in each one, along with a detailed outline of the direction of the decade. Here’s a basic run down of the room styles:
In pastel colours this room is immensely Art Deco, featuring very linear paneling typical of the era and with soft lights that make you feel like it’s a bright sunny day outside. The walls are lined with black & white portraits, perhaps most notably one of Charlie Chaplin.
The era’s continue in a large cylindrical room with cream toned corrugated walls. It’s a light room that’s reminiscent of a Gatsby type summer bandstand… If that makes any sense. It’s really beautiful, showing British Vogue start to flourish into its own styles while also being light & innocent in the peace before the war of the next decade.
The simple yet rich red wood panels lining the walls in this decade room are the perfect backdrop for a room centred for the majority on war time photographs. This room is the one that really reminds you of the historical value that Vogue has documented in it’s 100 years, & of the ways people coped during some of the most horrific years in modern history.
Thick, baby blue fabric lines shelves & hangs from them in curtains in this room, with large awaits frames propped against the wall on them. These photographs include perhaps my favourite new discovery shot taken in India, the unpublished version of Anne Gunning in Jaipur by Norman Parkinson 1956 which really is stunning.
Beige linen coats the walls, in a specially designed fabric by Fermoie linen. It’s a very natural & down to earth room which perfectly suits the 60s aesthetic that’s been recreated for the room.
The seventies are brought to life again with pale, muted yellow walls contrasted by the bright colours featured in the photographs.
The eighties room has a very business feel to it, with a long table in the centre giving a boardroom vibe. It’s painted in pale blues and purples, & a large portrait of Margaret Thatcher hangs amongst space men and Naomi Campbell’s first portraits in the industry.
This room is white, crisp & clean, and is almost exclusively Kate Moss. It features her first 1993 cover and spread by codeine day in March 1993, with the likes of Victoria & David Beckham, Jude law & Hugh Grant by her side.
For a decade with a lot of questionable fashion trend Vogue has presented this room in a clear, white & bright fashion. Lily Cole & Keira Knightly grace the walls next to the newly installed official Vogue portraits of Kate Middleton, as seen in her cover for the official centenary edition publication of the magazine. A royal family member on the cover of any magazine is rare, but Kate perfectly represents British culture & fashion as well as being Patron of National Portrait Gallery.
Duck egg blue lines the tall walls of this small room filled with frames, with portraits of today’s influencers such as Alex Turner in moody powerful shots. Tim Walker’s impressive & beautiful “Awfully Big Adventure” shoot in Mongolia takes pride of place in a huge frame way up above your head. It’s a really simple room that somehow leaves you feeling like the best is yet to come.
A room in the middle of the era rooms presents a timeline across two walls, with covers & momentous occasions documented by year. These occasions document the office location moves, editors coming & going, Cecil Beaton’s first published photograph, the death of Conde Nast, the start of its digital publishing in 1996 & special issues such as the tribute to Diana princess of Wales, as well as more modern breakthroughs the like’s of the Vogue Festival launch. This room also holds three copies of the official exhibition guide for people to flick through without purchase – considerate, noting that the price to buy the book is £40 (£35 in the exhibition shop). The book is beautiful however, features the entire exhibition collection with notes & stories from the curators & other guests. Take this as an official hint for my Christmas present.
One of the most touching parts of the exhibition was a long corridor typeroom presenting actual Vogue editions from present day right back to the first ever edition in September 1916 in glass topped tables. It features closed issues to display the covers as well as issues open on momentous spreads in the magazine’s history. Some of the articles presented in these issues include interviews with Charlie Chaplin, portraits of Coco Chanel, a feature on ‘up & coming’ designer Christian Dior after his first collection in 1947, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe after her death in 1962 and coverage from the Royal Wedding between Diana & Charles in 1981.
There’s also what they’ve named a ‘Planning room’, which is a recreation of actual Vogue offices own planning room that was used up until the mid 1999s. This room is dark, with a long light box table full of photos & the issue dates as photographers choose the final shot. It has projections on opposite walls of what the process of selection used to run like, in a style of process that was started by Edward Steichen in 1932 as the first colour photographic cove. It’s really beautiful, & demonstrates exactly the type of immersiveness that makes Vogue 100 so successful.
There’s a tiny little room just off the 1990s room, filled only with six huge photos framed & all but one lit from behind with led light panel frames. The highlight of this is a stunning portrait of Kate Winslet by regan Cameron from 1998, after gaining her Academy Award nomination for her performance in Titanic. All these little hidden away rooms leave you feeling like there’s so much to be explored in the exhibition, making you feel like it’s a big old treasure hunt. CUTE.
If any gift shop should be reviewed, it’s the small yet brilliant one here. Copies of the centenary issue pile up on every available surface, and a special design of tiled covers from the past is printed on scarves, plastic folders, posters & eyeglass cloths. There’s a £35 book of the exhibition, & a £15 book showcasing just the highlights. There’s original oil painting studies of Cara Delevingne by Jonathan Yeo that a just a couple thousand of pounds, on the sales counter sits a basket holding a now small selection of past vogue issues for sale that start from £20, and there’s even a little section of DVDs such as Pret-a-Porter & The Devil Wears Prada to take home & keep the fashion themed day going. There’s also Vogue 100 mugs, tote bags, pens, pencils, rulers, erasers, key rings, notebooks, bookmarks & even lollipops embellished with the “century of style” tag line. As the icing on the cake, almost everything is now discounted in the exhibition’s final week.
For years people have asked me what it is about Vogue that makes me love it so. I usually answer that it’s down to the photography, but this exhibition made me realise what it is that I adore about the magazine. Yes, the photography is one simple answer; but it’s the way that a photograph captured can portray so much. It’s so easy to see when it’s all together how beautifully each photo depicts the atmosphere of that moment in history, & it really is so visually stunning & emotive of the time that I myself can’t see how you couldn’t fall in love with it. Vogue reminds you to live every minute, to adventure & explore & document life’s moments. And the exhibition really feels like you’re part of Vogue too.
I wrote this blog post when I went to the exhibition in its final week last month, & just never got round to editing & uploading all the notes I made while I was there. The exhibition is now finished in London’s National Portrait Gallery but is now showing at Manchester Art Gallery until October 30th of this year.
If you get the chance I definitely recommend going to see this exhibition, Vogue fan or not. British Vogue is a massive part of our small country’s history & in a mad time like this, it’s one of the things that actually does make me feel proud to be British.