March 09, 2016

Vogue 100: A Century of Style Celebrated in Style at the National Portrait Gallery

Getting my Vogue on
             Whenever I tell people that I am pursuing fashion journalism, I am usually met with responses such as, “Working at Vogue would be your dream job then, right?” Right. Vogue’s prestigious reputation precedes its namesake, even for those less fashionably inclined.

             I’m sitting here drinking tea from my Vogue 100: A Century of Style mug, which I purchased with the precise intention of being inspired. It’s hard not to be motivated when drinking tea that’s tinged with the fantasy of Vogue, so close that I can almost taste it through my English Breakfast blend.

"The Varnished Truth: Jean Patchett" (1951) by Clifford Coffin, photo courtesy of British Vogue
             To celebrate British Vogue’s centennial, the National Portrait Gallery is showcasing 100 years of photography commissioned by the magazine since its conception in 1916. It was born from the rubble of World War I, when the U.S. version of Vogue was unobtainable. The exhibition brings together over 280 prints from the Condé Nast archive and international collections for the very first time.

"Kate Moss at the Master Shipwright's House, Deptford" (2008) by Mario Testino, photo courtesy of The Guardian
             Starting in 2016, we weave through the rooms and are transported all the way back to the Roaring Twenties, where the art deco covers are truly a sight to be seen. Vogue 100 is a visceral, visual delight. Fashion fans need not bother to read the images’ accompanying placards. The exhibition’s rapturous audience will no doubt be familiar with the photograph’s subjects and the photographers themselves, easily identifiable by their unique styles.

How fabulous is this cover from May 1926?, photo courtesy of British Vogue
             Photographs by Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Bruce Weber, Steve Meisel, Lee Miller, David Bailey, Irving Penn, Lord Snowdon, and Cecil Beaton have graced the hallowed pages of Vogue throughout the years. Now their accumulated wealth of talent proudly lines the National Portrait Gallery. Models include modern-day muses Edie Campbell and Cara Delevingne, as well as throwback stars Grace Coddington, Jean Shrimpton, and Twiggy.

             In amongst the fashion pack, you will also spy the likes of Boris Johnson, The Beatles, Jude Law, David and Victoria Beckham, Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst, Princess Diana, and Aldous Huxley, who used to work as a sub-editor and then an essayist at Vogue.

Aldous Huxley (1926) photographed by Charles Sheeler, photo courtesy of British Vogue
             Personally, I gravitate towards anything by photographers Nick Knight or Tim Walker. I practically floated in the direction of the massive Lee Alexander McQueen portrait by Walker, which occupies its own alcove. If you know me well, you know how much of a fan I am of the late, great designer (read my review of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition from 2015 here).

"Alexander McQueen with Skull and Cigarettes" (2009) by Tim Walker, photo courtesy of FashionUnited
             As I looked up in awe, almost moved to kneel at the altar of my fashion idol, the clearly gleeful expression on my face was apparent, while McQueen’s remained nonchalant in his presiding position – forever my king. My twitching finger had to be restrained from clicking my camera shutter, as photography was not permitted in the exhibition – unbearable as it was for me.

             Speaking of Knight, Vogue 100 features an ethereal print of model Lily Donaldson wearing John Galliano, surrounded by cotton candy pink Diwali dust. It took two years for Knight to arrive at the finished product. Now that’s dedication from a true master of his craft.

This print (2008) of model Lily Donaldson took photographer Nick Knight two years to finalize, photo courtesy of British Vogue
             The exhibition is the culmination of five years of hard work and research by curator and contributing editor to British Vogue, Robin Muir. Muir painstakingly analyzed 1,800 issues of the magazine. Whether you think fashion is frivolous or not, there is no denying the plethora of talent on display at Vogue 100. Copies of the magazine from each year are laid out next to one another, making me envy the rightful owners of these rare, and practically pristine, covers.

The first issue of British Vogue is dated September 15, 1916, photo courtesy of The Guardian
             Vogue 100 is full of smaller parts that help to bring the bigger picture of a magazine in focus, like the cutting room. It flicks through slides from the ‘40s to the ‘90s and shows which final images were chosen, while the others received the chop. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, is said to make split-second decisions, indicating her picture choices with a simple wave of her hand. This type of skill takes a certain ruthlessness and a keen eye that only experience and time can provide.

             This is a task I face with my style blog, A Stitch in Time. It is incredibly difficult to decide what photographs to use when confronted with hundreds, or sometimes thousands of them. The money shot is in amongst all of those pictures like a needle waiting to be found in a haystack. It could be the difference between a smirk and a Mona Lisa smile, or a natural lighting alteration that only lasts for a fraction of a second.

So many choices, so little time, photo courtesy of FashionUnited
             While journalists write the words, the photographers capture the images to accompany them. We agonize over different types of continuity to ultimately illuminate the stories in a fantastical partnership. For without one, there could not exist the other, which is just another reason why I love fashion journalism so much. Vogue 100 only further solidified that for me.

             In the February 2016 issue of British Vogue, Muir comments, “The magazine's editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, knew exactly what Vogue 100 was not going to be: black-framed pictures hung on the gallery wall in rows.” The exhibition is, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s engaging and captivating, so much so that I was still perusing when I heard the loud speaker announcing 10 minutes until closing time. I had to rush to the shop so that I could immortalize Walker’s McQueen print on my pin board and pick up my new writing companion – the aforementioned Vogue mug of course. It looks like it’s time for another cup of tea…

"Claudia Schiffer in Paris" (1989) by Herb Ritts, photo courtesy of CNN
             As I caress the glossy pages of my March issue with Edie Campbell on the front, I whisper, “Happy Birthday” to the influential magazine. Not only has it celebrated its 100th in total style, but it has also ostentatiously blown its own trumpet in a way that only Vogue could – with its own exhibition.

             Vogue 100: A Century of Style is at the National Portrait Gallery until May 22nd. The exhibition has proven to be very popular, so book your tickets in advance online here to avoid disappointment. I additionally recommend choosing a later time slot so that you don’t get caught up in the crowds.

"Limelight Nights" (1973) by Helmut Newton, photo courtesy of The Guardian