En Vogue: British fashion's first century

Towards the end of every year, there’s a point when fashion seems to go to sleep. In early October, Paris rounds off its summer showings: the circus packs up, its performers and audiences dispersed. Street style is swapped for comfortable winterwear, and fashion show benches for the embrace of sofas and trashy TV. Then, with spring, it wakes again — this time, for once, through words instead of pictures. On the 5th of February, Burberry announced the changes it proposes to make to its show format next season, and shocked the fashion world awake. And every day since then, the mood has grown increasingly apocalyptic (a mood culminating, perhaps appropriately, in the bombast of Yeezy Season 3’s epic unveiling at Madison Square Garden.)

 


Burberry Prorsum menswear Spring/Summer 2016 show, London (photography by Gio Staiano)

 

On this side of the pond, though, the mood seems a little calmer. Yes, the Burberry ripple effect will no doubt continue to dominate headlines and discussions. But in London, a very different kind of fashion event has been uppermost in people’s minds of late. At the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road, a new exhibition (opened by a swarm of superstars and supermodels) is celebrating British Vogue’s 100th anniversary. On the surface, it shouldn’t perhaps mean so much: just an anniversary, just a magazine. But for much of its life, the British edition of Vogue has been THE magazine. And the hundred years since its foundation have coincided exactly with the hundred years in which modern British fashion itself took shape.

It’s a spectacular show, split by room into ten separate decades. Each one has its own utterly different mood — a signal of the often brutal changing of the guard between modern generations, and a reminder that, right from its earliest days, fashion moved faster than life. There are too many gorgeous images to take in at one sitting. In truth, your eye slides past the iconic ones — too familiar, too ubiquitous, too Instagrammed. Instead, the show’s real joy lies in the unseen and the forgotten — like Peter Lindbergh’s portrait of a clean-faced rising star called John Galliano (1988), or the luminous Lempicka curves of Nick Knight’s Sara (1997). Further back, there’s a newly discovered Beaton shot of Vivien Leigh from 1936, and some searing Sixties portraits by John Deakin (a photographer whose images first resurfaced in a recent McQueen menswear show) of Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas. 

In the early years, British Vogue — like British fashion — was largely something dictated from abroad. The bulk of its content was reprinted from the original American edition. So when did the idea of a local voice, and a homegrown aesthetic, emerge? “To me, it’s 1939 onwards,” reflects Robin Muir, curator of the exhibition (and former picture editor at Vogue). “Britain stands alone in Europe, and Vogue is allowed to continue publication as a contributor to morale on the home front. It finds its own identity, because it has to. New photographers emerge — Norman Parkinson, Lee Miller. And surely no one, when the war started, would have believed that when it ended Vogue would have had a ringside seat in the theatre of war. First into Dachau and Buchenwald and with the Allies as they marched on Germany, Miller’s often ‘difficult’ wartime pictures kicked Vogue into the modern age. British Vogue’s circulation was at its highest ever. ‘Here is ample proof,’ Condé Nast wrote, ‘that civilised life goes on in Britain behind the blackout…life with its graces stubbornly maintained. Vogue, with all that Vogue stands for, still matters to the women of England.’”

 

 

That mood is eloquently summed up by another Beaton shot, dating from 1941, of a model posing amidst the ruins of London’s Blitz. The accompanying strapline? “Fashion Is Indestructible”. From then on, fashion seemed to matter in Britain, and the country’s modern image became intricately bound up in what the prevailing notion of fashion itself was. In the Sixties, it was Mary Quant and Ossie Clark; in the Seventies, Bill Gibb, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren; in the Eighties, Galliano and Bodymap. (It’s worth noting that such a lineup could also encompass Norman Hartnell, Jean Muir, Margaret Howell, J.W. Anderson, Shirin Guild and Craig Green.) Search for “quintessential British designer” on Google, and you’ll get a stream of Paul Smith — a man who not only epitomises British fashion, but who has spent decades turning it into an internationally desirable commodity. “Biggest British designer”? Mary Quant. And a few years ago, a public vote crowned Westwood the greatest of the bunch — trailed, by a long margin, by McQueen, Smith, Jasper Conran and Stella McCartney.

 


Kate Moss by Mario Testino

 

It feels, though, that the idea of a particularly British fashion may have had its day. In 2016, everyone’s reference points (and audience) are becoming less and less linked to place, and more to global moods and preoccupations. But the sense of an abiding spirit — of a way of thinking which unites Britain’s wildly diverse roster of designers — remains. For Muir, it’s what he highlights as Vogue’s “propensity towards idiosyncrasy.”  His favourite shot, dating from his time as the magazine’s picture editor, is the bleakly moving image Corinne Day took of a fresh-faced Kate Moss in vest and H&M panties. “The whole setting — downbeat, bleak, set in a down-at-heel Notting Hill flat, telephone cord, untidy, no concession to the prevailing fashion notion of the time — the height of Supermodel-dom. And beautifully, simply laid out. It’s an astonishing sitting.”

That irreverence seems to be London fashion’s ultimate calling card. Last night, the advertisement hoardings still going up around the main venue on Soho’s Brewer Street were in little doubt about the words that anchor British style: ORIGINAL, UNRESTRAINED, DISRUPTIVE, DEFIANT, AWAKE, ECLECTIC, UNEXPECTED, ELEGANT UNINHIBITED, ANARCHIC, BRAVE.

 


Vivienne Westwood ready-to-wear Spring/Summer 2016 show, Paris (photography by Guillaume Roujas)

 

And right on the eve of London Fashion Week, a ringing endorsement has come from the most unlikely source — Carine Roitfeld, former editor of Vogue’s Parisian counterpart, and the woman who for two decades has embodied a newly seductive type of French style. ”I go to London to get dressed when there is nothing in France," she gleefully explains in the new issue of ES Magazine. "You’re one step in advance. You know, chic comes from England, not from France. In France, OK, we have Karl and we had Mr Saint Laurent and a lot of amazing designers, but in London you have this street craziness…You have Vivienne Westwood — she is my goddess, a genius. I think fashion is something very British — no one looks at you if you have purple hair, orange hair. For me, the English are the kings and queens of fashion.”

 

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