EXHIBITION REVIEW: Vogue 100: A Century of Style

By: Ellen O'Donoghue Oddy | Date 18.03.2016
This spring the National Portrait Gallery opens its doors to a century of the internationally renowned fashion magazine, British Vogue. From cover to end, the exhibition explores the significance of this publication’s memory, and what it brings to British life today.
Photo: National Portrait Gallery
2016 is a big year for anniversaries. From the battle of Waterloo to the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, we look to be set for a year defined by cultural memory. Many would argue that 100 years of British Vogue doesn’t warrant as much importance here; indeed, its timeline of covers hardly speaks of a brutal fight for national independence. However, when we look for the history of a people, we should never stop looking at the pages of a book which, every month for 100 years, sought to define lifestyle, art, beauty, youth and age.

What is special about this exhibition is that it looks specifically at the British issue, rather than the greater Vogue kingdom. By doing so, we see the magazine’s collection of portraiture move beyond an assumed fashion community. The corridors of the National Portrait Gallery aren’t so much filled with Wintour in fur, but Morecambe and Wise, David Hockney and Gore Vidal. As the exhibition’s focus shifts from the celebrity to the photographer, we get snapshots that mediate war and feminism at once; Lee Miller, who was Vogue’s official war correspondent, takes photographs that are subtle in their beauty, as they tell the everyday struggle of women and men during the Second World War. The exhibition reveals this magazine’s capacity to sit confidently between the ephemerality of fashion and the brutality of reality. Whilst some portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and the royal family nod to the political positioning of this magazine, Vogue 100 is able to create an escapist world which moves beyond trends and events, and into an aesthetic celebration of the world.

The exhibition space takes on a strange structure. Each room along one corridor is dedicated to one decade. Moving against time, the viewer begins in the 2010s and walks back, across a century, into 1910s. Reversing the automatic chronology of a gallery narrative, we begin with the familiar portraits of Kate Moss and Cara Delevigne and march into the less familiar: portraits such as Frank Horvat’s enigmatic photograph of a Bradford street in 1960 where a model is surrounded by local children, promoting the city’s wool industry. The direction also moves the viewer from digital to film photography, and we get a flickering comparison of these two forms of picture. The exhibition curator Robin Muir, who is a photographic historian at Conde Naste’s Library and Archives, has spoken about the artistic differences between film and digital photography. In an interview with House & Garden, he states it is ‘very undisciplined to shoot digitally […] much more considered if you just have twelve frames to work on or 36 if it's 35mm film,’ and that ‘film will carve out its own niche again’. Perhaps that is what we are feeling in this exhibition. As we glance David Bailey’s lively film photographs of mid-century Britain alongside a room-size projection of Alexa Chung slowly smiling on a London street, the exhibition navigates the space between traditional film and modern digital technologies.

The reverse chronology of the exhibition works in symbiosis with the design of each individual room, dedicated to a decade of Vogue. Created by Patrick Kinmonth, a designer of opera and theatre sets, each room operates on one colour, carving a sense of softness, lines, patterns or blocks from there. The open plan sequence of the rooms, each entirely different, allows the audience to move from section to section, without losing perspective of the gallery as a whole. A powerful portrait of Alexander McQueen smoking a cigarette and leaning over a skull, a sort of noughties catwalk Hamlet, covers one end of the corridor. This image, that is at once both tragic and charismatic in attitude, bookmarks the corridor of rooms and is never out of sight. As the exhibition space moves backwards and forwards in time, operates new colours and styles all at once, it embodies the form of a magazine. The magazine reader is different to the reader of novels; we do not move from page to page diligently adhering to the structure and pace of an author, but flick from page 15 to 60, bouncing from retrospectives to future reports, feeling the arch of the editor’s vision.

Vogue’s exhibition celebrates 100 years of escape into beauty and enquiry into reality. It remembers the world’s fantastic but often liminal artists – Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, David Bailey, Corinne Day, Mario Testino – by moving them from the page to the gallery wall. But it also challenges the gallery space by removing its white walls and chronology, and giving it varying forms of colour and structure. Whether you understand Vogue as a monthly expedition into British life, or the epicentre of our consumer culture and beauty norms, its importance and influence is undeniable.


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