I’m a magazine junkie, I have been since I was a teenager, my bedroom used to be stacked high with copies of Vogue, I literally pawed over each copy digesting every bit of fashion information I could and being amazed by all the beautiful editorials. The Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery makes me think of those days, the time when I used to sit in my room doing my first flick through the magazine, for some reason always back to front, before flicking front to back, and then finally sitting down to read. It was like a ritual and the unorthodox layout of this fashion exhibit makes me think that the curator is also a flick from the back kind of magazine reader, as after an initial display of classic Vogue images, the exhibition proceeds backwards in time, starting in the present and working its way back 100 years to 1916.
The exhibit is much bigger than expected, it literally takes over the whole ground floor at the National Portrait Gallery, but considering it took the exhibition team nearly six years to put it all together it’s hardly surprising. I overheard the curator Robin Muir saying they went through close to 2,000 issues of British Vogue, US Vogue and Paris Vogue from the past 100 years, seriously how dreamy a job does that sound, as well as hitting the Condé Nast archives, as some of the photographs in the exhibition didn’t actually make it onto the pages of the magazine.
What caught me off guard while walking around the exhibition, which is split into decades, is how Vogue’s editorials brings to life the decade in question with regards to the cultural landscape, rather than just showcasing the trends. The editorials of the Fifties, for instance, are gritty, showing the post-war austerity era, while the Sixties are more free loving, the Eighties was quite brash and bold, while the Nineties and Noughties it seems are all about celebrities. It’s the early years that really impressed me the most as photographs seem to embrace a story and captured the moment more than the current day editorials, which just seemed a little too glossy alongside the older imagery.
All the great fashion photographers are represented from Norman Parkinson to Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier, Nick Knight, Tim Walker and David Bailey, as well as Herb Ritts, Irving Penn, Corinne Day, and Lee Miller, who captured a series of exceptional Second World War photographs as Vogue’s official war correspondent.
There are lots of highlights, it was incredible to step back in time and see where the magazine began, with the 1940s really standing out for its thought-provoking editorials, it was also amazing to see a rare version of Horst’s famous ‘corset’ photograph from 1939, you know the one that inspired the video for Madonna’s hit ‘Vogue’, as well as vintage prints from Baron de Meyer, the first professional fashion photographer. It’s not to say that there were no highlights in recent years, I’m obsessed with the Peter Lindbergh supermodel cover in 1990, I remember buying that copy aged 10 and wanting to be a model, it really is the image that defined the supermodel era.
Other great images you can’t miss are the Limelight Nights editorial by Helmut Newton in the 1970s room, get to see Grace Coddington chilling in a pool, everything Herb Ritts, I’m obsessed with his incredible work – the Claudia Schiffer in Paris image with her on the back of a motorbike from 1989 is one of my favourites, as is the Madonna editorial that I spotted in the A Century of Magazines room. You also have to hunt down all the Cecil Beaton imagery, the Fashion is Indestructible from 1941 with a woman looking on to a bomb-blasted building is incredible.
Rooms that I adored had to be the A Century of Magazines, as a magazine hoarder this was incredible to see, and I was also pleased that I even had a few of those issues, getting rid of nothing really went in my favour here. I also loved The Planning Room, I love seeing negatives of prints and the process behind things and the video running on the wall is a must watch.
I’m trying to describe the feelings I got while wandering around this exhibit and all I can think is that it is like flicking through a copy of Vogue without the adverts and feeling like you are a part of time walking through each decade within the editorials. Some made me stop dead in my tracks, others made me giggle, a few made me remember my first time seeing them, while others just inspired, I have, to be honest, I wish some of the descriptions were better like also including the stylist and clothing. For me, that’s what Vogue does incredibly well, it inspires and drives creativity, which is probably why they are known as the best fashion magazine in the world.
What I would say that this exhibition isn’t just for fashion enthusiasts, yes an interest in fashion and Vogue will be the primary audience, but the photographs are much more than just pretty models in clothes they tell a story and showcase personalities, as well as the fashion, I think anyone interested in photography will find this exhibit inspiring.
Step inside the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition with my little video below:
Shop the Vogue 100 exhibition:
Of course you couldn’t have a Vogue exhibition without a well stocked shop. As you know I do love a gallery shop, I can’t come away from an exhibition without a few postcards, and this has the works. Postcards, magnets, prints, cups, books, jewellery, stationery, and even beauty products and biscuits. I would suggest picking up the official Vogue 100: A Century of Style book that fully illustrates the exhibition, however, it does retail for £40. Luckily the there is also a cute little ‘highlights’ book that features fifty key images from the exhibition with texts by curator Robin Muir who tells the story behind each one, and that’s only £14.95.