Review: Vogue 100: A Century of Style, National Portrait Gallery

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Vogue 100 is an undeniably glamorous and exciting exhibition that showcases beautifully the British magazine’s illustrious history. Iconic images of the great and good, taken by the great and good, fill room after room. It’s a deluge of beauty, fashion and pioneering photography.

The exhibition, an incredible six years in the making, is here to commemorate and celebrate 100 years of the foremost fashion publication. British Vogue’s first issue was published in 1916 and, since then, it has been at the forefront of changes in both fashion and photography, eventually becoming so influential that Vogue now even shapes culture, rather than simply reflecting it.

Great effort has gone into curating this show. The many rooms on the ground floor at the National Portrait Gallery have been set aside for his show, and each gallery reflects a decade.

The compare and contrast fascinates – from the celebration of traditional values in the post-war period, through the revelling in wealth of the 1980s, on to the grunge look of the 1990s.

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And what also interests is the emergence of the influence of the icon. Whether that be the icon behind the lens – the immediately identifiable style of Helmut Newton, Norman Parkinson, Guy Bourdin, or Mario Testino – or the icon in focus – Diana, Kate, Naomi or Linda.

On to these icons we start projecting, or living vicariously through them. And so these images transform from pictures to admire, to content to desire. We are not browsing for clothes anymore, but browsing for a way of life – one that looks nothing like the ones we actually lead.

And so, as you walk through room after room of the rich and beautiful, it’s the content of these beautiful photographs and legendary magazine covers that starts to concern.

In over 100 years, it seems Vogue’s main development has been to push an ‘aspirational’ lifestyle and look that none of us have really got a hope in hell of ever attaining. The clothes are unbelievably expensive, and the models look nothing like us. The aspiration is always youth, the young are always thin, and it is thin that is always beautiful.

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Over 100 years, it seems that message has never wavered. A review of the images on show concludes that the only women over 40 allowed to be front and centre are royalty, Vivienne Westwood and Margaret Thatcher. Make of that what you will.

The exhibition makes the point that British Vogue has always sought to blend fashion with broader arts and culture, whether that be literature, art or politics. The text in this particular part of the show adds ‘Josephine Baker shared pages with Aldous Huxley’ by way of example. Well, in the accompanying photos, Huxley is fully clothed and relaxing at his desk. By way of contrast, Josephine is nude with only a strategically placed drape keeping the image printable. I think that says it all, really.

So for all the glamour and superb photography and illustrations, I found the celebratory feel of the show to be somewhat hollow. What exactly am I meant to be celebrating here? The crushing of the self-esteem of the readers? The framing of many women who have eating disorders as people to admire and emulate? Or that wealth and luxury is what matters above all else?

I wish it were different. The quality of the fashion photography in British Vogue is, and has always been, superb. But what these images represent, what they tell us, has to change.

Vogue 100: A Century of Style is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from February 11 to May 22, 2016, sponsored by Leon Max.

Admission: £19. Concessions available.

The exhibition will tour to Manchester Art Gallery 24 June – 30 October 2016

Image Credits: All installation shots by Victoria Sadler. You can see more exhibition views in the album on my Facebook page.

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