On December 17, 1892, the first issue of Vogue magazine rolled off the presses with a well-dressed debutante on its illustrated cover (above). Founded by the New York society man Arthur Baldwin Turnure as a weekly social gazette, its aim was to celebrate “the ceremonial side of life.” That life, in the words of Turnure,
has in the highest degree an aristocracy founded in reason and developed in natural order. Its particular phases, its amusements, its follies, its fitful changes, supply endless opportunities for running comment and occasional rebuke. The ceremonial side of life attracts the sage as well as the debutante, men of affairs as well as the belle. It may be a dinner or it may be a ball, but whatever the function the magnetic welding force is the social idea.
In the century-plus since its founding, Vogue has transformed into the most influential fashion magazine in the world. For decades, it has defined female beauty and strived to value aesthetics above all (which has its moral costs, as the ill-timed and ill-advised Vogue profile of Asma al-Assad showed).
Still, a history of Vogue magazine is a history of American culture itself, as the book In Vogue: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine (2006) argues. Authors Alberto Oliva and Norberto Angeletti write in the introduction of this book, “To explore the magazine’s editorial attributes over the years, we also had to explore the world that Vogue reflected and, often, shaped—the evolution not only of fashion but of women themselves, how they choose and wear clothes, interpret beauty, assume a changing role in society.” Since this blog has visited and revisited themes of female beauty, I have decided to do a series of pieces on the history Vogue, based on this book, for Acculturated.
Turnure’s Vogue was created by and for the new New York aristocracy–the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, the Astors, the Stuyvesants, etc. Their levels of wealth had never before been seen in the United States. Not only did this create disposal income that could be spent on lavish fashions and opulent homes, which Vogue could (and did) feature in its pages, but it also created a need for social models. How was this class of Americans going to manage wealth and the social graces in a country where class and ceremony were not as valued as they were in England or France? How were they going to set themselves apart from the vulgar nouveau riche? This is where Vogue came in.
The year of the magazine’s launch was a fateful one for the members of New York society:
as newly powerful and wealthy families were struggling to achieve recognition and carve out a place in New York society, an event sent ripples through the most illustrious names in the city: the winter ball given by the wife of millionaire William Backhouse Astor Jr. for “the Four Hundred.”
This would be held in the Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue. Being invited to the ball was a very big deal. It meant you were part of the aristocratic club of New York elites. Invitation to the ball was based on how well one exhibited the social graces. Beyond wealth, elegance and decorum were a must. If you weren’t a member of the Four Hundred, then you did everything you could to act like one. That Turnure decided to launch his gazette in the same year as the Four Hundred was no accident. They would both represent the same values and same people.
From the start, fashion made up a large portion of the magazine’s contents. “For street wear a morning coat suit of plain smoke or dark gray is rather smart,” ran one advice column. Other fashion departments included “The Paris Letter” and “Seen in the shops.” For the male readers, there was also coverage of sports and the social affairs of New York society.
Here is a fashion spread from the first issue:
Enter Condé Nast
In 1905, the publishing entrepreneur Condé Nast bought Vogue and turned it into a successful business and the women’s magazine we recognize today. Under Nast, Vogue continued to target a deliberately elite audience with articles like “Society by the Sea” (August 1910), which was about the preference of the ladies to vacation at Newport and Southampton. Like today’s women’s magazines, weddings were also covered. In a spring 1911 article devoted to the wedding of Helen Vivien Gould and John Graham Beresford remarked, “Never in the history of nuptial events in New York have we had so many of the old British nobility represented at one fell swoop.” Another nod to the aristocracies across the pond came in the article “Where Europe’s Varied Society Seeks the Sea.” The old world continued to be a source of intrigue and emulation to the early readers of Vogue.
Caroline Seebohm sums it up in her book The Man Who Was Vogue: “By the beginning of 1911, the Nast Vogue had taken shape, and this was the prototype—a richly embellished frieze of society, fashion, social conscience, and frivolity, picked out in gold by the confident and stylish hand of its new publisher.”
The Devil Wore Black Silk Stockings
There was another confident hand that would soon imprint itself on the magazine: that of the demanding Edna Woolman Chase, the longest-serving editor of Vogue. She held the editorial reigns of the magazine between the two wars, 1914 and 1951, and by the time she left, Vogue was a world famous brand.
Vogue had certain standards and Chase, though not a member of the Four Hundred, saw to it that she and her staff upheld them. She was famous for insisting that the female members of her staff wear “black silk stockings, white gloves, and a hat.” Also, they “could not come to the office in open-toed shoes.” Once, she scolded an editor who tried to commit suicide by saying “We at Vogue don’t throw ourselves under subway trains, my dear. If we must, we take sleeping pills.”
One of Chase’s signature achievements during her tenure was to hold the very first charity fashion show. Worried that the war would shutdown the operations of the French fashion world, Chase decided to “bring together the most prominent ladies of New York society and the best American designers an, under the magazine’s aegis, hold a fashion show to benefit women and children afflicted by the war.” It was a risky proposition. Nast thought that the high society ladies would not go for it. But he was wrong. The show, held over three days at the Ritz Carlson, was a stunning success. Among the designers who displayed their work were Bergdorf Goodman, Bendel, and Maison Jacqueline.
The December 1st issue of the magazine included an eleven-page spread of the show. At the time, modeling was not yet a career in the United States, so the women photographed here were from the shops of the dressmakers. They were taught how to run down the walkway and pose in their clothes.
Two years later, Vogue went international with its London edition. Four years after that, in 1920, it launched a French edition, nicknamed “Frogue” or, more apropos, “Frog.” The magazine was no longer self-consciously taking its cues from the European elites. It was confidently coming into its own and defining fashion for an international audience.