[21 May 2008]
“Shockingly revelatory.” I would have sincere difficulty conjuring a phrase more apt to describe the beautiful new volume, Vogue Covers. At first appraisal, one easily falls into the trap of seeing this book as yet another pretty face for the coffee table collection, a Kate Moss-emblazoned accent to let the world know that you really do “get” fashion.
In this capacity, the book succeeds admirably. The dust jacket and cover are presented in strong lines with a bold title and thick white matting. This aesthetic presents the Vogue cover that it features with necessarily minimal accoutrement, an effective style which continues throughout the remaining 240 pages to wonderful effect. With exegesis generally limited to a few lines of tiny caption one may either page through the tome to learn about the covers or just admire them in almost full-size.
Filled with intoxicating watercolor renderings of ‘20s-era flappers, chic silhouettes of Dior’s New Look, vibrant make-up shots of orgiastic color, and the strong-smiling headshots we often see today, Vogue Covers never misses a step. Collecting the covers featured from almost a decade of British Vogue front pages, the dual editors had to walk a fine line between successfully charting the evolution of the magazine’s look and not overwhelming the reader with repetition. However, miraculously, the jig is pulled off and the volume is neither lacking nor overstuffed.
This achievement, admirable as it may be, is not the crowning merit of this book. Much like a flipbook, the content of which is completely overlooked if slowly paged through, Vogue Covers can only fully be appreciated when read continuously from its first turn of the century plate to its modern conclusion. As the hand-painted art nouveau and deco covers evolve into four-color process high art photography and conclude as crisp image of celebrities and supermodels, one begins to see the tremendous grasp on both the philosophical and cultural issues which Vogue coolly entertained.
From its conception and continuing today, Vogue has managed to chart the progress of woman’s place in both art and society. As a nouveau/deco nymph-phantom we see the female as the marked other, some fantastic, ethereal creature but still set apart from her very worldly male counterparts. Then, preempting Friedan and her mystique, golden-age couture Vogue begins to put women in hunting and outdoors wear. Vogue Covers illustrates a femininity not bound to the home or the husband. In fact, very few covers ever featured males at all. Vogue Covers races towards the androgyny of the late ‘60s through the ‘80s again serving as a forerunner of feminism, that of third-wave gender deconstruction. Before Butler and the buzz-word “performativitity” Vogue highlighted the costumed nature of female gender construction, varnishing its models in hyperbolic candy-store kaleidoscopic make-up and fantastic dress silhouettes. It is this insight which Derrick and Muir’s book brings to light.
However, on the same note, Vogue Covers ends on a problematic note. As the late ‘80s, ‘90s, and current covers are shown almost exclusively as featuring celebrities and supermodels, the reader is demanded to ask how this reflects on the state of woman in modern affairs. No longer the other-worldly waif nor the progressive face and figure, Vogue presents the woman only in terms of fame. Never was Vogue the showcase for the average woman, but never was its front page so exclusively reserved for celebrity, whether in the film, television, or fashion arena.
I have no answers for the somewhat disturbing trend and I am markedly ambivalent about whether the new Vogue image is more closely related to “real” women or if it has inaugurated a new breed of uber-woman, unattainable to the average reader. Perhaps this phenomenon is a milquetoast response to complaint that fashion presents an unrealistic image, the celebrities and supermodels of modern Vogue still more near the audience than Twiggy and the nouveau specters. Perhaps Vogue has lost touch with the gender forward-thinking which propelled the magazine through a century of fashion. Either way,Vogue Covers is a beautiful and essential piece for both the fashion and the female conscious and a monument to the evolution of 20th Century culture at large.