Vogue BC (Before Celebrity)
Earlier this year, Anna Wintour placed a reality television star and her husband on the cover of American Vogue. The use of celebrities on Vogue (and magazine covers in general) has become a powerful selling tool; familiar faces and oversized taglines scream at readers to ‘buy me’.
But before the power of celebrity endorsement and the importance of ‘brand recognition’, what did the cover of Vogue once look like? Another Colour took a peek back in time at the British Vogue Archive to reveal how the cover of one of the most revered magazines in the world has evolved over time.
She may have been very curvy or she may have been drowning in trim, but undoubtedly the June 1917 cover by George Wolfe Plank offered readers unabashed escapism from World War 1. Almost in spite of the war and a possible testament to the need for people to find some form of solace or distraction from general social bleakness, sales of the magazine were up during this period.
This really was the dawn of the golden age of fashion illustration: each cover was a work of art that explored colour, shape and drew the eye in with rich details. Here a model appears to be feeding a dragon marshmallows.
Only the masthead has any resemblance to the current version of Vogue, in a similar font (Baskerville Old Face) that currently sits purposefully at the top of each issue. But that hasn’t always been a fixed feature…
The Roaring 20s brought with it a whole new variety of cover art – literally, ‘art’, including this lavish September 1926 cover by Art Deco artist, Benito. Covers started to explore more detailed forms of expression, including the use of intricate backgrounds, landscapes and even architecture.
By the late 20s, every issue featured the masthead reborn in an entirely new form, using many different fonts. And some without an actual font at all, instead incorporating features of the cover art such as extra long scarf knots in the wind or parting clouds clouds that would reveal the word, ‘Vogue’.
Following the exuberance of the 20s, the 30s brought with it The Great Depression. This, however, didn’t prevent Vogue from maintaining their sense of celebration and art during these tough times. Here, the cover of October 1930 sits somewhere between Art Deco and Surrealism in simple and pared back hues of austere beige.
It was their 1932 July issue that featured their first ever photographic cover. It was shot by Edward Steichen, although he was not credited for his work at the time, and it featured a woman in a bright red swimsuit sitting against a background of cobalt blue. What is most remarkable, we feel, about this image is that the photographic medium was still used to portray artistic movements that were happening at the time: the ongoing influence of cubism is apparent in the harsh shadows that appear on the swimsuit model and her face, which emphasises the length and positioning of the body that resembles geometric shapes. It would still be some years yet before the photograph became the accepted norm for Vogue’s covers.
For the February edition, 1935, Carl Erickson – a fashion illustrator for over 35 years – offered a stark watercolour cover that looks little more than a doodle, with the masthead scribbled across the top. We can’t really see Anna Wintour approving something like this.
For the UK edition’s 21st anniversary issue a birthday cake and unicorn were designed. They appear to be floating romantically in the sky, painted in purple and powder blue – a cover as far removed from fashion ever seen on Vogue. Although it does have a rather Vivienne Westwood feel to it.
On the August 1940 cover, model Lisa Fonssagrives was photographed wearing a boy-cut swimsuit and used her own body to pose as letters, spelling out the Vogue magazine title. The cover was recreated in 1992 for British Vogue’s 75th Anniversary issue.
Dalí’s surrealist cover of April 1944 arrives during the throes of World War 2. It is one of the final few covers to escape the soon to be standardised format: fixed serif masthead; photograph of a female model, usually maintaining eye contact with her audience; and some catchy captions intended to attract a greater readership. By the 1950s, the cover achieved the formulaic template we are now so familiar with.
We understand that Vogue is a business, and each editor has redirected the magazine to ensure its longevity and a highly successful brand but, looking back, we can’t help but feel that a particular magic and appeal was lost along with the more creative artwork that once graced Vogue’s cover. It’s sad that each issue’s cover is no longer a true blank canvas; a place where an illustrator or artist could take the reader far, far away from the burdens of a world driven by making a buck.