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Dressed for War: the Story of Audrey Withers, Vogue Editor Extraordinaire by Julie Summers

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

Simon & Schuster, February 2020

This is another excellent biography of a woman who was pivotal to history but whose contribution has been all but forgotten, other examples in recent years being Anita Anand’s biography of Sophia Duleep Singh (who most of us haven’t heard of, but should have) and Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill (who all of us have heard of, but whose contribution to the course of history has been understated).

It’s also a reminder that fashion is always political, inextricably bound up with the economy, world events, the collective mood and a direct expression of how an individual chooses to place themselves in this context. Finally, it offers a key example of how all parts of the media can shape a nation’s thinking throughout a crisis, which makes it unexpectedly pertinent today.

Historian and biographer Julie Summers discovered Audrey Withers, editor of British Vogue for twenty years, from the Blitz to 1960, whilst researching a book and exhibition on wartime clothing. Her interest was piqued when she found out that they have shared ancestors.

On first consideration, Audrey was an unlikely editor for a fashion magazine: she grew up in a bohemian, left-wing family of intellectuals and apparently showed little interest in fashion during her formative years, let alone the high society that was associated with the fashion world at the time. She attended Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s and moved to London on graduation to look for a job in the media, living in a flatshare with girlfriends, which feels strikingly ahead of its time - and not at all dissimilar to the trajectory of graduates nearly 100 years later.

Audrey never explicitly looked for a job on a fashion magazine, but her interest in progressive politics and gender equality, backed up by her leadership skills, could not have found a better outlet and influence than editing Vogue during the war years (indeed, she herself speculated in later years that she would never have been editor if it hadn’t been for the war).

The war government quickly realised that magazines were the best way to influence women, who were suddenly employed in vast numbers and therefore found themselves with increased spending power. It was essential that the economy kept moving - whilst adhering to strict rationing - and Audrey worked closely with the Ministry of Information to shape the national mood. “Utility” fashion was modelled by celebrities and society women to set a trend and demonstrate that everyone was in it together. Big-name designers were encouraged to design affordable “utility” lines; short hair, hats and turbans were championed and clothing factories were combined to achieve scale. In a show of solidarity in the era of paper rationing, Audrey made the decision to pulp and recycle the entire 1942 Vogue archive.

Conde Nast himself was keen on incorporating more news into the magazine, which is one reason he championed Audrey - an intellectual heavyweight and anything but a socialite. As a result, British Vogue featured some of the most renowned reporting during the war, by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Lee Miller. This was the start of a divergence from the US edition, under the much more old-school editorship of Edna Woolman Chase, which led to some tensions between the two editors. The proof, however, was in the pudding – sales of British Vogue increased during the war.

This tension escalated after the war, when it was clear that Audrey had no intention of returning to the status quo. Instead, she wanted to make the magazine political, in favour of progressive ideas. Edna said it should “support whatever is good taste”. Audrey pointed out that proposing that everybody should emulate privileged high society – ie, remain in deference to them – is in itself a political stance. For me, this gets to the key truth about fashion, namely that it’s a direct expression of the structure of our society, politics and the economy. Audrey understood this, and Vogue under Edward Enninful could not embody it more.

The post-war government continued the understanding of the power of Vogue, and Audrey worked with them on a joint project with the BBC. In 1952, she chaired the committee to oversee coronation memorabilia. Summers focuses on an editorial which she wrote in the early 1950s about the advance of science and technology leading to “exhaustion, bewilderment and loneliness” and then went on to council that the only way to deal with this was to embrace openness and move with the times.

The extent to which Audrey worked with the government to shape public opinion is striking in the age of social media. This process is still in play today via the public service broadcasters, but is unthinkable with the private press – and, in a free country, would be questionable. It does however add weight to the argument in favour of public service broadcasting, whatever form that may take. It’s noticeable how support for the BBC has risen throughout the Covid 19 crisis, and how the argument has altered, albeit subtly.

The power of Vogue as an institution endures. During the current crisis, we’ve seen recently departed Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s memoirs published, with a hint at tension between herself and incumbent Edward Enninful over the direction which the magazine should take, reminiscent of the tension between Audrey and Edna Woolman Chase. But for me, Vogue in the age of Covid was captured by the Times interview with Chinese editor Angelica Cheung back in April, who was called the most powerful woman in fashion today, with 14 million readers. I’ll look forward to her memoirs – though one wonders if they’d be published in full in her home country.

After the war – and to the consternation of the British authorities, who were still enforcing clothing and fabric rationing – Christian Dior burst onto the scene with his extravagant New Look. Will there be a post-Covid New Look? There’s speculation that the rise in home working and reduction in socialising will lead to a more utilitarian fashion. But this would fly in the face of history. Whether the New Look or the Roaring Twenties, the rebound to a crisis has often been one of over-compensation.

Finally, I’ve just learned from the book trade press that Dressed for War has been optioned for TV by Gaumont UK. Now that would be a real treat.

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