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

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’s a strong example of ways in which the media can shape a nation’s thinking throughout a crisis, which makes it unexpectedly pertinent today.

Historian and biographer Julie Summers came across 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 particularly piqued because it turned 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 fashion at the time. She attended Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s and moved to London on graduation to look for a job in a media, living in a flatshare with girlfriends, which feels strikingly ahead of its time for women, 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 influenced more people 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 realized 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 affordable design “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 archive.

Conde Nast himself was keen on incorporating more news into the magazine, which is one reason he championed Audrey, who was anything but a socialite. As a result, British Vogue featured some of the most famous reporting during the war, by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Lee Miller. This was the start of a considerable divergence from the US edition, under the much more old-school 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 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 at work today with the public service broadcasters, but is unthinkable with the private press – and, in a free country, probably wouldn’t be appropriate. 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 CV19 crisis, and how the argument has altered, albeit subtly.

The power of Vogue as an institution endures. During the current crisis, we’ve recently departed Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s memoirs published, with a hint at tension between herself and incumbent Edward Enninful about 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 CV19 was captured by the Times interview with Chinese editor Angelica Cheung back in April, who they called the most powerful woman in fashion today, with 14 million readers. I’ll look forward to her memoirs – though I wonder if they’ll 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-CV19 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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