Amid the rubble of a bombed building stands a woman, immaculate in hat and gloves, wearing the kind of nipped-in suit that screams 1940s chic.
Her back is to the camera, her expression unreadable as she surveys the wreckage. But the caption reads: Fashion is indestructible. Even in the midst of horror, this image by the legendary fashion photographer Cecil Beaton is saying, womens lives go on. Yet they cannot be untouched by the world around them, nor unchanged by it.
The picture was conceived for British Vogue in 1941 by its wartime editor Audrey Withers, and, as a new biography by the historian Julie Summers makes clear, captures something of her pioneering beliefs. Dressed For War tells the story of a woman who brought frontline war reporting to her pages alongside features on spring hats, arguing passionately that female readers should be equally curious about both. It is simply not modern, she wrote in 1946, to be unaware of or uninterested in what is going on all around you.
But like many women whose horizons expanded dramatically during wartime, Withers struggled with the pressure to retreat back into a traditional role afterwards. The editor who had the ear of powerful men in government, and often proofed her pages from a makeshift office in the cellar as bombs fell overhead, had thrived on the idea of doing something meaningful. When she was putting Vogue to bed, she was in her element, says Summers. She was being bombed, but she was doing this, and at that moment she realised that Vogue had a purpose beyond promulgating fashion. It was really about influencing womens lives. Not for nothing did the head of the board of trade once call her the most powerful woman in London.
Summers first became fascinated by her while researching a book on wartime fashion for the Imperial War Museum, only to discover a more personal connection. I was having lunch with an uncle and I told him how enthused I was about this woman, and he just leant back in his chair and went: Darling, didnt you know she was Grandpas cousin? And I didnt know. It was, she explains, a big family but she hadnt heard the story before: Withers was not one to blow her own trumpet.
Withers was born in 1905, into an unusually free-thinking family. Her mother, Mary, had been university-educated, while Summers describes her father, Percy, a doctor who had stopped work through ill health, as a very liberal father who fostered self-reliance in his daughters. The young Audrey read English at Oxford, worked in a bookshop and then got a job in publishing before being made redundant, on the grounds (then perfectly legal) that the company wanted a man instead. She was devastated, but that led her to answer a newspaper ad for a subeditor at Vogue, where she flourished. She was only 35 when, with her American boss stranded overseas by the war, she stepped into the editors chair.
The practical challenges of publishing in wartime were daunting. Paper was rationed and, by 1941, so were clothes, an existential problem for an industry built on craving the new and pretty. (Were she alive today, Withers would surely recognise the pressure on glossy magazines to stop pushing fast fashion because of its impact on the planet; Summers thinks she would have been all over current thinking with remodelling and reusing clothes: for environmental reasons). Staff were bombed out of their homes and the magazines Old Bond Street headquarters was hit at least once. The idea of writing about hemlines amid such death and destruction may seem incongruous, but maintaining some semblance of normality on the home front was seen as an important act of defiance against the Nazis. Besides, it soon emerged that Vogue had a role in the war effort.
Withers met regularly with the Treasury and the Ministry of Information, who saw magazines as a better channel than newspapers for communicating with women about the sacrifices that would be needed. And Vogue was seen as particularly important, because its readers were influential women who could set trends. Initially, the message was they should keep shopping for the benefit of the economy, but all that changed in 1941; clothing factories were making military uniforms, rationing came in, and women were urged to make do and mend old clothes. (Even Withers rewore the same few outfits endlessly; Summers says her wardrobe consisted of little more than three suits and some blouses for work, one wool dress for evenings, and slacks and a jumper at weekends).
Vogue commissioned designers to show what could be done with utility clothing, a government-approved range available to buy with ration coupons. It ran features on growing your own vegetables and even promoted short haircuts, amid fears about female factory workers getting their hair tangled in machinery.
But Withers wasnt content merely to churn out propaganda. She wanted her readers to really get the war, says Summers. Which is where Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer and reporter, came in.
Miller was American, enabling her to get accreditation via the American military (British troops wouldnt accommodate a female photographer). But she needed a press sponsor and Withers stepped in. One of Millers first dispatches for Vogue was from St Malo on the Brittany coast, where she had expected to be covering a surrender to the Americans but instead found herself in the thick of battle, capturing pictures of what would turn out to be napalm attacks: the war censor refused to let Vogue use them.
Miller also had an eye for things a man might have missed. Arriving in newly liberated Paris, she sent back pictures of a hair salon where small boys powered the dryers by pedalling furiously on bicycles hooked up to a furnace. In Munich, she got into Hitlers private apartment after he had fled and had herself photographed in his bathtub, her dirty army-issue boots placed on his primrose-yellow bathmat.
But she wrote for Vogue, too, about the massacres of women and children in occupied France and sent back harrowing images of skeletal bodies from the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Withers agonised over whether her war-weary readers could cope with this, but eventually included one picture, berating herself later for not running as many as the newspapers did.
Unsurprisingly, both women found adjusting to peacetime difficult. After the atrocities she had witnessed, Summer says, Miller suffered from PTSD but she also struggled to find substitutes for the intense adrenaline highs of war reporting. Withers, meanwhile, was battling against her American publishers expectations that she would meekly return to producing a conventional fashion paper.
In 1946, she wrote a long memo to her American editor-in-chief Edna Chase, arguing passionately that Vogues future was to cover every subject in which the intelligent sophisticated woman is currently interested, and that its politics must be progressive. Politics could not be ignored, Withers argued, when it shaped everything in womens lives from education and health to prices in shops. Moreover, to avoid political arguments was political in itself, because it meant consenting to the status quo and that was innately conservative: One is being every whit as political, for instance, in giving ones tacit approval to things as they are in pressing for change. It is an old rightwing trick to sit tight and say nothing (because thats the best way of keeping things as they are) and to accuse the left wing of being political because it is forced to be vocal in advocating anything new.
It is striking how contemporary that argument sounds, now that British Vogue urges its readers to become forces for change while American Teen Vogue takes on Donald Trump. But it was too much for Chase, who said that Vogue should develop the taste and manners of its readers and let them set the pattern of their political thinking themselves.
She had lost that argument, but Withers kept pushing the boundaries throughout the 50s. She hired a female motoring correspondent, at a time when very few women drove themselves, and argued that women should feature in Vogue in their own right rather than as famous mens wives. (Tellingly, the woman in that fashion is indestructible picture wasnt a professional model, but the BBCs first female TV announcer). She prided herself on hiring as beauty editor Evelyn Forbes, a mother of four who was the breadwinner in her marriage, at a time when middle-class women were still expected to stop work after getting married.
Withers herself did not have children, which Summers suspects may have been by choice. She and her salesman husband, Jock, were a famously glamorous, social couple, but Jock was repeatedly unfaithful and they eventually divorced.
Yet painful as his pursuit of other women must have been, in some ways their rather distant relationship was professionally liberating. I think Jocks interest in other women almost gave Audrey the licence to run her own life as she wanted, says Summers, who points out that she wouldnt have been free to work such long hours had she had a husband waiting impatiently at home. I think they drifted apart, but she never hated Jock.
After the divorce, she married a man called Victor Kennett, who had propositioned her years earlier, while she was still with Jock (she briefly considered leaving her husband at the time, but feared a scandal). Kennett was more possessive of her time, and when Withers retired from Vogue in 1959 she largely retreated from public life one reason, Summers thinks, she did not remain as well known as other pioneering women of the era. But now, perhaps, her moment has come.
Dressed for War: the Story of Audrey Withers, Vogue Editor Extraordinaire from the Blitz to the Swinging Sixties, by Julie Summers, is published by Simon & Schuster on 6 February (RRP 20). To order a copy for 17.60 go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over 15.
Here is the original post:
- Respect for the natural world - Opinion - The Hutchinson News - March 31st, 2020
- Its tough to imagine, but what will life after coronavirus look like? - BizTimes - Milwaukee Business News - March 31st, 2020
- Congress Must Pass the Living Artists Act - The New York Times - March 31st, 2020
- The Book List: Science Fiction - The Bagpipe - March 31st, 2020
- Now's the time for organizations to show their humanity - Tech Wire Asia - March 31st, 2020
- Futurism | Definition, Manifesto, Artists, & Facts ... - March 15th, 2020
- 7 Top Futurists Make Some Pretty Surprising Predictions ... - March 15th, 2020
- How to Think Like a Futurist - MIT Technology Review - March 15th, 2020
- Does The Travel Industry Have A Future? - Forbes - March 15th, 2020
- IGCF: What are the best practices in government communication? - Euronews - March 15th, 2020
- Bright-Red "Blood Snow" Is Falling From the Sky in Antarctica - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Here's a Glossary for the Ongoing Coronavirus Outbreak's Vocab - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Space Force Working "Pretty Closely With Elon Musk and SpaceX" - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Uber Tells Drivers to Stay Home If They Have the Coronavirus - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Artificial and Biological Neurons Just Talked Over the Internet - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Astronomers: Our Planet Might Have Another Moon, Except It's Tiny - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Anti-Coke Lawsuit: "Plastic Is Set to Outweigh Fish in the Ocean" - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Whistleblower: US Gov May Have Helped Spread Coronavirus - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- Governments Shut Down the Internet Hundreds of Times in 2019 - Futurism - March 3rd, 2020
- A top Silicon Valley futurist on how AI, AR and VR will shape fashion's future - Vogue Business - February 1st, 2020
- 'Futuring' can help us survive the climate crisis. And guess what? You're a futurist too - The Conversation AU - February 1st, 2020
- Scientists Want to Explore Ocean With "Cyborg Jellyfish" - Futurism - February 1st, 2020
- Google Says Its Chatbot Is Capable of Near-Human Conversation - Futurism - February 1st, 2020
- Smart Bandage Detects Infections, Auto-Releases Antibiotic - Futurism - February 1st, 2020
- The Politics of Fast - Governing - February 1st, 2020
- Someone Hacked Dozens of United Nations Servers - Futurism - February 1st, 2020
- Brent Csutoras on the Evolution of Social Media, the Rise of SEJ & His Fascinating Journey [PODCAST] - Search Engine Journal - January 30th, 2020
- Finding the sweet spot in the food conversation - RealAgriculture - January 30th, 2020
- Predictions for the 2020s, From a Futurist, a Trend Forecaster and an Astrologer - Vogue - January 19th, 2020
- Healthcare Innovator and Futurist to Benefitfocus One Place 2020 - AiThority - January 19th, 2020
- These Researchers Want You to Live In a Fungus Megastructure - Futurism - January 19th, 2020
- Meet the futurist with 2020 vision - Sydney Morning Herald - January 19th, 2020
- Scientists Create "Living Concrete" That Can Heal Itself - Futurism - January 19th, 2020
- Scientists: Ocean Warming at the Rate of Five A-Bombs per Second - Futurism - January 19th, 2020
- 2020 Real Estate Newsmakers: The Achievers and the Futurists - RisMedia.com - January 19th, 2020
- The Roots Young Futurists 2020: Nominate the Leaders Who Are Ready to Change the World - The Root - January 19th, 2020
- Trump Demands That Apple Give Government Access to iPhones - Futurism - January 19th, 2020
- MIT Suspends Another Professor for Epstein Ties - Futurism - January 19th, 2020
- How futurists from the past predicted life in 2020 - 9News - January 5th, 2020
- The Australian Wildfires Are So Bad You Can See Them From Space - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- NASA Proposed Sending Japanese Astronauts to the Moon - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- Elon Musk Hints That a Cybertruck Is Headed to Mars - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- Mysterious Swarms of Giant Drones Have Officials Baffled - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- Jetpacks, surveillance, and a 26-hour workweek. Here's what past generations expected for 2020 - WUSA9.com - January 5th, 2020
- China Quietly Confirms Birth of Third Gene-Edited Baby - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- Hypersonic planes and robots: Futurist predicts what we can expect by end of decade - Daily Star - January 5th, 2020
- We live so fast I can't even finish this sent... - The Register - January 5th, 2020
- This Tiny Particle Accelerator Fits on a Microchip - Futurism - January 5th, 2020
- Brett King produces the future in Qatar - Euromoney magazine - December 18th, 2019
- How Farmers Can Rule the World With Technology - Successful Farming - December 18th, 2019
- Robot Bartender Developer Wants to Pay the Humans It Replaces - Futurism - December 18th, 2019
- Heres What Would Happen if Earth Collided With a Black Hole - Futurism - November 7th, 2019
- This AI Decodes Your Brainwaves and Draws What You're Looking at - Futurism - November 7th, 2019
- An Oral History Of Blade Runner's 2019 Los Angeles, Because The Future Has Arrived - laist.com - November 7th, 2019
- Scientist Rita J. King wears sparkly dress to NASA talk - TODAY - November 7th, 2019
- Scientists Discover New Class of Tiny Black Holes - Futurism - November 7th, 2019
- Iron man: 10 Things Fans Never Knew About The Mark 1 Armor | CBR - CBR - Comic Book Resources - November 7th, 2019
- Japan Just Unveiled a Supercar Made out of Wood - Futurism - November 7th, 2019
- Futurist predicts well be cyborgs in 4th industrial revolution - NEWS.com.au - October 7th, 2019
- Idiots Are Trying to Run Themselves Over With Their Own Teslas - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- Astronomers Just Found the Oldest Galaxies in the Universe - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- Northwest CT Chamber of Commerce: Charting the course - Torrington Register Citizen - October 7th, 2019
- Here's the First-Ever Pic Of "Cosmic Web" Connecting All Galaxies - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- NASA's Chief Scientist is Oddly Terrified By Finding Life on Mars - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- Here's Why Elon Musk is Feuding With the Head of NASA - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- The Great Thinkers | Nikola Tesla: The futurist behind electrifying inventions - An-Nahar - October 7th, 2019
- Electronic and krautrock-inspired jazz from Germany collected on 2xLP - The Vinyl Factory - October 7th, 2019
- China Reveals Spacecraft Built to Ferry Astronauts to the Moon - Futurism - October 7th, 2019
- 'Learn to Grow Pawpaws': A talk with Neal Peterson - Martha's Vineyard Times - September 19th, 2019
- Police haven't caught his sister's killer, so Ed Peterson is trying to solve the case himself - CBC.ca - September 19th, 2019
- Pianists Tagg and Peterson perform at Conn College Friday - theday.com - September 19th, 2019
- Oak Harbor's Seree Peterson is thriving on OCU soccer squad - The Beacon - September 19th, 2019
- Only Yesterday: Henry W. Peterson received American Legion Award in 1959 - The Dallas Post - September 19th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: This Week on Bitfinex, Tether, Coinbase, & More - April 29th, 2019
- Ripple Price Forecast: XRP vs SWIFT, SEC Updates, and More - April 29th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Looking Past the Bithumb Crypto Hack - April 29th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: XRP Validators, Malta, and Practical Tokens - April 29th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETFs, Andreessen Horowitz, and Contradictions in Crypto - April 29th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: Bitcoin ETF Rejection, AMD Microchip Sales, and Hedge Funds - April 29th, 2019
- Cryptocurrency News: What You Need to Know This Week - April 29th, 2019