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Dressed for War: the story of British Vogue editor Audrey Withers

— by Angela Kennedy

Audrey Withers was not just any editor, she was the courageous woman who braved the Blitz to mastermind British Vogue (known affectionately as brogue by the Condé Nast founders) throughout the turbulent Second World War years. I could hardly retain my curiosity to learn more and have devoured this epic book with fascination and admiration. And it is rather big, full of facts and yet more facts – but not enough photos to propel me along. Withers edited Vogue from 1940-1960, through the trickiest of Make Do and Mend years, when everything had to be approved by the mothership in New York. She was the first editor to champion hard-hitting features alongside the established format of fashion, arts and luxury living. A stickler for words, she started as a sub-editor and guided Vogue’s editorial towards more in-depth newsy features, commissioning writers as diverse as Kingsley Amis and Daphne du Maurier (who amusingly asked to be paid with a subscription to Vogue). The juiciest bits are always personal anecdotes revealing Withers’ personality through the millions of memos she sent to her boss, the formidable Edna Woolman Chase, Vogue supremo in New York .

Audrey Withers at her desk in 1948. Photo by Clifford Coffin

Author Julie Summers has a personal investment in bringing Audrey Withers’ name to the fore; she was related, her grandfather and Audrey Withers were cousins. This book tells the story of a woman, who by her very own definition had very little fashion sense and was hardly anyone’s idea of what constituted a grandiose Vogue editor. Intelligent, tolerant, and a constant source of wise counsel, she was a truly empowering figure with a maverick eye for scouting talent. Camera shy herself, Withers was instrumental in bringing many famous photographers to the magazine. In fact, the book could well be a tribute to the likes of Cecil Beaton whom she admired most of all. She commissioned the most iconic Beaton fashion photo ever during the war era captioned, Fashion Is Indestructible ‘, of a stylish woman standing on the ruins of Temple in 1941. There was ex-model Lee Miller who became her devoted protégée and heroic war photographer and Norman Parkinson, who once in a fit of pique, ripped up a set of transparencies and threw them at the art director.

The tales of photographers’ tantrums and rivalry are some of the most amusing nuggets of information.

 

Cecil Beaton ‘Fashion is Indestructible’. 1941

Though she never courted personal praise, Withers was perhaps most proud of spear-heading the famous 1946 post war Britain Can Make It exhibition at the V&A. Where 1.5 million visitors came to cheer in a new vision of design and economic growth for the future. A no-nonsense dresser herself, she wore little make-up but hats were one of her personal style signifiers. It was after all, an era when everyone wore hats, gloves and pearls to the office despite clutching paperwork and paraphernalia to scuttle down to basement shelters when the air raid sirens sounded. ‘Producing each issue is like a hurdle in a steeplechase. Fashion models are scarce and sittings interrupted by late deliveries and air raid sirens ‘, wrote Withers to the New York office who sympathetically encouraged their London staff by sending food parcels of Virginia ham and silk stockings. And through it all Vogue was published. Sometimes the magazine was thick and sometimes thin, as paper was in short supply, too. And Withers wrote much of the editorial herself; encouraging women to make the most of existing clothes during rationing earned her the nick-name Austerity Audrey. When she retired in 1960, the cover price was two shillings and six pence. Hardly succumbing to austerity measures today, a copy of Vogue now costs a mighty £3.99. I wonder if Audrey would approve…

If you love fashion and social history, you’ll enjoy this book. And you might also be interested in Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things at The National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 from 12th March – 7th June

 

Dressed for War by Julie Summers is published by Simon & Schuster. Available HERE.

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Audrey Withers was not just any editor, she was the courageous woman who braved the Blitz to mastermind British Vogue (known affectionately as brogue by the Condé Nast founders) throughout the turb…