Vogue magazine was born with power. The founder, Arthur Turnure, conceived and nurtured it during America’s Gilded Age, and as much as he was a typography enthusiast and an ardent bibliophile, he was also anxious to preserve the hegemony of New York’s impenetrable upper class. Turnure was in the middle of a social war against new money, and he weaponised the publication, using it as a tool to assert his circle’s authority.
It was Turnure’s own personality and his position that set Vogue up for initial success; it would become a perfect microcosm of the elite world he was part of. ‘The magazine’s wielding force is the social idea,’1 he wrote in 1892, in its first ever issue. To guarantee unprecedented insight from this group, and to guarantee the particular elements of codified language and topics of interest pertaining to this group, he put together a staff almost entirely transplanted to the office from his drawing room. The result was an ecosystem of astonishing simplicity: the people who made Vogue put themselves in it and sold it to each other.
From the beginning, Vogue was preoccupied with maintaining the habits and values of the status quo. It was also already an echo chamber. The attributes of the individuals involved were – and are – evidently significant to the assembled whole and show how, in part, Vogue fortified a strong foundation that eventually expanded to international influence.
The French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu advanced his famous theory on capital in 1986, identifying the main forms it takes: economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital.2 Indisputably, those participant in the Vogue project had economic capital which supplemented the magazine both directly and indirectly. The founder had the funds to inaugurate a new publication, while his peers became shareholders, backing Vogue with phenomenal fortunes (early supporters included the Astor, Stuyvesant and Whitney families). Their financial resources had another, ancillary role: it meant the Vogue-adjacent had a level of spending power that would assure audience interest whenever their possessions or assets appeared in the pages. They were able to commission the most extravagant ball gowns, host the most lavish coming out cotillions, and curate the most sumptuous dowries, all of which would pique reader curiosity.
They had cultural capital in great measure too, both embodied in tastes, manners, posture; and institutionalised, through education, boards and clubs. The assembly of these created a ‘habitus’ according to Bourdieu, indicating that their deeply ingrained dispositions resulted in a communal outlook. This is palpably obvious if one examines the text; early Vogue is teeming with inside jokes, allusions, remarks, evocations, name-dropping and slights which all require knowledge of a specific set of social codes to decipher. It is through cultural capital, and the way it’s derived from other forms of capital, that ‘a non-economic form of domination and hierarchy’3 can be established.
By virtue of knowing each other the makers and readers of Vogue reinforced their own prominence and privilege. Bourdieu framed social capital as the property of the individual, rather than the collective, but like economic and cultural capital, the social capital of those involved with Vogue benefitted the magazine. Social capital can strengthen symbolic capital, which denotes the resources available on grounds of such as prestige, honour and reputation, and it ‘may also reinforce identity and recognition’4 – a precious thing indeed if one is building up a name.
If capital shows where power can manifest, then it seems evident that the economic, cultural and social capacities of numerous important New Yorkers created a kind of pool of power for Vogue to draw from and establish itself. As Bourdieu discusses in a later work, those who put a product on the market ‘consecrate’ it, ‘and the more consecrated he personally is, the more strongly he consecrates the work.’5 The producers of cultural products invest their own prestige into the merchandise, in this case, conferring their own status onto the magazine.
The resultant symbolic capital Vogue acquired can be seen in the authority that comes with the name, and the reputation that precedes the product. The dominance an organisation can take on, if it attains a certain level of rank, can pale that of the individual, in part because an organisation can easily outlast a human lifespan. An organisation can also sustain a number of connections far greater than the individual, which results in them being ‘socially embedded in a much stronger sense.’6
By dint of its founding circumstances and purpose, Vogue – and the glossy counterparts that followed – standardised wealth, influence and pedigree as necessary qualifications for participation in the fashion media. These distinctions allowed Vogue to continually leverage its employees: for instance, American Vogue retained a travel editor in the 1960s who had connections in Washington, allowing them to shoot in exotic locations others could not access.
As Vogue absorbed and profited from these forms of capital it could generate currents of power, moving it back and forth on a closed circuit. The magazine continues to boost its reputation by virtue of relationships with important individuals, but equally, important individuals are created when Vogue choses to elevate them. There are adequate modern examples of this vacuum: Cara Delevingne, who shot to supermodel fame, is the goddaughter of Nicholas Coleridge, then president of Condé Nast International. Vogue gave her exposé, and as she became increasingly famous, she shared this newly acquired star power with Vogue by continuing to appear in its editorials.
Vogue was a creation of the ruling classes: their power was its power. To this day, it incorporates individuals with significant capital to act as ambassadors with a view to maintaining its status. This can be seen with Edward Enninful’s appointment of Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss on the masthead of British Vogue, even though they are models – not publishing professionals.
Aligning with noted personalities to continually consecrate their reputation does not just serve to convey Vogue’s ideological loyalties, it has a very real result in the long-term, for much of this non-economic capital is converted to hard currency if it enhances the publication.
‘The Tyranny of the Status Quo’
All forms of power require legitimacy. To validate its existence as a foremost fashion magazine Vogue would need to show fashion – so often deemed frivolous – as worthy of attention. Throughout the course of history, Vogue has worked determinedly to elevate the whole sector. This can be seen in its efforts to reframe the designer as an artist in the 1910s, then commonly regarded as a craftsman or skilled tradesman. Vogue was instrumental in creating the first trade body against the illegal counterfeiting of Parisian designs, acting as protector to noted couturiers thereby preserving their exclusivity and publicly shaming copycat retailers. During WWI Vogue hosted what is widely acknowledged to be the first ever runway show to promote American design. After the war it hosted a second benefit to promote French couturiers in America and strengthen ties with them.
Through countless such initiatives, Vogue has shown its ongoing mission to promote and protect the fashion sector, functioning as cheerleader and agent. It is imperative for Vogue to ‘build and maintain the cultural weight and authority to proclaim the value of, and invest its prestige in, the couturiers’ cause.’ In this way it takes on the role of ‘symbolic banker,’7 offering as a security all the accumulated symbolic capital.
These methods are still in play today. In 2021 alone Edward Enninful has been appointed on the advisory committee of the British Fashion Council’s Foundation and to the judging committee of their Changemakers Prize, while Condé Nast Britain figures amongst their patrons. Through funding, judging or advising on NGO boards they are surely able to direct, guide or press behind the scenes should they chose to. At the very least they are privy to a wealth of information that enhances their stance and consolidates their networks.
As it has grown, Vogue has sought to align itself with a wider corpus of huge, often globally significant institutions. In Britain, Vogue has worked in occasional collaboration with the government since WWII, when they repackaged propaganda from the Ministry of Information to better appeal to female citizens. During the coronavirus pandemic, Vogue allegedly cancelled an interview with musician M.I.A over the latter’s comments on social media regarding vaccination. A message circulated, apparently from Vogue representatives, saying: ‘Considering our August is an issue where we’re chronicling the struggles of the NHS to cope while a vaccine is tried to be made we don’t feel we can have her involved.’8 This missive essentially states that Vogue is concerned with supporting the government agenda.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll not list the innumerable instances American Vogue under Anna Wintour has affiliated itself with democratic leaders. Suffice it to say that Wintour personally raised over $500,000 for Obama’s re-election campaign (placing her on the list of top-tier patrons). She did not do this just as a private individual. She did this as the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine, a position she then used to secure three Vogue covers for Michelle Obama. All this activity led to serious rumours the Obamas would reward her with an ambassadorship. It’s not incidental for a fashion publication to be associating with the ruling family of an economic and military superpower, nor is it likely to be an entirely moral decision. There is soft power gained in association with hard power.
Wintour is frequently at the head of such reputation-expanding initiatives. She formed Fashion Night Out in partnership with the city of New York. She has been the chairwoman of the Met Gala since 1999, a celebrity-filled event that makes headlines every year, hosted at a venerated cultural institution: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Ostensibly a fundraiser for the museum, ‘today, the guest list for the gala has come to mirror, very closely, the pages of Vogue’ wrote Vanessa Friedman for The New York Times, in an article titled, ‘It’s Called the Met Gala, but It’s Definitely Anna Wintour’s Party.’9
Such extracurricular activities cement the networks that Wintour needs for Vogue, although their purpose is outside the obvious remit of a glossy periodical. Here, once again, we encounter the flow of power back and forth, brokered by Vogue-representatives. Vogue enhances their power by staging such events, those participating – institutions, celebrities, designers, even cities – in turn strengthen their position by being amongst the chosen, and thus validated. As Friedman quotes in the article, ‘attendance at the gala “is something you now have to consider as part of a strategy for any designer in the world.”’10
It was the economist Milton Friedman who first used the phrase ‘the tyranny of the status quo’ to denote the strange inertia and bureaucracy that springs up around organisations once they are well-rooted. As it has become formalised, Vogue has to face a paradox: how can they continue to represent the cyclical trend-driven industry if they are so concerned with hierarchy that they cannot – or will not – allow entry for vital new ideas?
So determined have they been to administer the sector: oversee fashion hubs; supervise or act as host to parties, fundraisers, competitions and shows; act as gatekeepers and wardens to the elite; and make and maintain relationships with other leaders, in short, to harness every possible application of soft power, that they were not at all prepared for a reckoning with the digital age.
‘It was dense as a brick, as slick as a marlin, and almost perfectly empty.’11
I have come this far in a discussion of a magazine without saying much about its actual contents. The glossy media, once able to appear inscrutable and mysterious, occupied the middleman function between designer and customer by virtue of access to catwalks and couture houses. But the openness of Web 2.0 sparked ongoing disintermediation and the great democratising of fashion through digital showcases, blogs, social media, the rise of fashion film and BTS footage. With the sharp decline of print and steep new competition, glossies have dramatically lost market share.
Nose-diving profits mean they are more than ever beholden to advertisers, which pundits consider a barrier to candid coverage. Yet I’m always surprised when people criticise Vogue and similar publications for a lack of fashion journalism. Omission, rather than criticism, is the mark of Vogue’s disapproval. As the all-in-capitals sensationalist headline of a tabloid is a brute shout, so the exclusion of a designer in Vogue is a social snub, silently embodying the politesse of its original class. These magazines were never intended to provide incisive and balanced commentary, and its staff is not made up of journalists. This is worth demarcating, since as I’ve noted, for the majority at Vogue their job is to protect and attract privilege, to network, organise, promote, publicise, but not to write critically. Where fashion journalism is being discussed I would argue it’s an error to include glossy media in the debate.
It’s common for Vogue and magazines of its ilk to receive criticism for being overfilled with adverts, for being ‘empty.’ Lucinda Chambers, who was let go from British Vogue in 2017 gave an incendiary interview in this publication, in which she said she had not read Vogue in years, and the clothes it featured were ‘irrelevant.’12 Joan Juliet Buck, once editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, echoed these sentiments in her memoir, describing the magazine as ‘seduction without distraction’13 in the 1990s, implying the same lack of usefulness. As the scholars Susie Khamis and Alex Munt note, the imperative of the fashion media is: ‘to oil the wheels of commerce, to satisfy advertisers, and to lock consumers into a perennial cycle of desire and then dissatisfaction.’14
Arguably, Vogue set itself apart with high-quality imagery, though if discoursed through the prism of philosopher Walter Benjamin’s theory on aura, even that has become degraded. I would argue that Vogue’s current output has less and less special quality, for every image is now disseminated on multiple platforms: in print, online and shared on social media, spread on fan accounts, remixed, cropped, edited and filtered. This reproducible reality would be deemed a reckless loss of aura. For Benjamin, the more an artwork was reproduced, the less authenticity it had, for authenticity cannot be duplicated. By endlessly reproducing and making available myriad versions, uniqueness is destroyed and objects lose their authority.
Tied into co-dependent relationships with labels that forbid thoughtful coverage, and unable to sustain the aura of their photographic material under the requirement to publish incessantly and cross-platform, the actual contents of fashion publications becomes of minimal interest. What remains of the name is not a print product but a nebulous structure composed of soft power. Curiously, Vogue themselves acknowledge this. Emmanuelle Alt, editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris said in 2019: ‘I used to work for a magazine, and today I work for a brand.’15
This paradigm goes some way to showing why few in fashion remark on the emptiness of Vogue. Whether it’s empty or not, its authority is behind the scenes, including bestowing coveted invitations that many high-profile personalities would not like to run the risk of forfeiting. There is the vanity attached to working for a publication like Vogue, but even more so there is the shrinking job market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job opportunities from 2018-2028 for fashion writers are predicted to increase 0%, while fashion editors face a decrease of 3%.16 This is visible at Vogue, where several European editor-in-chiefs have departed and may not be replaced, their positions effectively disappearing. If Vogue is a possible paymaster – lucrative or otherwise – hopefuls are likely to keep quiet.
Magazines like Vogue may remain beyond further opprobrium shielded by the pervading idea of fashion as trifling. Unlike in politics or even in Hollywood, calling out fashion media seems thankless, especially true since the wider industry is facing a grave retribution with sustainability. The idea of a fashion informant seems comical, and worse, the idea of fashion magazines as toxic environments is normalised. As fashion has become a kind of celebrity ring of its own, with members recognisable by trademarks and catchphrases, it is easier still to trivialise their problems. To many onlookers, the power dynamics in fashion are a form of entertainment in of itself. As i-D questions in the title of a judicious piece: ‘Is gossip interfering with the fashion industry?’17
Regardless of how strong a brand might be, it’s wise to have a quality core product or else the rest will come crashing down sooner or later, like the house of cards it is. Celebrities are everywhere, and designers can market their clothes without print ads, but discerning writing and top-flight photography is a true rarity. Print has a luxury appeal that is not dying out as fast as doomsday reports would have us think, and a higher cover price can pay for production costs, as can be ascertained in the business model of indie magazines from The Gentlewoman to Tank. If the glossy media put its efforts into creating high-end collectable magazines as cultural artefacts and keepsakes, a kind of hybrid between high-spec art-books like those printed by Taschen or the impossibly popular Assouline and indie journals of intellectual appeal, readers would surely be happy to part with more money. Pouring budgets into trite Youtube videos, celebrity make-up tutorials or using Instagram to sell hoodies with ‘Vogue’ emblazoned across them is a race to the bottom that cannot prosper.
The Fashion Archive, a Central Saint Martin’s student and Youtuber with a huge personal following of 65k+, proposes in his video ‘The Death of Fashion Magazines (RANT)’18 that glossies have ‘undermined the intelligence of their consumers’ and goes on to comment that his channel is ‘testament to the fact that young people are interested in fashion’ in a serious way. Paradoxically, to hold on to the reigns of its power the fashion media needs to loosen its grip, for while it can continue to hold the industry hostage for a time, eventually it will be swept away with the final generation of advertisers and designers willing to collude. It is creativity, and not control, that gives value.
Nina-Sophia Miralles is the editor of Londnr, and the author of Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue.
Turnure, A., ‘STATEMENT’, Vogue, vol. 1, issue 1, 17 December 1892, p. 16 ↩
See Navarro, Z., 2006. In Search of a Cultural Interpretation of Power: The Contribution of Pierre Bourdieu, IDS Bulletin, Vol. 37 (No.6) p. 19, for the title quote ↩
Gaventa, J., 2003. Power after Lukes: a review of the literature, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, p. 6 ↩
Lin, N., 1999. Building a Network Theory of Social Capital, Connections, Vol. 22 (No.1), p. 29 ↩
Bourdieu, P., 1993. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Columbia University Press, p. 83 ↩
Lin, loc. cit. ↩
Bourdieu, P., op. cit., p. 77 ↩
Buck, J. J., 2017, The Price of Illusion, Atria Books, p. 209 ↩
Buck, loc. cit. ↩
Khamis, S., Munt, A., The Three Cs of Fashion Media Today: Convergence, Creativity & Control, SCAN Journal of media arts culture ↩