The fashion futurist: how Vogue's wartime editor revolutionised women's lives
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, women’s 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 women’s 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, didn’t you know she was Grandpa’s cousin?’ And I didn’t know.” It was, she explains, a big family but she hadn’t 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 editor’s 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 magazine’s 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 wasn’t 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 wouldn’t accommodate a female photographer). But she needed a press sponsor and Withers stepped in. One of Miller’s 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 Hitler’s 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 Vogue’s 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 women’s 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 one’s tacit approval to things as they are in pressing for change. It is an old rightwing trick to sit tight and say nothing (because that’s 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 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 men’s wives. (Tellingly, the woman in that “fashion is indestructible” picture wasn’t a professional model, but the BBC’s 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 Jock’s interest in other women almost gave Audrey the licence to run her own life as she wanted,” says Summers, who points out that she wouldn’t 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.