The first photographic cover of British Vogue in 1932 was an artful work dependenton fine craftsmanship. Once Edward Steichen had shot his sportif model, the chief technician of Condé Nast had to make 18 plates to recombine in the new four-colour engraving process. Though the result is a powerful poster in red and tan against a cobalt sky, it is far less vogueish than illustrations by André Marty, Georges Lepape or Eduardo Benito filed in the same era. These paragons had been imported from Parisian magazines, especially La Gazette du Bon Ton, which Conde Nast bought towards the end of its unprofitable run.
British Vogue, aka Brogue, launched in 1916, couldn't offer the production values of the deluxe Gazette. But Brogue's colour gravure covers, often acquired second hand from its American mother-mag, did match in quality the frontisplates of the best contemporary children's books. Since Brogue published frequently until the Second World War, that meant some two dozen delicious images a year, and they make the first part of this book a treat.
Illustrations in the Gazette and its grand sister periodicals had been of actual garments, albeit rendered fantastic by Japanesey flatness and a Fauvist palette; Vogue demanded instead the mood of the mode. Lepape worked up decorative vignettes from snow on a Deco fur hat in 1919 to a Cubist sunbather in 1934, while Benito was chameleon-adaptable: Brancusi egg-headed females against Jazz Age angularities, geometric papercuts, and late in his career and at a low of the war in 1941, a light daub of neo-romanticism, with the word Vogue splodged as a tricolour flower posy. "Vogue" was generally spelled out in a vague Bodoni font, although nobody policed the typography – Lepape put up the letters as gaps in storm clouds, Benito pricked them out in stars in the sky, and Pierre Morgue in 1932 stencilled the name between RAF roundels on the wings of a monoplane overhead. Even when more realistic photography began to alternate with artwork, larky nomenclature continued. Horst had an athletic model contort into the forms, Anton Bruehl twisted them from jewels.
Round page 116, and 1945, Alexander Liberman ascended as art director in New York and Vogue became a brand logo while the cover images were almost all camerawork. There was still wiggle room for Irving Penn to spend a fortnight arranging collages of eye-glasses or something allusive involving goldfish. He stylised women into brilliant near-abstractions, too: illustration by means of lens. There was even Brogue permission in 1948 for Cecil Beaton to take a portrait of a silver-haired model wearing grey against faded tapestry – catch anybody at Hanover Square HQ allowing that now.
I thought I would start to dislike the covers about where I came in as a schoolgirl thieving back 1960s issues from a dentist's waiting room, but Brian Duffy close-ups, left politely alone on an empty page, remain as elegant as when I first admired them.
My break point is in fact the late 1960s, when what the mag business calls "cover lines" first got a word in edgeways, then expanded into loquacity: not merely date, price and teaser slogan but a gabble of capital letters and lower cases, multiple sizes and colours. Words, words, words.
True, only the dates of Princess Di's birth and death were superimposed on her scarlet skirt hem in a 1997 memorial cover, probably because it was improvised in a scramble of last-minute motorbike couriers. Otherwise from 1968 to now, a scrim of script has dropped between supermodels and readers. Kate Moss or Stella Tennant have had to be posed at their slender full length to fit between the billing for the season's new bags and a shill for the return of the corset. Even then they've been scribbled over, bylines tangling in their hair.
The yakking doesn't seem likely to abate. I was just looking at covers of Russian, Chinese and Indian Vogues (Rogue, Chogue and Inogue?), verbose in Cyrillic or characters. There's nothing so wordlessly divine as a 1918 Helen Dryden watercolour.