Vogue is easy to love, and just as – if not more – easy to hate. Is it a celebration of glorious high fashion needing no justification other than the pleasure it evokes, or a pointless and expensive piece of advertising? Either way, there’s no doubting it’s an icon of sorts: instantly recognisable, and even in its 94th year of existence, still capable of making some sort of statement about its readers. Now, a Vogue reader probably wouldn’t be the type to be shy about their habit, but as someone whose stack of back issues serves as a rather practical bedside table, I’ve known people to be bemused by my choice of reading material. Because – oh, shock – I couldn’t afford any of those clothes. So why read it? Or rather, why not read catalogues?
It’s easy to say that it’s all just about fantasy and aspiration, but just as I can’t imagine getting much pleasure from browsing a catalogue, I don’t go around art galleries thinking about being rich enough one day to buy some of it for the living room. The mistake here is to make it all so personal and possessive. Those art works do not need to belong to me or have a place in anyone’s everyday life to have significance; they are glorious and should be protected from mundanity. And so with the clothes: they are to be looked at, revered, more beautiful when detached from the pretence of being somehow attainable. There is no escapism here, just a procession of beautiful, memorable images.
With this in mind, the high advert content is perhaps forgivable. If you’ve bought the magazine for the purpose of looking at photos of expensive clothes anyway, it seems to make little difference how overtly branded the photo is. Vogue exists because we have a fashion industry and, like it or not, within this industry the relationship of the press to the designers is mutually congratulatory – or mutually set on sabotage, depending on artistic temperaments and feuds. Ultimately, designers are probably as influential in controlling what goes into Vogue’s own photo shoots as they are with their own advertising campaigns.
As well as providing beauty for beauty’s sake, Vogue generally doesn’t shy away from exposing more edgy, difficult designers to the glossy magazine buying masses. An article from last year on Hussein Chalayan’s creations, and their transition from catwalk pieces to gallery exhibits, seems to have particular resonance here. Chalayan once created pieces where wooden dresses were transformed into furniture as models assumed different poses. Such work, intricate and beautiful just because it could be, put me in mind of William Morris’ words: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Arguably, Vogue serves many purposes – offering coverage to new designers, providing critique and commentary on one of the biggest industries in the world, serving as a bedside table for yours truly – but even without any of this, if we believe it to be beautiful, perhaps that should suffice. Of course for plenty of people, fashion remains pointless, vain, even damaging. And certainly, by buying Vogue, I’m justifying the continuation of a massive and often cruel industry. But I’d rather pay to look at photos of wooden dresses than buy sweatshop clothes. At least with Vogue we’re getting artistic expression and a little bit of intellectual stimulation alongside our cruelty. As a dirty habit goes, at £3.60 a month it’s the equivalent of being a particularly infrequent smoker. Do forgive me.
By Anna Feintuck