Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Last-Year Reads: Always in Vogue by Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase

“Between us . . . we showed America the meaning of style.” That's Condé Nast's description of his relationship with Edna Woolman Chase, a woman who managed the impressive feat of being editor-in-chief of Vogue for 38 years, from 1914 until 1952. Always in Vogue, written with her daughter the author and actress Ilka Chase is her biography, published in 1954. She oversaw the magazine through two world wars, the hectic 1920s, the Wall Street Crash which threatened to undermine the Nast empire, short skirts, long skirts, L-85 restrictions and the beginnings of the New Look. At one point she was managing editions of French, German and British Vogue, as well as the American edition. Phew!

If anyone dares to suggest fashion publishing is anything other than a serious business, I'm going to shove a copy of this under their nose. Edna Woolman Chase was clearly a serious minded and conscientious woman and - as that initial quote from Nast might suggest - on something of a mission to inform the American public about good taste (note, she was bothered about taste, not high fashion - more of that later). Although she mingled with some of the world's most famous women, with the likes of Schiaparelli, Chanel, Mona Bismarck and Elsie de Wolfe all get mentioned in the book, she doesn't brag about her connections. She rarely gets carried away with lavish praise. In fact, some of her final words of advice in the book, offered to any fashion student are "Give yourself time to let your impressions crystallize. Don’t be carried away by the obvious and the spectacular." That philosophy can be seen running through the pages of Always in Vogue.

Woolman Chase's influence is still felt on the magazine, not least in its fashion focus. When she started working in Vogue's circulation department, in 1895, the magazine is a hotch-potch of cultural interests, aimed at men and women. In 1914, she came up with the idea of the "Fashion Fête". Held to raise money for allied war women and to showcase American fashion, it was the first of what we know now as the catwalk show. She remarks of her lasting contribution to the world of fashion: "There was such a time and there have been moments when secretly I have wondered whether I did not render dubious service to my country the day the idea popped into my mind on the bus." In addition, despite the magazine's close ties with the exclusive world of French couture industry, it was her who named the feature "More Taste Than Money", the forerunner of British Vogue's "More Dash Than Cash".

The relationship between the editor and the French couture houses, as outlined in this book, is fascinating: a constant diplomatic juggling act. The success of the Fashion Fête meant it had to be repeated in France the following year, to reinforce Vogue's support of French fashions. Jean Patou launched a competition in 1924 to find some American models, so different in shape from the French mannequins used in his couture houses. Woolman Chase describes how the six models selected had to undergo some serious diplomatic training ahead of disembarking in Europe, to contend with the fall-out from the implication that somebody other than the French may be viewed as the most chic women in the world. Conversely, after WWII, Vogue, Harper's and Life were all asked by America's War Production Board not to give coverage to the lavish new designs coming out of Paris. They refused. There's a typically understated author's note on the text, "all these issues sold out".

With such a long tenure, and direct responsibility for the success of Vogue, it's hardly surprising Woolman Chase doesn't really draw a line between the magazine and the rest of her life. People who work closely with her on Vogue are friends with life; people who cross her don't get off lightly. The book is dedicated to "the old friends – the old enemies too – who have made Vogue and made my life." Condé Nast – who it's hard to think of as a real person, rather than simply empire – is extremely generous to Woolman Chase for her work, surprising her with cheques in the post, or money hidden within boxes of chocolates. He obviously expected loyalty from his employees, Woolman Chase obviously expected loyalty from her employees too. So, the defection of Carmel Snow to Harper's Bazaar hits them both hard.

I've written about the rivalry between Snow and Woolman Chase before. Woolman Chase is quite cutting about her rival's abilities - although she was the one who found Snow, who was working as a fashion designer, and trained her up to be her predecessor. Snow, she notes, partied all night, even perfecting the art of sleeping on the dancefloor. Graciously she admits, "she was so good", but only "when she was not distracted." Woolman Chase goes on, "she had native good taste, which had been cultivated and developed by her work. She had ability, poise and an engaging wit, but there were lapses. She was capable of originating fine ideas though, like a spotty golf player, her follow-through was weak." Both Woolman Chase and Nast felt Snow was "throwing over" everything they had achieved together by going to work for Nast's publishing rival Hearst. Nast apparently never spoke to Snow again, and "never forgave her". Neither apparently did Woolman Chase, though they had to mix professionally. In the book, she spots Snow at Nast's funeral and ponders what she might be thinking. I've just bought a copy of The World of Carmel Snow and can't wait to find out!

Ever true to herself, Woolman Chase's fashion advice falls on the side of restraint. She guides, "if we must err let us err on the side of understatement." And, true again to her temperament, she values consistency over experimentation: "To be considered well dressed, you must be it continuously. Not in fits and starts." And the fashion trend which evokes the most ire in her? It may come as a surprise to hear it's the "inappropriate, unsightly and dirty" open-toed shoe on a city street. Even Queen Elizabeth II, she notes, fell foul of this rule on her 1953 Commonwealth tour. But, when it comes to general advice, rather than nit-picking at specifics, her advice still rings very true:

"Fashion is general; style is individual and has little to do with class. It is the unconscious way in which a person expresses himself. I have seen a Texan cowboy swing himself into his saddle with more real elegance, more “style” than many gentlemen on the hunting field. Style derives from character. It must have the feeling of an artist behind it. Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess."

Though she can come across as a bit old-fashioned, stuffy even (wouldn't you prefer to be out dancing with Carmel Snow?), perhaps Woolman Chase has the last laugh after all. Here's some advice, again to the student of fashion, that probably applies to her judgement of character, every bit as it does to dresses:

"It is the sophisticated eye, the trained taste, that spots at first glance the subtly simple, the elegant, the really smart dress that will outlive a dozen tricky models."

And that's probably how you can successfully survive four decades in Vogue.

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  1. How fascinating. She doesn't look like the editor of a fashion magazine, but no one who knows Vogue from the 20s-40s can deny that she knew what she was doing.

    1. Completely. And she didn't come from a fashion magazine background either: she really did dedicate herself to the task and train her taste in order to be, and to produce the very best. I get the sense she was quite modest about some of her achievements in the book too: she doesn't mention her role in the formation of the Fashion Group, for example.


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