Audrey Withers: fashion and feminism during the war

Audrey Withers: fashion and feminism during the war

Audrey Withers becomes director of British Vogue in September 1940, just when the bombing starts to be massive. For 57 consecutive nights, while Audrey, 35, settles down in the new Bond Street officeGerman forces heavily bomb London, with members of the editorial team taking refuge in “a cellar in the basement” to continue production when the alarm sounds.

Audrey Withers: fashion and feminism during the war
Audrey Withers: fashion and feminism during the war

Before the end of the year, the buildings that house his editorial team will be semi-destroyed, but Withers doesn’t miss a beat. “Vogue he is here despite everything! “reads a page of his first issue after the bombing, accompanied by photos of the destruction he had left a “new crater” in the street under the windows of his office. “Each edition is one more stage in an obstacle course,” he wrote shortly after Vogue America.

“Approaching the closing of the number we gather all our energies, in the meantime, the difficulties accumulate threatening, one last sprint and (so far) here it is! And there is no owner of a winning horse who can feel more proud of us on the day where all the newsstands display the new Vogue. “From the beginning of his 20 years of leadership, Withers is determined: Vogue will go on, and Vogue will contribute both to the outcomes of the war and to the lives of women.

Withers photographed by Clifford Coffin in his office

© Clifford Coffin

She starts with the miracle of being able to print the magazine. With paper rationing and limited transportation options from 1940 onwards, Harry Yoxall – the British Vogue CEO of the time – makes an application to the ministry to allow them to continue distributing the magazine.

The British government recognizes the opportunity represented by Vogue to encourage the so-called “weak” sex to participate in the war effort, and your request will be granted, provided that it becomes a monthly publication rather than biweekly and that far fewer copies are printed. “Please, run your copy“reads one of the many notices in the magazine that encourage sharing.” Vogue (given card rationing) are limited, so there is not enough for everyone.

Please pass yours when you are finished reading it. First let the friends who can’t subscribe read it, then take it to the post office … From there, they will be distributed to all military (female) departments where they are most in demand, to our bases abroad and also to those isolated at home. “

Vogue’s offices were destroyed by the Luftwaffe, but the magazine’s headquarters in London was also canceled, where there were more than a million knitting patterns

© Lee Miller

Meanwhile, with Nazi forces marching across Europe, Audrey Withers begins to transform the pages of Vogue – in a guide for female readers, called “soldiers without guns” on how to support the cause of the allies. All are encouraged to do their part. “Last year women organized domestic life. This year they run canteens, voluntary associations, army units – they give and take orders. Last year, time was not a problem: this week, next week, a day … Time is of the essence this year. ” With the encouragement of Vogue, the female public worked in munitions factories, managed radios and switchboards, volunteered the Red Cross, led ambulances in London and managed emergency field kitchens. “Look at the women … they work efficiently, secretly at night, in conditions of war, cooking hundreds of meals, building mud, clay and recycled tin ovens.” writes Vogue elogiandole. “They learn how to close their ovens, how to build fires that don’t propagate telltale smoke.”

When King George appointed Princess Elizabeth Colonel Honorary of the Grenadier Guards in 1942, she became the first female colonel in history

© Cecil Beaton

Equally deserving of praise are, of course, those women who join the military services. There are those in the Territorial Auxiliary Service (ATS), who oversee the weapons depots at night, those of the Royal Naval Service Female (Wren) – including the Duchess of Kent – the auxiliary of the air forces (WAAF) and the girls of the civil organization Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which pilot Spitfire planes, bombers and Hurricane. Even there Princess Elizabeth serves as Honorary Colonel of the Grenadier Guards Infantry Regiment, and Whiters commissions a portrait of the future queen with a diamond brooch imitating the regimental badge in 1943. Even in the countryside, the Women’s Land Army, made up of thousands of women, takes responsibility for all agricultural production in England. The vast majority of the large estates have been converted for public use – with aristocrats planting vegetables instead of roses and hedges. In a special report from 1941, Vogue follows Lady Diana Cooper, the great socialite of the time, while milking her cow Jersey breed, named Princess, collects the eggs of its hens, and makes hay in its 12,000 square meter land.

“The correct activity of a magazine is to reflect the life of its times,” wrote Withers in his memoir. “In wartime, we had to denounce the war and Lee Miller seemed born just to do this for us.”

© Lee Miller

On the pages of his magazine Withers also gives credit to journalists. For example, sending to the front is known as a war correspondent for Vogue, of the American model Lee Miller. From there the writer and photographer transmits reports on the siege of St Malo, the liberation of Paris and – more famously – the death of Hitler. In addition to highlighting his articles, which Withers edits personally, Vogue praises those who do the same job internally. A service of the March 1944 edition, entitled News Makers and News Breakers”, Celebrates policies and reporters: “These women are the news. Two of them – a female army officer and a parliamentary secretary – help to do them. The rest of them register them; but with such sensational success that, by spreading the news, they have become a News themselves. “Who is among the women included in the piece? Colonel Hobby, director of the American Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the radio journalist Barbara Ward, Florence Horsburgh MP, secretary of the Ministry of Health, and then Mrs. Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn. “Married to the writer since 1940, she has been a journalist since she was 19 years old,” says the caption Vogue of the photo that portrays her at her desk.

For one of the first issues of Withers, Cecil Beaton photographed the models who dressed the new collections in front of the government posters

© Cecil Beaton

Of course, Vogue he also continued to give fashion tips – teaching women how to get the most out of what they find, despite the rationing of clothes started in June 1941. If at the beginning of the war Vogue claimed to “deplore the young women who take the war as an excuse to stop styling their hair and go around neglected”, the tones change quickly and are immediately oriented towards a philosophy of mending and recycling. Knee-length dresses paired with wooden-soled shoes become a uniform for many. With decidedly more cheerful tones, Vogue declares: “The restrictions on clothing only eliminate the superfluous. The progress of the war made it necessary to prohibit all unnecessary materials and work … Fashion is undergoing a mandatory course of lightening and simplification”. This, the editors explain, can only do good. “Subtraction, not addition, is the first rule of fashion. “Withers even advises the Chamber of Commerce on a range of useful clothes – putting her in contact with famous designers such as Hardy Amies and showing the results on the pages of Vogue. “Through their absolute cutting ability, their total interest in the fabric, they can transform negative restrictions into positive triumphs,” writes the magazine in an attempt to win over readers with those austere clothes.

“I have long wanted Cecil Beaton to photograph a smart girl against such a background, as I thought this would show dramatically how it is possible for the whole world of Vogue to continue even in the midst of such a disaster,” he wrote. Withers on a note related to this iconic portrait of Beaton.

© Cecil Beaton

Withers simply refuses to accept the fact that fashion stops being important. In a famous shot, Cecil Beaton immortalized model Elizabeth Cowell standing in the rubble after a night of particularly devastating bombing, in 1941. What is written next to the photos? “They say that now the goose of fashion is well cooked, waiting for the best butter. But fashion is indestructible and will also survive the coupons for margarine … Style cannot be rationed”. However, even at the height of the war, the industry continues to fight as best it can in London – giving refuge to many designers who have fled Paris. “When mermaids rang in Mayfair, they often found couturiers in the midst of complicated fitting,” he writes Vogue after bombing. “Captain Molyneux, with dozens of pins between his lips, asked his model: ‘Do you want to go to the refuge?’ and Sheila Wetton, now chief fashion editor at Voguehe was shaking his head diligently. At John Lewis the fittings continued in the shelters … “

Vogue shares its goals for 1943 in a graphic scheme

Vogue gives practical advice on any topic related to fashion and beauty. The magazine suggests alternative hairstyles, since girls are forced to turn “without a hat” and long locks run the risk of getting caught in factory equipment, she provides step-by-step instructions to change the clothes of the previous year according to the fashion of the current year, offers creamy makeup and socks as an alternative to nylon stockings, and suggestions on how to combat the effects of war on the skin. “Miss Lily Ehrenfeld works from 8 to 20, five days a week, in an ammunition factory”, a remarkable editorial begins, before listing the cosmetic solutions for hand problems “covered all day with grease and dirt” ( “The night paints the nails with white iodine tincture to strengthen them”) and giving postural advice for those who stand all day. The rationing of cosmetics is handled with the same calmness. “Today you want to look like someone who thinks more about what he has to face than his face and more about what he can do than his figure,” announces Vogue in the August 1942 edition.

“I saw the war end with a plume of smoke rising from the remains of Hitler’s retreat.” So Miller wrote in the magazine before the famous issue entitled “Peace and Reconstruction”.

© James de Holden Stone

Armistice time, September 2, 1945, Withers helped encourage a generation of independent women. Choose a cover with a blue sky for the October 1945 edition, devoted to “Peace and Reconstruction” – a strangely bittersweet moment for those women who had become accustomed to a life free from patriarchal restrictions. Withers will have been thrilled to celebrate the return to peace – but he will never lower his guard regarding the feminist causelet alone in his remaining 15 years of leadership. “And now where will they go – the female soldiers and all the others who, without the glamor of the uniform, queued and queued, and ran factories, houses and offices?”, Vogue writes shortly after the armistice . “We had more than a proof of their value: of their strength when resistance was required, of their discretion when silence was required, of their tact, of their sense of humor, of the collective conscience, of constancy, of submission to the discipline, of their power over the machines … all things that men like to think that women cannot be or doand … How long before a grateful nation (or, in any case, the men of a nation) forget what women did when the country needed them? It is the task of all women to watch over to avoid a regression – that we go on exactly starting from here. “

The book Dressed for War by Julie Summers is currently only available in English.

This article was originally published in British Vogue

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