In 1916, the British edition of Vogue was brought into the world by Condé Montrose Nast, an Anglophile American and the eponymous founder of the now world-famous publishing house. The publication of a British edition of Vogue was, however, met with a certain reluctance by American Vogue, which, in the hope of bolstering its income by attracting advertising from British companies, had been distributed in affluent boroughs of London since 1912.
That ‘ruse’ was successful, but only up to a point. By 1914, American Vogue was selling around 4,000 copies in England, which was quite impressive in a country that at that time still believed it had a God-given monopoly on style, taste and class. The English readers certainly didn't buy American Vogue for the advertisements of American luxury goods any more than the coverage of American high society, dismissed in Mayfair and ‘the shires’ as vulgarly arriviste. Perhaps the real buyers were the American expats.
However, as World War One continued, the situation changed with dramatic speed. English women had always preferred magazines from Vienna and Paris to those from New York, but the European magazines stopped coming as the hostilities stepped up. As a result, by 1916, the sales of US Vogue had quadrupled. Then came the blow. In the United States, paper shortages meant that print numbers were substantially reduced and shipping 'non-essentials’ to England from America was almost entirely banned. Condé Montrose Nast’s formula was destroyed by the imperatives of the U.S war effort.
Thus, after a certain amount of head-scratching and number-crunching, Condé Montrose Nast and his business team decided to risk publishing a British edition of Vogue. British Vogue would carry British advertisements for financial expediency, but would be supported by editorial fashion pages predominantly commissioned in New York.
On September 15, 1916, the first edition appeared, along with assurances that “each issue will be supplemented with carefully selected articles dealing with English society, fashions, furniture, interior decorating, the garden, art, literature and the stage.” All for a cover price of one shilling. Photographs of society figures including Lady Wellesley (by Hoppé) and Mrs John Lavery, wife of one of London's most successful portrait painters, were prominently featured in issue one, no doubt carefully chosen as a sop to the English upper classes.
Right from the beginning, photography was a powerful selling point for British Vogue, as it was for the American edition. Although fashion drawings featured heavily, and remained in the magazine until the 1950s, film was bringing a new reality to entertainment. Photography would gain an early foothold and come to dominate fashion completely. It is true to say that some of the world’s most iconic images of style in the 20th century originated on the covers and in the editorial pages of Vogue magazine. Some even had humour, like the famous 1970s cover of perfect white teeth tearing into a vivid green jelly — hardly glamorous but stylish nonetheless.
During the 20th century, American Vogue commissioned Cecil Beaton's pictures of the Duchess of Windsor on her wedding day, high fashion from the likes of Richard Avedon, including a famous picture of model Dovima wearing a Yves Saint Laurent designed Dior evening gown surrounded by elephants, as well as portraits of Hollywood stars, such as Sophia Lauren photographed by Irving Penn. The images would appear first in American Vogue and then in the pages of international Vogue editions — including British Vogue. Even in the great swansong days of haute couture during the 1950s Paris coverage was normally shared by the editions.
By this system the high-level of glamour so essential to the Vogue philosophy and its image could be serviced and controlled from New York. In 1950, there was a famous occasion when Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of all the Vogues, took exception to a picture in British Vogue of a modern woman, cigarette in mouth, fumbling in her bag for her lighter. So not Vogue. So inelegant. To show the true Vogue way, she mailed a highly stylised Penn picture of a model in a Dior dress, smoking elegantly with a long cigarette holder. One can imagine the reaction in London where it was generally felt that British Vogue could look after itself, thank you very much.
The first editor of British Vogue was Dorothy Todd who, even at the time, was considered a strange choice. An intellectual and lesbian, she had no interest at all in fashion, including American fashion. She immediately set out to ignore the fact that Mayfair was Vogue's natural environment and, encouraged by her friend Virginia Woolf, pinpointed the magazine’s home as Bloomsbury. Her tenure was brief, lasting a single year. She was replaced by Elspeth Champcommunal, who had previously worked in couturier Worth's London office. By contrast, Champcommunal was entirely focused on high fashion and style.