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The visual power of the global phenomenon.

Adelaide Ng

Adelaide Ng

April 26, 2024
5 Minutes

Lodged at the pinnacle of fashion, Vogue possesses an unparalleled universal dominance over the sphere of beauty and glamour. With an influence that extends far beyond sartorial trends and dialogues, the magazine has elevated the notion of fashion in shaping the contours of arts and media, marking it the coalface of modern culture and a global arbiter of style. Its ability to continuously adapt to an evolving world may be attested to by its enduring relevance throughout the years, charting the everchanging history of fashion. 

Despite its expansive digital presence, to me, the essence of the publication (perhaps by virtue of sentimentality) remains bound within the pages of its print issues—specifically shining through the front covers of the magazine. Since its inception in 1892, Vogue covers have served as conduits of fashion trends; each carefully illustrated as pictorial tableaus that reflect the cultural zeitgeist of its era, spanning from references to popular culture and films to visuals evocative of the current socio-political climate. 

Initially conceived as a chronicle of opulence, Vogue's earlier covers were adorned with intricate illustrations that epitomised aristocratic sensibilities of the late 19th century. Here, a Great Gatsby-esque female is depicted with casual, classical enchantment; sleek hair, reflective complexion, and the imminently bold lipstick that seeps into her daintily, tinted cheeks—an assemblage that embodies picturesque beauty, one that only appears more stunning against the simple backdrop and the fading drool of a cursive VOGUE. Yet as the medium of photography burgeoned into prominence, the publication began to pivot towards a reliance on photo shoots featuring models and celebrities, denoting a new era of visual storytelling and cementing Vogue’s position among the currents of popular culture. 

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Vogue, April 1940, Photographed by Horst P. Horst

If the former cover defined what is beauty, this cover punctuates what beauty should be. It is an image of glamour and allure, but more importantly it is daring and bold in its delivery. The gazes of the women are assertive and dominating, penetrating even—demanding of attention rather than asking for approval. The lighting of the image is brilliant, placing all three women under equal illuminance and full vibrance. In its entirety, the image is unequivocally daring, though still maintaining a girlish innocence with the pink hues, recalling the theatrical beauty of the Gilded Age. 

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Vogue, March 1974, Bianca Jagger, Photographed by Eric Boman

According to Edward Enninful (previous editor-in-chief of British Vogue), this was originally a full frame shot of Bianca Jagger on the balcony of the Palais Garnier but Terry Jones (then art director of Vogue) sought to “literally zoom into a tiny part of the frame and blow it up;” the confident, intelligent image that emerges makes the viewer wonder about the recipient of her gaze,  her state of mind, the remainder of her outfit, and the ambiguous flash of red above her headpiece. An icon of her time, Bianca Jagger is synonymous with the cultural phenomenon of 1970s New York, and this feature had only further propelled her status as a star. In reference to the cover, Enninful emphasises how “when it comes to art direction, you shouldn’t be scared to experiment, chop and change.”

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British Vogue, December 2017, Adwoa Aboah, Photographed by Steven Meisel

Speaking of Edward Enninful, his first cover with British Vogue was prominent for both its aesthetic excellence and its relevance in the contemporary discourse of inclusivity in the fashion industry. Attesting to his mission to expand and diversify the fashion powerhouse, Enninful selected Adwoa Aboah, then emerging Ghanaian-British model and mental health advocate, as the face of his debut. The image is simple with the model as the clear centrepiece—her features enhanced tastefully by a headwrap and dynamic makeup—conveying a message of empowerment and authenticity. Enninful’s cover was not a mere fashion statement but a bold declaration of intent. It heralded a new era for the publication, one characterised by inclusivity, authenticity, and the celebration of diverse voices and perspectives.

Achenrin, Janaye, Mona + Precious Being Joyful Vogue UK April — Anne of  Carversville
British Vogue, April 2021, Janaye Furman, Precious Lee, Achenrin Madit and Mona Tougaard, Photographed by Steven Meisel

As the industry continued to evolve, Enninful's legacy as a trailblazer in fashion journalism remained indelible, evident by his April 2021 cover issued in the wake of the George Floyd murder. In response to the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, he dedicated his issue to Black joy, with a quartet of dopamine-delivering covers starring Janaye Furman, Precious Lee, Achenrin Madit and Mona Tougaard, in collaboration with Steven Meisel, yet again. The outcome is an outpouring of bubbly radiance, an effective reminder to seek light amidst bleak times and to “not take joy for granted.”  

Makeover Madness, Vogue Italia, July 2005 - Edward Enninful — Google Arts &  Culture
Vogue Italia, Makeover Madness, July 2005

Shifting our pictorial gazes to the continent, Franca Sozzani, late editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, truly transcended the standard for fashion visuals. This particular cover, titled Makeover Madness, appears almost as an extracted still from a film. Though more radical than its formal realism is its subject matter—a critique on the plastic surgery industry and its detrimental effect on beauty ideals. When placed in the broader context of self image and self perception, the cover confronts the cultural obsession with conformity and the toxic pressures of the homogenous beauty standards promoted by the fashion world. Yet again, the cover pinpoints Vogue’s central role in the discourses of contemporary society, entwining the topic of fashion with prevailing social issues. 

Vogue Italia, July 2004, Photographed by Steven Meisel

Likewise produced by Vogue Italia and captured by Meisel, this cover is visually stunning by virtue of its slight jarringness. Reminiscent of a sci-fi still (again, note the cinematic quality), the directed gaze of the model is truly unsettling, lulling you in while simultaneously obstructing your ability to immerse yourself in the visual. The only source of illumination being the reflected shine of the model’s hair adds to the ominousness of the scene. The image is chaotic and imposing—its ambiguity remains puzzling even as you glance away, which perhaps may well have been Sozzani’s intent. All that is certain is its astounding, lasting impression. 

Vogue Paris April 2002 with Claudia Schiffer by Mario Testino
Vogue Paris, April 2002, Claudia Schiffer, Photographed by Mario Testino

Often, the French claim to do fashion better than the rest—the statement, though controversial in itself, could be testified to by this cover of Claudia Schiffer. The feature of the 90’s supermodel as the muse itself is iconic. Her grungy smudged cosmetic look paired with the distressed denim complete a vision that is distinctively of a brazen French aesthetic. If the “cool girl” of Fincher’s Gone Girl was to be realised, it would take the form of this image. Here, Schiffer is depicted as insurgent as she is charming, and her charisma transcends the frames of the photograph, daring the viewer to return her gaze. It’s an image that is mischievous, candid, alluring, and imminently modern—a conclusive embodiment of the Vogue brand. 

Mirroring the constantly fluctuating landscape of the fashion world, Vogue's covers present themselves as captivating visual narratives that congeal its status as the crux of contemporary culture. Testifying to the publication’s editorial acumen, Vogue continues to shape and define the language of beauty and fashion alike, its influence only broadening with time.

(Cover Image: Vogue, August 2, 1930, Illustrated by André E. Marty)

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