The fashion futurist: how Vogue’s wartime editor revolutionised women’s lives

Amid the rubble of a bombed building stands a woman, immaculate in hat and gloves, wearing the kind of nipped-in suit that screams 1940s chic.

Her back is to the camera, her expression unreadable as she surveys the wreckage. But the caption reads: “Fashion is indestructible.” Even in the midst of horror, this image by the legendary fashion photographer Cecil Beaton is saying, women’s lives go on. Yet they cannot be untouched by the world around them, nor unchanged by it.

The picture was conceived for British Vogue in 1941 by its wartime editor Audrey Withers, and, as a new biography by the historian Julie Summers makes clear, captures something of her pioneering beliefs. Dressed For War tells the story of a woman who brought frontline war reporting to her pages alongside features on spring hats, arguing passionately that female readers should be equally curious about both. “It is simply not modern,” she wrote in 1946, ”to be unaware of or uninterested in what is going on all around you.”

Fashion is Indestructible, shot by Cecil Beaton, June 1941.
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 Fashion is Indestructible, shot by Cecil Beaton, June 1941. Photograph: Cecil Beaton/Vogue/©The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

But like many women whose horizons expanded dramatically during wartime, Withers struggled with the pressure to retreat back into a traditional role afterwards. The editor who had the ear of powerful men in government, and often proofed her pages from a makeshift office in the cellar as bombs fell overhead, had thrived on the idea of doing something meaningful. “When she was putting Vogue to bed, she was in her element,” says Summers. “She was being bombed, but she was doing this, and at that moment she realised that Vogue had a purpose beyond promulgating fashion. It was really about influencing women’s lives.” Not for nothing did the head of the board of trade once call her “the most powerful woman in London”.

Summers first became fascinated by her while researching a book on wartime fashion for the Imperial War Museum, only to discover a more personal connection. “I was having lunch with an uncle and I told him how enthused I was about this woman, and he just leant back in his chair and went: ‘Darling, didn’t you know she was Grandpa’s cousin?’ And I didn’t know.” It was, she explains, a big family but she hadn’t heard the story before: Withers was not one to blow her own trumpet.

Withers was born in 1905, into an unusually free-thinking family. Her mother, Mary, had been university-educated, while Summers describes her father, Percy, a doctor who had stopped work through ill health, as a “very liberal father” who fostered self-reliance in his daughters. The young Audrey read English at Oxford, worked in a bookshop and then got a job in publishing before being made redundant, on the grounds (then perfectly legal) that the company wanted a man instead. She was devastated, but that led her to answer a newspaper ad for a subeditor at Vogue, where she flourished. She was only 35 when, with her American boss stranded overseas by the war, she stepped into the editor’s chair.

The practical challenges of publishing in wartime were daunting. Paper was rationed and, by 1941, so were clothes, an existential problem for an industry built on craving the new and pretty. (Were she alive today, Withers would surely recognise the pressure on glossy magazines to stop pushing fast fashion because of its impact on the planet; Summers thinks she would have been “all over current thinking with remodelling and reusing clothes: for environmental reasons”). Staff were bombed out of their homes and the magazine’s Old Bond Street headquarters was hit at least once. The idea of writing about hemlines amid such death and destruction may seem incongruous, but maintaining some semblance of normality on the home front was seen as an important act of defiance against the Nazis. Besides, it soon emerged that Vogue had a role in the war effort.

Working for the war effort: staff working in the bomb cellar of One New Bond Street during second world war.
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 Staff working in the Bond Street bomb cellar during the second world war. Photograph: Georgina Slocombe

Withers met regularly with the Treasury and the Ministry of Information, who saw magazines as a better channel than newspapers for communicating with women about the sacrifices that would be needed. And Vogue was seen as particularly important, because its readers were influential women who could set trends. Initially, the message was they should keep shopping for the benefit of the economy, but all that changed in 1941; clothing factories were making military uniforms, rationing came in, and women were urged to make do and mend old clothes. (Even Withers rewore the same few outfits endlessly; Summers says her wardrobe consisted of little more than three suits and some blouses for work, one wool dress for evenings, and slacks and a jumper at weekends).

Vogue commissioned designers to show what could be done with utility clothing, a government-approved range available to buy with ration coupons. It ran features on growing your own vegetables and even promoted short haircuts, amid fears about female factory workers getting their hair tangled in machinery.

But Withers wasn’t content merely to churn out propaganda. “She wanted her readers to really get the war,” says Summers. Which is where Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer and reporter, came in.

War photographer Lee Miller standing with soldiers during the liberation of Rennes, France, in 1944.
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 War photographer Lee Miller standing with soldiers during the liberation of Rennes, France, in 1944. Photograph: David E Scherman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Miller was American, enabling her to get accreditation via the American military (British troops wouldn’t accommodate a female photographer). But she needed a press sponsor and Withers stepped in. One of Miller’s first dispatches for Vogue was from St Malo on the Brittany coast, where she had expected to be covering a surrender to the Americans but instead found herself in the thick of battle, capturing pictures of what would turn out to be napalm attacks: the war censor refused to let Vogue use them.

Miller also had an eye for things a man might have missed. Arriving in newly liberated Paris, she sent back pictures of a hair salon where small boys powered the dryers by pedalling furiously on bicycles hooked up to a furnace. In Munich, she got into Hitler’s private apartment after he had fled and had herself photographed in his bathtub, her dirty army-issue boots placed on his primrose-yellow bathmat.

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