Vogue editor Audrey Withers played a vital role in boosting morale on the home front during the war

Alexandra Shulman, who edited Vogue from 1992 to 2017, on the style-setter with whom she found much in common

When Audrey Withers became editor of British Vogue at the age of 35, there was widespread rationing and the American owner Condé Nast demanded staff cuts. Those left on the magazine often worked out of the office cellar, with the art director cutting and pasting pages surrounded by the team’s gas masks.

Audrey Withers

Audrey Withers in 1948 and, left, Alexandra Shulman today

I became editor of the same magazine in 1992 at 34, having worked for Condé Nast, though not Vogue, for close on ten years. There was a recession and I, too, was asked to cut staff numbers. Thankfully our offices remained high above the ground in the centre of London with the only threat an occasional anti-fur demo outside. Fifty years may have passed but a surprising amount remained the same.

We were both regarded as faintly curious choices for the job. Audrey because she was thought of as being a behind-the-scenes magazine technician who didn’t move in smart enough social circles, me because I had no track record among the fashion community. When Condé Nast overruled objections to give Audrey the job he said, ‘I would rather have an editor who can edit than an editor who can mix with society.’ My boss Nicholas Coleridge made a slightly similar calculation when he made me editor, a person whose fashion contacts were so slim that in the early days she mistook the maître d’ at the Ritz for the designer Valentino’s partner Giancarlo Giammetti.

In 1940 British Vogue was run as a younger sister of the all-powerful American edition. There was a continual memo discussion between Audrey and Edna Woolman Chase. Edna, as editor-in-chief, oversaw not only US Vogue but the newer British and French editions – and her views and those of Audrey did not always coincide. Even before she was editor, Audrey locked horns with Edna over the question of featuring the marriage of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. Edna was enthralled by anything to do with our royal family and wished to celebrate the event by both Vogues running a huge display of pictures by Cecil Beaton of the couple at their French château and a gushing piece. Audrey knew that this would be completely wrong for the mood of the British people who were, in the main, unhappy at the abdication and the relationship with Mrs Simpson. In the event she ran the smallest story possible.

At the end of the war Lee Miller produced a harrowing set of images taken at the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. Audrey had been Lee’s great supporter from the start, when Edna was less keen on her work. However, at that point she considered the mood in Britain was one that craved celebration rather than further evidence of the horrors, so ran only one of the pictures, very small – a decision she later regretted. Edna, uncharacteristically, ran a large series of these pictures thereby scooping the higher moral and journalistic ground.

Although it cannot be compared in either gravity or scoop value, I experienced similar feelings when then prime minister Theresa May appeared in the American edition and not ours. I, unlike Anna Wintour, had never asked her if she would feature as I assumed she wouldn’t. So it was extremely galling when I saw her resplendent in her leather trousers shot by Annie Leibovitz in the pages of American Vogue. Foolish me.

By the 1950s, the magazine had become the monthly chronicle of luxury that I inherited, along with what has remained a long-running debate about the body size of fashion models. I was fascinated to learn of a letter Audrey wrote to the fashion team and photographers urging them ‘to get into our pages models of a more approachable, normal kind’, instead of the haughty, mannequins associated with so many images of that period. Sixty years later, I was still asking fashion editors and photographers to produce images where the models looked more cheerful and less malnourished.

There were other parallels. As an editor, Audrey was keen that her magazine be informative as well as featuring glamorous fashion. She introduced a feature for larger women called ‘Above Average’. And she created Mrs Exeter, a fictional style role model for women in their 50s and older with the words ‘Approaching 60, Mrs Exeter does not look a day younger, a fact she accepts with perfect good humour’. When I came to Vogue I began to broaden the remit to include coverage of how ‘real’ women dressed and felt about clothes and appearance, launched Ageless Style editions and made it a policy to include regular high street products.

In 1957 Audrey hired Elizabeth David as cookery writer, to inspire a generation of women who were just escaping from the dreariness of food rationing. In 1995 I took on Nigella Lawson (who had never written a cookery column before) to address the subject from the viewpoint of convenience for women who had to whip up something quickly when they got home from work. And so was born Nigella, the Domestic Goddess.

Audrey Withers was the perfect Vogue editor for her time. She was intelligent and brave, questioning and committed. She oversaw the magazine from the hardship of the war through to the social revolution of the 60s. In her autobiography Lifespan, she writes, ‘I am very well aware I would not have been an appropriate editor of Vogue at any other period of its history.’ I suspect the same would be said about me.

Alexandra’s new book Clothes… and Other Things That Matter will be published by Octopus on 23 April, price £16.99

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