How Vogue’s wartime editor revolutionised women’s lives

Audrey Withers was determined her magazine would be political, progressive and powerful. She commissioned Lee Miller to take photos from the front – and created a publication that went far beyond fashion

Audrey Withers, photographed by Lord Snowdon, January 1960, was once called ‘the most powerful woman in London’. Photograph: Snowdon/ Vogue/©The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

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. 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”.

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