Image via the Vogue Archive, ProQuest.

This year Vogue is celebrating its 125th anniversary in characteristic glitzy corporate manner. A century and a quarter into its life, Vogue is without question a pillar of the international fashion business—not just a chronicler, but a shaper of the industry, helping to determine trends even beyond the clothes we wear. Which makes it very funny to revisit the publication’s first issue, from December 17, 1892, which is nearly unrecognizable—and somewhat shambolic.

In its first iteration, Vogue was not a women’s fashion magazine; it was instead a social magazine for ladies and gentlemen. “The definite object is the establishment of a dignified authentic journal of society, fashion, and the ceremonial side of life, that is to be for the present, mainly pictorial,” wrote founder and publisher Arthur B. Turnure—presumably looking like Eustace Tilley—in a statement that ran in the inaugural issue.

As such, its first editor’s letter was an extended riff on the notion of status that is aggressively flattering to Gilded Age New Yorkers and their sense of consequence:

American society enjoys the distinction of being the most progressive in the world; the most salutary and the most beneficent. It is quick to discern, quick to receive and quick to condemn. It is untrammeled by a degraded and immutable nobility. It has in the highest degree an aristocracy founded in reason and developed in natural order. Its particular phases, its amusements, its follies, its fitful changes, supply endless opportunities for running comment and occasional rebuke.

The editor’s columns weren’t always like this, though—the next edition contained an extended discussion of the stupidity of putting “humps” all over women’s clothing, truly a plague of the era.

A stage-setting definition of “vogue” that appeared in the first issue, December 17, 1892. Image via the Vogue Archive, ProQuest.

Originally weekly, the magazine was much shorter than the fat, glossy book you see now. It opened with a page of jokes that read like Reader’s Digest for people who’d later die on the Titanic. (“Penelope: ‘O, I’m in awful luck.’ Perdita: ‘What’s the matter?’ Penelope: ‘Engaged—and I still have eight new dresses of which I will never have the chance to try the effect.’”) One of the biggest features is “Le Bon Oncle d’Amerique,” a serial about a man living in Paris on his generous American uncle’s dime. A good chunk of the magazine was given over to the Society Supplement, which goes into painstaking detail about New York City’s social whirl. (“Miss Callender and Miss De Forest propose to give in their new apartment in the Tiffany building at Madison Avenue and Seventy-second Street, a series of musicales.”) It was so insidery they might as well have just handed it out to the 400 people who could fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and been done with it.

Advertisement

Still, there was some fashion coverage. Reading now, it is long, and florid, and somewhat overstuffed, and takes forever to convey fairly simple information about shoes. But that makes sense, because the styles of the period could probably be fairly described as florid and somewhat overstuffed.

Image via the Vogue Archive, ProQuest.

Fashion, though, was clearly not the primary objective. A full two-page spread is given to a beautiful illustration of two well-appointed women chatting, with a joke at the bottom: “Is Lord DeVoid’s title inherited?” “No, thank heaven, it is a tribute paid to beer—and there’s money in beer, which is much more than can be said of entailed estates.” Ha ha ha! How very wicked!

Advertisement

It all seems a little desultory, and for good reason. It was apparently produced in large part by the very type of people it catered to, meaning socialites of both sexes who didn’t really need to worry about such mere middle-class concerns as professionalism.

In her memoir Always in Vogue, Edna Woolman Chase—who began her tenure with a temp job and ultimately reigned as editor in chief from 1914 to 1952—is frank about its origins. Explaining how she rose through the ranks, she writes: “As we were staffed by ladies and gentlemen no one worked very hard and anybody who wanted extra duties was welcome to them.” In fact, the opening chapters of the book are essentially a fond but thorough dragging of everybody who ran the place before she did. It sounds more like a high-school yearbook committee than a magazine:

In the early days Vogue’s staff was small and the atmosphere around the office informal and non-professional. The regular contributors were recruited largely from the personal friends of the publisher and were chosen more for their social standing and knowledge of good form than their literary repute. The make-up, too, had a certain nonchalance about it. A page otherwise devoted to fiction might be broken up with a couple of photographs of the house of a socially prominent couple, and we once illustrated a love story of a girl on an army post with drawings of plump, belligerent trout on hooks. The idea that an illustration might plausibly implement the text had yet to gain a footing.

Chase tells a story about waking up one Sunday morning to realize that the publisher had never commissioned a cover for the issue due to appear on Thursday, possibly because he was more immersed in his social life than his magazine. Also, to make heads or tails of the fashions presented, you had to be ready to work for it. No captions with designers and prices for you!

There were many drawings of dresses, but few descriptive captions, although we would sometimes say: “For descriptions see printed text on another page.” Just what page that would be was as much a surprise to staff as to the subscriber, for no such number was ever give. The designers were not mentioned.

She’s maybe exaggerating a tad, but not that much—the early issues I looked through directed readers to the society supplement for descriptions, but that was as far as they’d narrow it down. And if you missed that first disclaimer you were bound to be confused throughout; one elaborate page in the first issue depicts six different styles of ladies’ shoes without a single word of explanation. But then, presumably you were taking these illustrations to your personal modiste, anyway.

It wouldn’t take long for the magazine to begin tacking away from the social affairs newsletter vibe and toward a more strict cultivation ofits current reputation as a women’s fashion magazine. As Chase recalls, that was the work of an early ad man, 19-year-old Tim McCready, who quickly realized they could get more and better advertising with more fashion coverage—and then their small circulation wouldn’t count against them, because they would be catering to a small group of elite and wealthy trendsetters.

In 1909 Condé Nast—then a person, not yet a corporation—bought the magazine and really began shaping it (with Chase) into the publication we know today. Part of what made Vogue such an institution is that it grew up alongside and entwined with the American ready-to-wear industry, which barely existed when Turnure first founded his social weekly. Chase hints at this in her memoir: In the early days, “There existed none of that behind-the-scenes collaboration between fashion editors and manufacturers that now enables the press to show photographs and drawings of new clothes at the very moment they are delivered to the shops throughout the country, sometimes before they get there.” These earliest issues are a curious glimpse at a long-lost world.

Nevertheless, it was the cachet that all those apparently rather casual early employees brought to the place that set Vogue on its path.

In spite of what, in its early days, now seems to me to have been distinctly an amateur quality, perhaps for that very reason, Vogue had a well-bred atmosphere that gave it a social prestige that was never questioned. No publication in America mirrored so faithfully the society and fashions of the nineties, its inanities as well as its substance, its virtues as well as its follies.

Connections have always been vital to the magazine—it’s just that a slightly different network turned out to be more remunerative than the society matrons of the Philadelphia Main Line, or whoever. Though there is still plenty of overlap, drawing from a contributor pool that includes British-born socialite Plum Sykes and Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, or “TNT,” who is literally a German princess.

Advertisement

You’ll note that this year’s commemorative tote bag features a beautiful image from 1920—well into the magazine’s official existence, but around the time it was really taking shape as the Vogue we know today. But there are hints of the future: The very first issue does contain advertisements for the luxury department store B. Altman, Tiffany and Co, and Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Image via the Vogue Archive, ProQuest.