Until last week, I had never purchased a copy of British Vogue. My knowledge of fashion is sorely lacking, and my own sartorial choices seldom stray from the theme of ‘bemused librarian looking for a tea party to attend’, so outside of the sheer aesthetic thrill of the glossy publication, I had no real interest in it. Occasionally, I would browse the website and enjoy their cultural writing, although I much preferred the American offerings, and I’d share some of their photographs on Twitter, but none of this was a regular ritual for me. Really, Vogue never felt like it was for women like me. I’m white but I’m also working class, a size 16 and a chronic non-wearer of make-up. I begrudge paying more than £25 for a pair of shoes, I wear leggings like they’re tights and I cringe every time I see red carpet coverage of a major event where the phrase ‘Who are you wearing’ comes up. Vogue was for the stylish, for the rich, but fundamentally, British Vogue was for the posh. It was Tatler without the self-awareness; an exclusive member’s club where whiteness prevailed; the denizen of the women who would never dare look you in the eye if you passed them on the street.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only woman to experience this sensation, as the former editor Alexandra Shulman faced accusations following her split from the magazine that her tenure at the helm - 25 years in charge - had been ruled by whiteness and poshness. With barely a handful of women of colour gracing the magazine’s cover during her run, as well as former contributors of her slate criticising Vogue for its staid approach, it’s no wonder that sales numbers had begun to sharply fall. After making what many read as a dig against new editor Edward Enninful - the first man and first black editor of the magazine - Shulman sat down for an interview with the Guardian to set the record straight.
I heartily recommend you take a good half hour out of your life to slowly and methodically read every part of her chat with Decca Aitkenhead. It’s the prime example of an interview subject digging their own grave and complaining about it as they shovel dirt over their head. Shulman is clueless about criticisms of the magazine’s reputation as an exclusive haunt of posh white woman, calls the notion offensive, then makes some startlingly racist comments about the lack of non-white women on Vogue’s covers before giving a comment on current cover model Adwoa Aboah that borders on a hurrah for eugenics. You get an insight into how the fashion industry breeds white supremacy and how the British side of it combines that with an overwhelming fetish for the upper classes. It was a confirmation of everything that had stopped me from buying Vogue for many years. Why would I give money to a publication that didn’t care if people like me existed?
There is something about fashion that is unnecessarily terrifying to me. Like any artform, there’s a level of distance that must be maintained to truly appreciate the mastery on display, but it’s also a fundamentally practical form that literally everyone can, should and need access to. Like many working class kids, I grew up with a glaring awareness of fashion branding and how it defined you in the playground. Adidas and Nike trainers were the ones to wear before Sketchers became the shoe du jour. Proper Kappa trousers were a necessity, and everyone could tell if yours were knock-offs from that one shop in town that sold them on the fly. During that brief, petrifying period where Burberry’s print was the must-have accessory, you begged your parents for a scrap of it, regardless of the obscene cost. Well, that was until Burberry became the uniform of the neds - Scotland’s term for chavs - and your wearing of it was a sign to the world that you were poor, stupid, and above all, trouble.
As an adult with a specific style and narrow budget, I find greater pleasure in watching fashion evolve, but I still hear that sharp toned voice that says I shouldn’t bother because I’ll never be able to afford it, reminding me of the time my mum, sister and I giddily browsed a Versace shop while on holiday in Florida, only to leave because the judgemental glare from the over-tanned store assistant became too awkward to ignore. There are plenty of other things I enjoy despite knowing I’ll never have the money to experience it myself - I love travel documentaries, champagne, and laughing hysterically at Tatler - yet none of those things inspire that twinge of scorn that fashion does.
So much about the fashion world defines how we live as women, even if we don’t participate in that sphere: Beauty standards, fashion trends, body policing, white supremacy, the retail industry, and class. British Vogue always seemed to thrive off that exclusivity every time I saw Shulman give an interview or passed an issue on the newsstand. Those assumptions were only confirmed by that Shulman interview, where it didn’t seem to cross her mind for a second that what she was saying was directly contributing to the problem she claimed didn’t exist: She asserted that it was offensive to call her tenure of Vogue posh but her hiring history speaks for itself (gee, I wonder who can afford to do their unpaid internships); she insisted there were no black models of major repute to put on the cover, then played ignorant when examples were named; she talks of inclusivity but then tries to end the conversation with, ‘I’m just getting more coffee because it’s so stressful, that whole thing about models - black - the whole thing’. This Vogue was never for women like me, and I’m white. I can’t imagine how this felt for women of colour.
With my first ever issue of Vogue in my bag, I scuttled home and curled up on the couch with a blanket, a good British cup of tea, and a few lit candles. This Vogue still isn’t entirely for me - so many zeroes on those price tags - but for the first time, it felt like the publication had reached out towards me with open hands. The issue is vibrant, varied, not without a sense of humour, beautifully editorialised, and full of some damn good cultural writing. This wasn’t posh so much as it was cool, and while I’ve never been cool for one second in my life, there was warmth here that I’d never previously felt.
One issue of Vogue isn’t going to change the tides but it does feel like a tipping point, like the first major acknowledgement that yes, there is a different way to do things and yes, it can be done immediately without weak hesitation or poor excuses. Poshness is rooted in an archaic refusal to relinquish one’s power, something gained from circumstance and sheer dumb luck. Overcoming that in the denizens of British society is a gargantuan task; a seemingly impossible endeavour in a country ruled by a parasitic loyalty to such notions. Getting Vogue on our side is but one step on the latter to achieving fairness and parity across society, culture and the arts, but hey, it’s a damn good step to take. The new Vogue generation could use people like me, if only to demonstrate to the old guard that there was always a place for us at the table as long as someone was willing to give it. I can’t wait for the next issue.