Flicking through the recently published book Vogue Covers – On Fashion’s Front Page, you’re struck by how these magazine covers so eloquently sum up the spirit of their age. Design, media, fashion (and even politics in the bleak October 1945 ‘Peace and Reconstruction’ issue), collide to create a snapshot of the styles and preoccupations of the time – British social history captured in monthly instalments.
The early examples of illustration are beguiling exercises in evocation, expression and economy – with Eduardo Benito’s Art Deco covers from the 1920s still shining bright. In some ways they are primitive, but it’s almost miraculous how a few bold lines can come together with such persuasive flair. In 1932, there’s a breakthrough with the first photographic cover by Edward Steichen, a linear, Modernist beach scene, carefully staged in the studio, which looks strangely illustrative. Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism – all the major art movements of the day are reflected in turn, as the incumbent art directors enthusiastically experiment, sponging up the visual influences around them.
The amount of female flesh on display in the early part of the 20th century (usually in the guise of a sea nymph or bathing beauty) is a real eye-opener – we were letting it all hang out way before Nuts and Zoo, or, indeed, the 1960s. The typographic treatment of the titling and cover lines is surprisingly free too – the word ‘Vogue’ is used as an extension of the illustrative style, as designers created inventive approaches that integrated letterforms as part of a total approach to design. As well as countless typefaces and hand-drawn scripts, the ‘V’ word is rendered as rope on the beach, stars in the sky, jewellery and even markings on a war plane.
This infinite variety goes against the prevailing trend for brand consistency, which Vogue eventually embraced in the 1950s, by introducing its Didone title font, with its dramatically contrasting thick and thin strokes. But the cover format also became more predictable, with the focus firmly on the model’s face, and a small cast of supermodels and celebrities shot by an elite band of photographers.
And what of today’s front covers? What would a design critic looking back in 50 years’ time make of them? Certainly, they are part of an evolution, both of contemporary editorial design and Vogue itself. They’re slick, seductive and occasionally striking, but they don’t have the signature and vitality of the early covers. But it’s not just Vogue. Circulation, advertising revenue and focus groups have all come to influence and stifle the look of the glossy magazine cover. Kate Moss sells magazines, it’s a fact. So, guess what? You’ll be seeing a lot more of her on the newsagents’ racks, at least until the next icon trots along.
What’s more, fashion design is too busy eating itself for an original, new look to emerge. We’re caught on a Postmodernist treadmill, with styles and influences coming round again and again, slightly repackaged from the last time. Is there a 2000s style? At the moment, we’ve time-warped back to the 1950s. And that’s just after whistlestops to the 1970s and 1980s.
In a recent Design Week publishing supplement, Terry Jones of i-D magazine memorably likened a magazine front cover to a front door, an invitation to walk inside. While it’s an intriguing analogy, the problem with front doors is they look too much the same.