These are truly unprecedented times that we currently face as a nation, and as an entire globe. Many of us have had our daily lives turned upside down, had to change roles entirely overnight or adapt to an entirely new way of living and managing for ourselves, and for our loved ones. Fashion has also been turned on its head – with most brands now only operating online, and some not at all. Alongside our incredible NHS and front line staff , let us spare a moment of consideration for those also working to keep things going for fashion lovers all over the world who desperately need a sense of normality at such a time. No individual ever understood this need more than the late, but great, Audrey Withers.
The epitome of girl power, this astounding lady refused to let something, even as monumental as The Blitz, disrupt the word of fashion reaching her loyal readers and continued to publish Vogue throughout the most violent period of the Second World War in London. As a MA History graduate, I thought it was important to share the story of this remarkable figure within our much-loved Fashion industry, not least to demonstrate what we can learn from such a resilient individual during these uncertain times.
Elizabeth Audrey Withers OBE, known throughout her remarkable career as Audrey Withers, was born on 28th March 1905 in Hale. Graduating from the prestigious Somerville College at Oxford, Withers began her career working for the Advertising department of a publishers. After losing her job following the Great Depression, Audrey’s resilience became acutely apparent to her friends and family as she worked tirelessly to build her profile within the editorial industry – successfully, I hasten to add. In 1931 she was appointed sub-editor of Vogue at Conde Nast and, only 9 years later, took up the editorship of the iconic magazine in September 1940 – the very month that The Blitz began across London. It was, quite literally, a baptism of fire and her editorship was to be shaped very quickly.
As World War II advanced into its second year, the potential of Vogue’s influence as part of the war effort became increasingly clear to Withers and the magazine’s content branched out far beyond just fashion. It advanced into an archetype of Withers’ own beliefs and became a beacon of political progressiveness and of the sheer British wartime spirit that insisted defeat was not an option. Withers had quickly recognised that Vogue was a key source in influencing the female ruling classes and, as a result, its pages regularly included government advice and vital information about how women could become involved in the war effort. Withers fully utilised her typical readership of highly influential women who could, and would, set the trends encouraged by the magazine – not necessarily just of style, but of resilience, assistance and co-operation with the British War effort.
The wider circulation of Vogue’s content was then actioned by the “pass around your Vogue” campaign which encouraged readers to pass on their used magazine, and its many messages, to those either unable to access a copy due to paper rationing or those not on previous subscription lists. Within weeks thousands of women had heeded Vogue’s calls to mobilise and took up work in munitions factories, on switchboards, as volunteer nurses and even ambulance drivers. Even paper rationing and distribution limitations didn’t seem to hinder Vogue’s progress as the government recognised its immense potential during wartime Britain just as much as they observed Withers herself as one of the most influential women in the country.
Withers kept the Vogue offices in Old Bond Street open for business and continued to cycle to work as London was very much under attack from Nazi forces. As the Blitz intensified Withers, unyieldingly conscious of her team’s safety but equally unwilling to be beaten, instructed that her staff should retreat to the wine cellar if an air raid siren sounded to ensure print production continued and publishing deadlines were met.
Before the end of 1941, the building that housed the editorial team had been entirely destroyed, and yet, Vogue lived on as Withers intended. “There is Vogue in spite of it all”, she wrote in one of her first editions. An iconic image that Withers commissioned in June 1941 with renowned photographer Cecil Beaton spoke volumes about Withers’ own determination and the resilience that she was adamant Vogue would portray in order to motivate the masses. The famous image was entitled “fashion is indestructible” and pictured a stylish, elegantly dressed young woman standing amongst the rubble of yet another bombing – thus connoting that style and, in turn, the strong will of Britain would outlive this war.
Of course, as well as its newly-embraced branches of content, Vogue continued to uphold its role as a fashion beacon by advising women how to make the best of their wardrobes during troubling, and rationed, times. Withers even commissioned designers to create a government-approved utility collection which could be purchased with ration coupons. She simply refused to accept that fashion was no longer important and stood by the sense of pride and normality that it provided for women during the war. Despite the rations imposed on fabrics and materials during the war years, Withers relentlessly stated; “You cannot ration a sense of style.” Clearly her positive energy was infectious as Harvey Nichols soon followed suit and produced its very own collection of specially designed gas protection silks made of oiled silk, available in apricot, amethyst and rose pink. Of course, Vogue published the collection in the magazine to share with the masses – another key example of fashion meeting the war effort. Such unique collaborations continued to grace Vogue’s pages over the next three years.
After the end of the war in 1945, Withers continued to incorporate advanced causes alongside Vogue’s much-loved Fashion and Beauty content. Its pages regularly published articles written by the likes of esteemed philosopher and historian Betrand Russell and French intellectual, Simone de Beauvoir. Vogue had exited the war as so much more than a fashion magazine, but a beacon of British culture, style and willpower. Withers enormous contribution to the magazine and its continued success was more prevalent than ever. In 1954 she was awarded an OBE and retired six years later, sensing the winds of change within the Fashion industry.
There is no doubt that we can learn a lot from this inspiring lady, particularly during these uncertain times. Firstly, and most evidently, her sheer resilience to the uncertainty that faced her – certainly a trait that we should all do our very best to employ within our lives at the moment. What’s more, like Withers, we should hone our inner durability in order to fully adapt to our changing situations. It’s one thing to not allow change to falter us, but another to adapt to those changes we are, inevitably, powerless to stop.
Let us also note Withers’ insistence that style would not suffer under hardship. We must also ensure that sense of normality and, most importantly, self-worth by putting on that outfit that makes us feel like we can conquer the world…because we can! There’s certainly plenty of outfit inspiration out there at the moment to be taken advantage of!
Lastly, the most admirable lesson we can take from Withers’ story is considering the greater potential within something that may initially be considered one-sided or categorised, if you like. Much like Withers elevated Vogue into so much more than just a fashion magazine, I propose that each of us should consider how we can make even more out of the roles and talents that we each have if, at the very least, in order to give back to those working tirelessly on the front line so that we can stay safe at home. It’s vital that we make this time with our loved ones and with our own thoughts truly count!
To read the full story of the incredible Audrey Withers, check out Julie Summer’s critically acclaimed biography Dressed For War.