Keep chic and carry on: Why wartime Vogue editor Audrey Withers was the role model every woman needed

Amid the rubble of Blitzed-out London, Vogue played a vital role in boosting morale on the home front. And its formidable editor Audrey Withers was the role model every woman needed…

Audrey Withers
Audrey at her desk, 1960. Image: © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

At first glance, Audrey Withers was an unlikely editor of Vogue. Despite being cultured, highbrow, with a forensic, hands-on attention to detail, she had very little instinctive feeling for fashion. Yet this remarkable woman ran the magazine for 20 years, from 1940 to 1960. She presided over 225 issues, steering Vogue through war-torn austerity through to the Swinging 60s.

Born Elizabeth Audrey Withers in Hale, Cheshire in 1905, she was the second daughter of Percy, a GP, and Mary ‘Mamie’ Withers. Having dreamed of a career in publishing, Audrey’s first job was at a bookshop, then in advertising at a book publishers. She joined Condé Nast, Vogue’s publisher, as a sub editor on Vogue in 1931, rising through the ranks to managing editor, and was made editor in September 1940, coinciding with the Blitz.

From the very beginning of her editorship, when the bombs rained down on London for 57 consecutive nights, Audrey exemplified the Blitz spirit. She wasn’t the type to let a mere war get in the way. Vogue, she determined, would go on – and it would be a meaningful influence in keeping up morale on the home front. As a consequence Audrey came to be recognised as one of the most powerful women in London.

In her hands, Vogue was transformed. It became more than the ‘fashion paper’ she inherited. It was engaged, cultured, political: Audrey brought frontline war reporting to the pages alongside beauty and fashion shoots. Her enthusiasm for the world around her was one of her strongest traits. ‘It is,’ she insisted, ‘simply not modern to be unaware or uninterested in what is going on.’

By the time of her death in 2001, Audrey had witnessed two world wars and the development of computer technology. She was married twice. After her retirement in 1960, she and her second husband, Russian photographer Victor Asarius Kennett, travelled extensively around Russia, India and South America.

Throughout her career, Audrey was progressive – both on and off the page. She hired a female motoring correspondent, nurtured and promoted women on her team, and asserted that women featured in Vogue not as ‘wives of’, but as people in their own right. Now her remarkable career has been celebrated in a fascinating new book by historian and broadcaster Julie Summers. Over the page we publish an exclusive extract.

The war had given Audrey a sense of purpose, and the more difficult things became the better she coped. She saw the opportunities for Vogue and was determined to embrace them.

Audrey Withers
Audrey talks to Art Director John Parsons in the Bond Street office Basement turned bomb shelter. Image: © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

As the bombs fell and the warning sirens sounded – once, twice, sometimes three times a day – the editorial staff became frustrated by the inconvenience of having to leave their London offices. Early on in the Blitz, an unexploded bomb caused an exodus from the building: that day Audrey learned to always be certain that everyone had all vital papers to hand.

They began to use the basement to work during daytime air raids. The cellar was fitted out with desks for layouts, chairs for the secretaries and sub editors, as well as the accoutrements of an air-raid shelter: stirrup pumps, emergency ladders and gas masks, and a large sign over the door said ‘No Smoking’.

Audrey wanted to show her readers both in Britain and the US that Vogue was carrying on. ‘Here is Vogue, in spite of it all!’ she wrote in the November 1940 edition. She published six images of the bomb damage, two showing the crater in the street below, a pair showing the offices strewn with broken glass and two labelled ‘Beneath’, which showed work carrying on in the bomb cellar: ‘Vogue, like its fellow Londoners, is put to bed in a shelter.’

In 1941, she commissioned what would become one of the most famous photographs of the war from one of Vogue’s star contributors, Cecil Beaton. Titled ‘Fashion is Indestructible’, it shows a model standing with her back to the camera, in the ruins of London’s Temple, reading the sign on the building that tells its history. ‘I had long wanted to get Cecil Beaton to do a photograph of a smart girl against some such background, as I felt this would show so dramatically how it is possible for Vogue’s entire world to carry on even amid such wreckage.’

When the photograph was published, it was widely admired not just for the quality of Beaton’s image but for what it said about Britain’s defiance in the face of continued bombing. It has become one of the most enduring images of determination to come out of the war. No one, until now, has appreciated that it was Audrey’s idea.

Audrey proved herself adept at managing the idiosyncrasies of her star contributors. Photographer Norman Parkinson was unlike Beaton in almost every way. A giraffe-like figure with a distinctive moustache who wore loud tweeds and pyjama tops instead of shirts, he exuded charm and bonhomie, but he could be difficult. The most notorious example was when he lost his temper with a choice of photographs selected by [art editor] John Parsons, and ripped up a transparency using his teeth, flung it on to Audrey’s desk and stormed out of the office.

But the most powerful publishing partnership of the Second World War was between Audrey and the American photojournalist Lee Miller. Lee was everything Audrey was not: attractive, sexy, outspoken, she drank heavily, smoked prodigiously and swore like the proverbial trooper. She fizzed with energy, humour and artistic talent but she was also vulnerable, a side that few saw. But Audrey saw it all – and liked it.

Sympathetic to Lee’s desire to be in the thick of the action, Audrey backed her accreditation as Vogue’s war correspondent. Instinct told Audrey that this was a big opportunity for Vogue and a major coup for her personally. Articles can have more power when the photographer also writes the copy and Lee’s writing was immediate, visceral and pulled no punches. It was of such significance to Audrey that she was prepared to tear apart issues at the last minute to include the photographs and reports – which often ran to thousands of words.

Audrey Withers vogue
Vogue published this iconic photo by Cecil Beaton in 1941, entitled ‘Fashion Is Indestructible’. It’s a little known fact that the image was editor Audrey’s idea. Image: © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

Audrey and other editors were briefed by the Ministry of Information during wartime. When clothes rationing came into force on 1 June 1941, Audrey’s editorial was typically upbeat, reminding readers that Vogue’s policy had always been to ‘put your money into one good outfit and vary it with accessories. You can depend on Vogue. Where we once picked for style and price value, we shall now pick for coupon value, too.’ In the back of the magazine, she listed the number of coupons needed to buy the clothes: 14 for a coat, 11 for a dress or jacket made of wool, five for a blouse or cardigan.

Hair styling was another issue that the Ministry of Information wanted editors to address. The tradition was the permanent wave, and younger women were dazzled by screen idol Veronica Lake’s ‘peek-a-boo’ style: a stunning look, but hopeless for women operating machinery, and inevitably there were accidents. In one reported incident, a worker’s hair became entangled in a lathe. Audrey ran a feature on short hair – the caption read: ‘Neat Heads. War work, whether in the services or factories, has always brought a wave of shorter hair – for neatness, easy cleanliness and good looks.’

But it wasn’t just the Blitz, capricious photographers and home-front diktats with which Audrey had to contend. Although she had been formally appointed editor, [her mentor and predecessor] Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Penrose continued to manage her as best she could from New York where Betty was now editor of Condé Nast’s newest magazine, Glamour.

Sometimes Betty’s requests seemed completely out of tune with the situation on the ground. On 14 October 1940, Betty asked Audrey to find out the truth behind a small notice that had appeared in The New York Times reporting that the Queen and other female members of the royal household were practising shooting in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. That night a German bomb had exploded in Balham tube station, killing 68 people. The picture in the papers the next morning was of a double-decker bus nose-down in a vast crater. Betty’s memo remained unanswered for six weeks.

Audrey also came under scrutiny from Edna Woolman Chase, the formidable editor-in chief of American Vogue, the Anna Wintour of her day. While their personal relationship was always warm, their professional relationship, especially after the war, was difficult. Edna wanted to take back control of British Vogue. Audrey was equally determined not to let that happen.

Audrey knew she had to make a mark in her role as postwar editor. And she understood as well that Vogue had to keep up with the changing times. A flick through the issues of the postwar years show how full of energy and enthusiasm she was. There is animation and humour, sometimes even a hint of the risqué, which predictably brought a squeal of indignation from 73-year-old Edna. ‘I should,’ she rebuked Audrey, ‘infinitely prefer that Vogue be described as ladylike rather than sexy.’

Audrey did not agree. ‘I think Vogue should be like the complete woman with beauty, brains, personality and an intelligent interest in everything that goes on in the world around her.’ Having gained autonomy and authority through hard work in difficult times, this was the moment when Vogue emerged as a magazine fully independent of its American parent – with Audrey in control.

How Vogue went to war

Audrey ensured that the magazine kept morale high on the home front

SEPT 1942 

Clothes rationing was in full swing, and the magazine was a mine of useful information on how to spend coupons. Soap rationing, too, had just been introduced, though as the magazine said, ‘Make-up is cherished, a last desperately defended luxury’.

OCT 1944

This issue contained Lee Miller’s frontline combat reports of the siege of St Malo in Northern France, plus her dispatches from the newly liberated Paris – she marvelled at the ‘dazzling girls’ with their ‘full, floating skirts’ and ‘tiny waistlines’.

JUNE 1945 

After six years of brutal conflict and shortages at home, the Allied victory in Europe was celebrated with an elegantly understated illustration of a unicorn, representing hope for postwar Britain’s future. The war in the Far East would continue until August.

OCT 1946

The special Peace and Reconstruction issue’s cover was a clear blue sky – a welcome contrast to the squadrons of military aircraft synonymous with wartime. Clothes rationing remained until 1949, but Vogue gave women glimpses of a world beyond ‘make do and mend’.

A tale of two editors: Alexandra Shulman and Audrey Withers

Alexandra Shulman, who edited Vogue from 1992 to 2017, on the style-setter with whom she found much in common.

Alexandra Shulman
Alexandra Shulman today. Image: David Levene.

When Audrey Withers became editor of British Vogue at the age of 35, there was widespread rationing and the American owner Condé Nast demanded staff cuts. Those left on the magazine often worked out of the office cellar, with the art director cutting and pasting pages surrounded by the team’s gas masks.

I became editor of the same magazine in 1992 at 34, having worked for Condé Nast, though not Vogue, for close on ten years. There was a recession and I, too, was asked to cut staff numbers. Thankfully our offices remained high above the ground in the centre of London with the only threat an occasional anti-fur demo outside. Fifty years may have passed but a surprising amount remained the same.

We were both regarded as faintly curious choices for the job. Audrey because she was thought of as being a behind-the-scenes magazine technician who didn’t move in smart enough social circles, me because I had no track record among the fashion community. When Condé Nast overruled objections to give Audrey the job he said, ‘I would rather have an editor who can edit than an editor who can mix with society.’ My boss Nicholas Coleridge made a slightly similar calculation when he made me editor, a person whose fashion contacts were so slim that in the early days she mistook the maître d’ at the Ritz for the designer Valentino’s partner Giancarlo Giammetti.

Audrey Withers
Audrey Withers in 1948. Image: Conde Nast Publications Ltd

In 1940 British Vogue was run as a younger sister of the all-powerful American edition. There was a continual memo discussion between Audrey and Edna Woolman Chase. Edna, as editor-in-chief, oversaw not only US Vogue but the newer British and French editions – and her views and those of Audrey did not always coincide. Even before she was editor, Audrey locked horns with Edna over the question of featuring the marriage of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. Edna was enthralled by anything to do with our royal family and wished to celebrate the event by both Vogues running a huge display of pictures by Cecil Beaton of the couple at their French château and a gushing piece. Audrey knew that this would be completely wrong for the mood of the British people who were, in the main, unhappy at the abdication and the relationship with Mrs Simpson. In the event she ran the smallest story possible.

At the end of the war Lee Miller produced a harrowing set of images taken at the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. Audrey had been Lee’s great supporter from the start, when Edna was less keen on her work. However, at that point she considered the mood in Britain was one that craved celebration rather than further evidence of the horrors, so ran only one of the pictures, very small – a decision she later regretted. Edna, uncharacteristically, ran a large series of these pictures thereby scooping the higher moral and journalistic ground.

Although it cannot be compared in either gravity or scoop value, I experienced similar feelings when then prime minister Theresa May appeared in the American edition and not ours. I, unlike Anna Wintour, had never asked her if she would feature as I assumed she wouldn’t. So it was extremely galling when I saw her resplendent in her leather trousers shot by Annie Leibovitz in the pages of American Vogue. Foolish me.

By the 1950s, the magazine had become the monthly chronicle of luxury that I inherited, along with what has remained a long-running debate about the body size of fashion models. I was fascinated to learn of a letter Audrey wrote to the fashion team and photographers urging them ‘to get into our pages models of a more approachable, normal kind’, instead of the haughty, mannequins associated with so many images of that period. Sixty years later, I was still asking fashion editors and photographers to produce images where the models looked more cheerful and less malnourished.

There were other parallels. As an editor, Audrey was keen that her magazine be informative as well as featuring glamorous fashion. She introduced a feature for larger women called ‘Above Average’. And she created Mrs Exeter, a fictional style role model for women in their 50s and older with the words ‘Approaching 60, Mrs Exeter does not look a day younger, a fact she accepts with perfect good humour’. When I came to Vogue I began to broaden the remit to include coverage of how ‘real’ women dressed and felt about clothes and appearance, launched Ageless Style editions and made it a policy to include regular high street products.

There were other parallels. As an editor, Audrey was keen that her magazine be informative as well as featuring glamorous fashion. She introduced a feature for larger women called ‘Above Average’. And she created Mrs Exeter, a fictional style role model for women in their 50s and older with the words ‘Approaching 60, Mrs Exeter does not look a day younger, a fact she accepts with perfect good humour’. When I came to Vogue I began to broaden the remit to include coverage of how ‘real’ women dressed and felt about clothes and appearance, launched Ageless Style editions and made it a policy to include regular high street products.

In 1957 Audrey hired Elizabeth David as cookery writer, to inspire a generation of women who were just escaping from the dreariness of food rationing. In 1995 I took on Nigella Lawson (who had never written a cookery column before) to address the subject from the viewpoint of convenience for women who had to whip up something quickly when they got home from work. And so was born Nigella, the Domestic Goddess.

Audrey Withers was the perfect Vogue editor for her time. She was intelligent and brave, questioning and committed. She oversaw the magazine from the hardship of the war through to the social revolution of the 60s. In her autobiography Lifespan, she writes, ‘I am very well aware I would not have been an appropriate editor of Vogue at any other period of its history.’ I suspect the same would be said about me.

Alexandra’s new book Clothes… and Other Things That Matter will be published by Octopus on 23 April, price £16.99