Anna Wintour became the editor-in-chief of Vogue in 1988. Thirty-two years is quite notable. However, Edna Woolman Chase has the crown when it comes service to Vogue. For the fifty-seven years that she worked for Vogue, thirty-eight were spent as editor-in-chief. And not just of American Vogue but of the French and British Editions.
I just finished reading Always in Vogue written by her and her daughter Ilka Chase in 1954. This was fascinating reading of an incredible woman’s account of her role of shepherding Vogue through the Great Depression and two world wars and seeing a dramatic change of fashion during her tenure.
She, along with Condè Nast took what was a small weekly society gazette and turned it into one of the supreme influences of fashion and culture.
Her mother and father had actually divorced when she was young, and Edna Woolman Chase was raised by her Quaker grandparents in upper New York state. However, when she turned eighteen, she moved to the New York City area.
In the fall of 1895 Edna Woolman Chase was sitting in the living room of her mother’s apartment in New York, wondering how she was going to get money to buy Christmas gifts. One of her best friends suggested that she come to the office of a fairly new magazine that she worked at to see about temporary work addressing envelopes.
She did and got a job at the three-year-old weekly magazine Vogue, which covered all the society events for all the society folks. She immediately excelled and absorbed what every department was doing. This enthusiasm and great capability was noticed by the creator and owner of Vogue, Arthur Tunure and he started to rely on her judgment for layouts, covers and all facets of the magazine.
After Arthur Tennure passed away in 1906, his family eventually sold Vogue to Condè Nast in 1911. Nast eventually came to respect Edna Woolman Chase’s critical eye and editorial ability as much as Tenure. In 1914 he made her editor-in-chief. Her thoughts on this were, “I think, in a way, I became editor by a process of osmosis. I absorbed Vogue and Vogue absorbed me until, picking up knowledge as I went along, I eventually became ensconced in the post. My name first appeared on the masthead as editor in the February 1 issue of 1914.”
First Fashion Show-ever
During Chase’s first years, which included World War I she brainstormed an idea to raise money to help French charities. The first fashion show was born, or as she christened it; The Fashion Fête.
With the onset of the war, Paris fashions could not be exported and Edna Woolman Chase saw this as an opportunity to highlight American designers. After she enticed the leaders of New York society to participate, Condè Nash gave her card blanche to produce the show. He initially didn’t think the the creme of New York society would have anything to do with that type of enterprise but she proved him wrong.
One of the biggest challenges was finding and training women how to be models; how to walk, turn and pose. Until then, there was never a thing called a “fashion model”.
The night was a big success and Vogue’s advertising and prestige immediately shot up.
After the tremendous excitement shown for that first fashion show, designers and fashion houses decided that she came up with a really great idea. Within a year, they became part of the fashion season. By the 20’s modeling schools and agencies were established and no one has looked back.
Fashion Group International
Edna Woolman Chase has been also know for shepherding the Fashion Group International into existence. According to Chase, it was officially founded in 1931 but the FGI says 1930. FGI provided an awareness of the American fashion business and of women’s roles in that business.
The original idea was the brainchild, not of Chase herself but of Marcia Conner, a member of Vogue’s staff in the late 20’s. Chase told her that she was just to busy with her job as editor-in-chief to take on anymore responsibilities but Marcia persisted with the idea. Finally, in 1930, Chase got a group of notables together, which included Elizabeth Arden, Elinor Roosevelt, Edith Head, Elena Rubinstein and Claire McCardell.
The organization is an ongoing and important voice in fashion with membership throughout the world and since 1997 also includes men.
In Her Life
What I thought was intensely interesting was seeing history through the lens of someone who lived through an extraordinary one. Edna Woolman Chase started working for Vogue in the Late Victorian era (complete with corsets). She managed Vogue through WW I, the fashion game changing 20’s, the Depression, and WW II. She gives insight in how her life and others were influenced and changed by all these major 20th century events.
She just casually mentions having friends and working relationships with the such as Dorthy Parker, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Carmel Snow (a very disappointing one), Jean Patou, Edward Steichen, Wallis Simpson, Cecil Beaton and Main Bocker to name just a few.
I will mention that after Main Bocher left Vogue as an artist, he opened his own design studio in Paris (as Mainbocker) eventually designed Wallis Simpson’s wedding gown.
Personally, I found the chapters covering WW II the most mesmerizing. It had such an impact on the Vogue’s family, especially those in the British and French offices; some very heartbreaking, as a lot of WW II was.
I was hoping that she would give her thoughts about Dior’s New Look that he unveiled in 1947. She did and wrote, “There are two ways at looking at a new collection: through the line, which is often not really very different and through detail; through handling, which can make news. That is where Dior shone. His look was one of unforced femininity- a polished continuation of the rounded line, which had been seen in Paris since the first postwar collections, but with the fabric so worked, the silhouette so gently handled that there was no look of heaviness or stricture. His clothes, while wearable gave women the feeling of being charmingly costumed, there was a faintly romantic flavor about them.” I think she like it.
A Woman of Opinions
Edna Woolman Chase was known to expect a lot from her staff. She was a woman of strong opinions on how things should be. One example was her war on open toed shoes.
She started her first assault with a 1939 speech to the Shoe Fashion Guild, in which she addressed, “I beg you to stop this promotion of the open-toed, open-backed shoes for street wear. From the very beginning of this fashion in 1937, when women first began to appear on the city streets with their toes sticking out of their shoes, I have felt it was a distinctly bad style and had hoped it would have an early death.
Open toed shoes may be worn for dress occasions, afternoons, dinner and evening. Also for resort and country wear, NOT for walking in the city if you have the understanding of true essence of smartness of which the first essential is suitability. They are inappropriate, unsightly and dirty.” I think she made her position clear.
However, at the time she was writing her book, she’s admits that women still weren’t listening to her and on that particular point , I don’t think we ever will!
Another strong opinion that she had is very current with a movement today. Turning grey very early in life, she never colored her hair. Once it was suggested by a friend that she should color it. Her young daughter became upset that she would do anything to her beautiful silver hair. She decided she agreed with Ilka and and always wore her silver crown with grace.
In closing, a quote from Edna Woolman Chase,
“Style derives from character. It must have the feeling of an artist behind it. Fashion can be bought. Style on must possess. ” Edna Woolman Chase
Always in Vogue is no longer published. I found my copy used on Amazon for about $20. It is a first edition and I thought that was a reasonable price. You can still find the original book on ABE and only $7.99 for Amazon Kindle (published by V&A Fashion Perspectives series).
And with that, my friends is the end of my book review of this remarkable woman. I hoped you enjoyed reading about her.
Style on and be creative!