The allure of Vanity Fair
Aug 16, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
August greetings dear readers! It’s been a whirlwind and I can hardly believe we’re venturing into the middle of yet another month. Last week I was helping clear out my grandparents’ old house and pondering. Thinking about all the stories grandma shared as we brought more goodies up from the basement, thinking about playing on the stairway landing as a girl, remembering summer nights spent on the porch swing eating popcorn. I’ve moved around so much since college I haven’t felt a connection to place in a long time. (Although I’m starting to put down roots in the desert beauty of Arizona!) When I really consider the week gone by, my aunt and I didn’t just clean out a house, we marched down the center of memory lane. It wasn’t always easy. But there is healing – even in the rough times. All of this quiet reflection got me thinking – what is society’s equivalent of grandma’s house? Where do we collectively keep our memories? What makes the foundation of our ongoing development? The answer is more complex than this article can reveal, but I think magazines are a good starting point. We’ve reviewed several together in past articles, but today I’d like to talk about the ongoing allure of Vanity Fair.
The first introduction to Vanity Fair was targeted to wealthy Manhattanites. A weekly publication focused more on humor than substance, it was in publication from 1859-1863. The plucky magazine then traveled across the pond to the U.K., where from 1868 to 1914 it showcased men and women of privilege in British society. The illustrations, while in caricature form, sought to reflect all aspects of Victorian era life. In 1890 a version came back to the US, this time focused on the theater scene. By now you are probably wondering how this ragtag group of unfocused publications formed something substantial and lasting? The answer is in a visionary publisher: Condé Nast.
The Vanity Fair we know now was established in 1913, taking its name from an excerpt of The Pilgrim’s Progress, meaning “a place or scene of ostentation or empty, idle amusement and frivolity.” An interesting inspiration (but oddly fitting tribute) for a magazine that would shed these past versions and become known as a keeper of poignant insights into modern society. But in the early days, the magazine wasn’t a keeper of much of anything let alone a scene. Without a following or clear direction, the first year of publication was a flop. Nast turned to his former roommate (who just so happened to be a renowned New York tastemaker).
What’s in a name? Briefly from 1913-1914 the magazine was called Dress & Vanity Fair
With editor Frank Crowninshield at the helm, and fresh off Condé Nast’s recent Vogue success, Vanity Fair relaunched in 1914. Crowinshield’s focus for the magazine was quite simply to “cover the things people talk about.” An intersection of cultural moments, oddities, and events – the magazine became a place where artists and eccentrics alike found sanctuary. Within its pages, readers were introduced to the likes of Picasso and D.H. Lawrence. And the relationship between city and magazine revived its “meet cute” moment of 1859. What Vanity Fair put on the page, New York City put on the streets. Elaborate parties and a burgeoning café scene, made the printed word come alive and live up to its namesake.
Vanity Fair was a revolutionary force for the time – showcasing works by Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, and e. e. cummings (to name a few). Crowninshield’s preferences influenced every edition. His determination was legendary, often ignoring Nast’s objections and going to print with unapproved content. This strong vision gave the magazine avant-garde street cred that would both lend to its downfall and rebirth.
These liberal viewpoints were deemed taboo for the tough times of the Great Depression and the printing presses stopped. But in 1983 Vanity Fair charged into the American consciousness again. The legacy of Crowninshield’s unwavering choices live on with bold photographers like Annie Leibovitz, giving new perspective to thought-provoking content.
Do you think magazines with such ongoing history, such as Vanity Fair, give society a connection to a special place or time? Can you hang your hat on it like you can at grandma’s house? Let us know in the comments…