What British Vogue’s Latest Covers Say About Our Shifting Culture
Under new editorial leadership, magazines are slowly but surely leaning into diversity and rethinking beauty and fashion ideals.
Last month, Dame Judi Dench became the oldest person to ever appear on the cover of British Vogue, at age 85. This month, the magazine celebrated UK essential workers by featuring three different amazing women on its cover — train driver Narguis Horsford, midwife Rachel Millar, and Waitrose supermarket assistant Anisa Omar. They appeared wearing not designer clothing but rather their everyday uniforms.
As a longtime magazine reader, these covers stunned me. Historically, fashion magazines have held a nearly singular perspective, one that is thin, white, young, heterosexual, cisgender, and airbrushed. Cover stars have been actresses, models, occasionally First Ladies or royals — never supermarket workers. According to a report on The Fashion Spot, “before 2017, Vogue U.K. went 14 years with only six nonwhite solo cover stars.” Just let that sink for in a second.
Under the leadership of Edward Enninful, who stepped up to the helm as editor-in-chief in 2017, British Vogue has made tremendous strides in terms of diversity: according to the same report, in 2019, “it hired 16 out of 28 nonwhite women, not to mention its first (publicly) transgender cover star.” Several of those women starred on the cover of the September 2019 issue guest-edited by then-Duchess Meghan Markle, which also broke tradition by featuring, in addition to actresses and models, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, diversity advocate Sinéad Burke, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The magazine world still has a long way to go in terms of diversity — in general, cover diversity plateaued in 2019, and many magazines still have predominantly white editorial staffs. In fact, just this week American Vogue was one of many publications called out for preaching solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement while not giving enough space or voice to black employees. The magazine, which had its first black photographer-shot cover in 2018, was criticized by former employees Zara Rahim and Shelby Ivey Christie for underpaying and undervaluing people of color.
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour responded in an internal memo to employees obtained by Page Six: “It can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you. I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will — and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward. I am listening and would like to hear your feedback and your advice if you would like to share either.”
This came on the heels of the publication of a memoir by former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley called The Chiffon Trenches, which paints an unforgiving picture of Wintour as a friend and boss. According to Talley, she pressured him to lose weight and unceremoniously dropped him from his role as red carpet interviewer at the Met Gala because he “had suddenly become too old, too overweight, too uncool.”
However, recent leadership changes across the industry seem a harbinger of better representation — both on covers and mastheads— to come. The same year Enninful took the helm at British Vogue, Radhika Jones was tapped to replace longtime editor-in-chief Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. And just this week, Harper’s Bazaar announced Samira Nasr as its new editor-in-chief, the first black woman to hold the position in the magazine’s 153-year history.
If the latest British Vogue covers are any indication, we may see a shift toward featuring and profiling not just celebrities but people from all walks of life who are doing incredible things. We may see the magazine definition of “beauty” expanded to include different ages, races, sizes, and gender expressions, and the definition of “fashion” broadened to be more accessible and sustainable.
The implications of this are huge. Already, with just these two covers, British Vogue has allowed young students working part-time shifts at grocery stores and 85-year-old women to see themselves on the cover of a national fashion magazine, to feel validated, appreciated, and beautiful. Our idea of what is glamorous and aspirational often comes from a traditional print media ideal, and while social media has flipped that ideal on its head and allowed for a more expansive idea of beauty and fashion to emerge, it’s taken awhile for print media to catch up. Just imagine how empowering it must feel to be working at a cash register and see yourself represented on the magazine stand next to you. Not a glammed-up version of you, just you.
As a culture, we’re hungry for this. We don’t want glossy perfection anymore — we want women to be photographed like men, as powerful in addition to sexy, with all of their wrinkles and imperfections left intact, and we want the world around us reflected in all of its diversity in the culture we consume.
This is perhaps most evident in the latest trend to emerge on Tik Tok, the “Vogue challenge.” People have been turning their selfies and photos into incredible mock Vogue covers that show what the magazine world could look like in the future — and it’s a future worth fighting for.