“The editor doesn’t have to be somebody sitting on the side of the runway,” said Michael J. Wolf, a media consultant and the chief executive of Activate, a consulting firm in New York. “I don’t think readers are looking for the editors themselves to be aspirational figures.”
They may gravitate instead to a model cast in the image of Withers, a woman driven less by self-regard and a thirst for fame than by a fervid sense of mission. “It is simply not modern to be unaware of or uninterested in what is going on all around you,” she wrote to Edna Woolman Chase, her mentor, in a kind of manifesto.
In a time of crisis, Withers argued, a fashion magazine would be remiss turning its back on politics. “One is being every whit as political,” she wrote to Woolman Chase, “in giving one’s tacit approval to things as they are than in pressing for change.” She buttressed that conviction, dispatching journalists including Beaton and Lee Miller, a model turned photographer, to the front lines.
Who would have thought? Born in 1905 into a free-spirited, intellectual family, Withers was educated at in Oxford and worked in a bookshop and, briefly, at a publishing house, before taking a post at Vogue.
“Austerity,” as she was affectionately known among staff, was bent from the outset on exhorting her readers to make more of less — and, at a time of shortages to plant and harvest their own vegetables, stock preserves and, rather than shop, to “mend and make do” with items already in their wardrobes.
Sartorially she lead by example, her own fashion rotation consisting of three suits and some blouses for work, one wool dress for evenings, and trousers and sweater off-duty. When limits were placed on the amount of labor and material used in civilian clothing, she consulted the British Board of Trade on a range of utility fashions priced within reach of many of her readers and encouraged paring down. “Subtraction,” she told readers, “is the first of fashion rules.”