Book Review–The 1950s in Vogue: The Jessica Daves Years by Rebecca C. Tuite

Thames and Hudson, New York, 2019

This is what the cover of my copy of The 1950s in Vogue looks like—no book title, no author, and no indication of the fact that the book is actually about Vogue editor, Jessica Daves.  Perhaps this is a new innovation in book design, but at first I wondered if the library had ordered the right book.

The cover does serve a purpose, though, showing that author Rebecca Tuite intends to invoke the spirit of Vogue in the 1950s.  Rich in photography, the book is also big in size.  Coming in at 11”x14”, the size of an old Vogue magazine, it fits on none of my many bookshelves.   The paper is glossy and the reproductions are gorgeous.  If you are missing the feeling of elegant old Vogue editions, you can find it here.

Daves in 1962, from 1950s Fashion in Vogue

Vogue editor Jessica Daves is the real subject of this book. Officially she held the position from 1952-1962, although in her book Ready Made Miracle Daves claims the role already in 1948, when Edna Chase was stepping back from the job.  Sandwiched in between founding editor Chase and the flamboyant Diana Vreeland, Daves has been praised primarily for her business skills.  A very mean obituary in the New York Times quoted someone describing her as “a portly woman with a face like a baked apple.”

Tuite sets the record straight.  Not only did Daves balance the books at Vogue, she also began to realign the magazine away from Parisian couture and toward well-made ready to wear. In addition, she augmented coverage of culture and daily life, expanding sections on literature and art while also launching new sections on travel and home design.  An avid reader of Vogue could learn about Ruth Asawa’s sculptures and Lorraine Hansberry’s plays, while also following trends in at-home entertaining. The target audience was still the very well off, but Daves believed that good style was a matter of training the eye, not padding the wallet.  Her educational approach lost out when the magazine took a turn toward youth and flamboyance under Vreeland.

Vogue, April 1951

There is a section on Mrs. Exeter and I’m proud to say that my article was cited.  According to Tuite, Mrs. Exeter was a group project, beloved by the editorial staff.  Both Chase and Daves endorsed her. Junior editor Virginia Thaw was responsible for the copy–I wonder if she also wrote the witty first person entries.  Tuite speculates that Daves herself was the inspiration for the double chinned, cheerful version of Mrs. Exeter in the 1951 Rene Bouché drawing above.

The book is an amalgam of a beautiful coffee table book and a serious scholarly volume.  Since I was reading for its scholarly content, I found the size somewhat unwieldy.  But you can’t beat it for sheer beauty.  If you are interested in the fashion and culture of the fifties, not to mention Vogue magazine itself, be sure to take a look.

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2 Responses to Book Review–The 1950s in Vogue: The Jessica Daves Years by Rebecca C. Tuite

  1. eimear says:

    sounds like a lovely read, must look it up….. and a rather mean thing to say by the times….ouch….she looks rather glam to me in the photo with hat and shades

  2. JS says:

    Congratulations on having your blog article cited. It must be gratifying to know that your writing on fashion history is noticed and valued.

    If this book came across my desk, I would read it, but I would not make a special effort to find it. I haven’t had a subscription to Vogue in decades; there was too much snobbish fluff with a few interesting photos and articles mixed in. Not that long ago, Vogue did a piece on 1960s writers with a contemporary group photo and it was almost all men, even decades later, they haven’t learned anything about feminism. As a matter of design, the book cover is extremely bland. I can’t imagine why that photo was selected.

    I went to Rebecca Tuite’s website and watched her promotional video about her book. She says that “Vogue matters.” I’m not sure that’s true anymore, not when the Vogue Instagram account is constantly pushing trashy celebrities with no taste and style like the Kardashians. In fact, it seems rather desperate. Just about anyone can get on the cover these days.

    The observation in Daves’s obituary is pointed, but it came from a friend, not the newspaper writer, and is relevant because of the incongruence between her appearance and her position. The author, Alden Whitman, apparently pioneered personalized obits in the Times.

    “Miss Daves was also remembered as a person who did not have a high‐fashion taste in her own clothes. ‘She was a portly woman with a face that resembled a baked apple,’ a friend recalled, ‘and if she wore custom dresses, they looked like ready‐to‐wear.'”

    It is interesting how over the years the pressure to look the part has been brought to bear on fashion magazine editors like everyone else. Diana Vreeland was homely, but Grace Mirabella was very attractive, as is Anna Wintour.

    Speaking of Vogue editors in chief, it sounds like André Leon Talley’s forthcoming book is going to take down Wintour, his former boss and sometime friend. It was discussed by the couturier Ralph Rucci in his IG feed. Her name wasn’t mentioned, but reading between the lines of the numerous comments, Wintour appeared to be the object of Talley’s attack.

    I can’t wait.

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