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Inside Vogue, where women have the best jobs but men still dominate | Vogue

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AFashion-obsessed teenager I dreamed of working for Vogue. What girl didn’t? It was in the 2000s, and smartphones weren’t everywhere yet, so we hungrily flipped through the last copy in the back of the classroom. I loved the photos, the clothes, even the ads. But above all, I loved the masthead and the index finger. Who were these glamorous humans with charming names and exotic job titles?

Most of them, of course, were women. It’s the thing about a place like Vogue. It’s a huge global company with a lot of soft power, but unlike most of these companies, it has always had women at the top. But not at the very top.

Women have historically constituted the majority of the primary workforce. Vogue. These are the editors we see sitting in the front row at Fashion Week, but they rarely get a seat in the boardroom. Immortal Anna Wintour has become C-Suite, named Global Editorial Director and Content Director in 2020, but it’s a rare occurrence.

Grace Mirabella
Grace Mirabella, American editor-in-chief of Vogues in the 70s and 80s. Photograph: Bill Ray / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Many of the stories about working at the magazine come as no surprise and will no doubt be received by women around the world with a frustrated sigh. They may be surprised to learn, however, that Cond Nast (the man, not the company yet) was a strong supporter of working women, and in the 1910s and 1920s made its editor-in-chief, Edna Woolman Chase, a director of both American and British Vogues. It was in the 1960s, under its current owners, the Newhouse family, that the situation began to deteriorate noticeably.

In a power reshuffle, art director Alexander Liberman has apparently been offered the editorial staff of American Vogue. To this he replied: I am a man. I don’t plan on getting so involved in fashion. Instead, they created the title of Managing Editor, which he brilliantly took. This meant that a woman had to be an editor, but he controlled her.

During the 1980s, editor Grace Mirabella went bananas with this unusual arrangement. On the one hand, Liberman was a fan of Penthouse and Playboy, and I kept trying to insert excessively sexual content into Vogue, much to Mirabellas’ disgust. She also had no agency to choose her own staff, since Liberman decided who was hired or fired. This meant that she could lose an invaluable ally in no time at all, or be forced to work with someone who was not on her team.

She was never included in conversations about the magazine’s leadership. When trying to publish an article on breast cancer, Liberman said: Vogue readers are more interested in fashion than breast cancer. When she wanted to cover the pro-choice movement, Liberman said: Nobody cares. When writing about women entering the workforce, he said: Women are cheap labor and always will be.

Joan juliet buck
Joan Juliet Buck, editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, 1994-2001. She was told that she would forfeit her severance package if she did not go to rehab while she was completely sober. Photograph: Jim Spellman / WireImage

Mirabella had been all the rage for three decades at this point and had increased its circulation from 400,000 to 1.3 million. She knew her audience and probably deserved to be consulted on matters relating to the magazine she edited. And Liberman was a hypocrite: for many years his wife was the breadwinner.

There was not much support from the late Si Newhouse, a descendant of the Newhouse family who owns Vogue and many other publications. When Mirabella felt she had won a seat at their table, he told her: Women don’t mean anything on the boards.

Book by Nina-Sophia Miralles on the interior history of Vogue.
Book by Nina-Sophia Miralles on the interior history of Vogue. Photography: Quercus Publishing

In the 1990s, Newhouse admitted that they operated a simple business structure. There was the owner, Newhouse himself, in his sixties. The president of the company, Bernard Leser, also in his sixties. And Liberman, who was now 80 years old. A trinity of old men published thousands of magazines for young women every year, and thought they knew best.

The callous behavior towards female staff remained unhindered. In the early days of Wintours, they used the tactics of directed competition, which more or less simply meant pitting people against each other. They thought it would force the staff to work harder. Not exactly a relaxing environment. We know the frozen character of Wintours today, but back then the atmosphere had returned to him. Some reports claim that she is sitting in her office bawling. It didn’t help that when she was made editor-in-chief the press immediately responded assuming she was having an affair with Si Newhouse.

There are other problems with the job for Vogue. You might expect a somewhat snobby gossip feeling, but at times it has reached a feverish level of insanity. During Diana Vreelands’ tenure from 1963 to 1971, editors would steal clothes from each other if they thought someone else was finding something good for a shoot. Screams came out of the closet, tantrums, tears. They threatened to jump out the window, and secretaries came in and out through revolving doors. Ritual acts of humiliation were performed in morning meetings if someone brought an item of clothing that no one liked.

Alexi mccammond
Alexi McCammond, the former editor of Teen Vogue who resigned over what were called racist tweets. Photograph: Michael S Schwartz / Getty Images

The salary is noticeably low unless you’re at the top (a popular joke has played on the amount of freelance wealth needed to support a career at Vogue: one girl tells another, I’m going to have to find a real job, dad can’t afford to send me Vogue more). Foreign travel and fancy clothing allowances create a kind of bondage. Think Joan Juliet Buck, editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris from 1994 to 2001, who was told that if she did not do drug rehab, she would lose her severance pay. She was completely sober, but attended the facility because she needed the money to take care of her elderly father.

There are still victims; consider the controversy at Teen vogue when Alexi McCammond was appointed editor. Staff strongly opposed the re-emergence of what have been described as racist tweets. Despite a letter signed by 20 employees, Cond Nast planned to stick with their choice until McCammond herself resigned.

If I had known all of this, would the teenage girl have always wanted to work Vogue? On second thought, I’m glad I wrote the book (Glossy: Vogue’s Inner Story) instead.

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