Sixty years ago, Australia’s population hit the 10 million mark, Robert Menzies was our prime minister, and construction of the Sydney Opera House had just begun.
It was also when Vogue Australia was first published — a magazine which, in 1959 and now, has proffered itself up as a mirror to the social and political issues of the time.
But its longevity in an industry marred by poor circulation is, according to editor-in-chief Edwina McCann, a testament to the magazine’s ability to print what women are talking about, thinking about and — of course — wearing.
“Vogue has evolved with Australia and with Australian women over the past 60 years,” McCann said.
“The issues we’re concerned with today are very different to the issues we were concerned with in the early 1960s.
“Some of the early topics look at women not being able to have a glass of wine in the same bar as men.
“We published some rather odd diets over the years as well!”
These early issues of the magazine can now be seen in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, celebrating 60 years of Vogue in Australia.
According to McCann, today’s women care a lot less about diets than they did all those years ago, and a lot more about issues like sustainability, wellbeing, technology and diversity.
“Emma Watson actually guest-edited an issue for me about two-and-a-half years ago, and I really do credit her with challenging us … specifically on more diverse casting with our models,” McCann said.
“She was right. The minute I asked the agencies to send me a more diverse array of models, they did, and my reaction was, ‘Where have all these girls been?’
“And it was as simple as, I wasn’t looking.
“I firmly believe that a more democratic Vogue and a more inclusive Vogue is a better Vogue. It’s a path that we’re absolutely committed to,” she said.
‘To this day, it’s still a pinch-me moment’
Samantha Harris first appeared in Vogue in 2010, and was on the cover that same year. (ABC News: Kate Midena)
It is a path women like Indigenous model Samantha Harris have certainly benefitted from.
Her career was given a huge boost after she appeared on the cover of Vogue in 2010.
“I couldn’t believe that I was on the cover of a magazine in general, let alone Vogue Australia,” she said.
“To this day, it’s still a pinch-me moment. My career took off.
“My mum was gobsmacked. When my mum was younger she never would have dreamt an Indigenous girl would have been on the cover of Vogue, let alone her daughter.”
A young Ursula Hufnagl never thought she would end up on the cover of Vogue either, but her moment came in 1973.
“I’m a humble girl from a migrant family in Germany,” Ms Hufnagl, who went on to establish modelling agency Chic Management, said.
“After I did the Vogue cover, I worked on an international level. It’s a launch pad.
“Vogue have embraced that multicultural feel within the magazine. That tells a great story for women.”
Ursula Hufnagl stands in front of her Vogue 1973 cover at the Women In Vogue exhibition. (ABC News: Kate Midena)
While Vogue has made considerable headway with its cultural diversity, it, like many other fashion magazines, is often criticized for not featuring women with diverse body shapes.
McCann said that was something Vogue Australia was working on.
“We would like to shoot more varieties of women’s body shapes, absolutely,” she said.
“We want to shoot women with interesting stories … it’s really about the story behind the woman on the cover, and the reason they were chosen for the cover.”
‘It has absolutely paid off’
While keeping a finger on the pulse of what Australian women are thinking about is one thing, staying relevant in an ever-evolving digital landscape is another.
The Women in Vogue exhibition features a wall of photographs dedicated to Sudanese-born Australian model Adut Akech. (ABC News: Kate Midena)
“There was a choice to either see [digital media] as a threat or to see it as an opportunity, and we chose to see it as an opportunity,” Ms McCann said.
“It has absolutely paid off. As a result, we’ve been able to invest in what makes us different and what makes us precious.
“We do invest heavily in the creation of our imagery. What hasn’t changed about Vogue is really that we are storytellers through images.
“People don’t like to throw away their Vogues. This is why we matter. If we’re not creating this beautiful portraiture and imagery, what are people going to look back on in 60 years?
“It tells a story of who we are, yes, through the prism of fashion, but it’s still who we are.”
Vogue Australia’s first issue, for Spring/Summer 1959. (Vogue Australia / National Portrait Gallery)
Some of those images and stories are featured in the Women In Vogue exhibition, launching today at the National Portrait Gallery.
Assistant curator Aimee Board said the exhibition was a chance to “reflect upon how far women have come in the last 60 years”.
“From the very demure depictions of women on the covers, we see that really change through the emergence of the second wave of feminism, the sexual revolution of course, the rise of celebrity culture,” she said.
“We see a lot more attitude coming through on the covers.
“It’s a retrospective, celebrating the 60 years of Vogue, but it’s also really interesting to note the changes of the ideals of womanhood across the decades, how far we’ve come, and what it means to be an Australian woman.”