A love affair between two lesbian Vogue editors. Heard about this? Didn’t think so. It’s a pretty good story so prick up your ears…
Madge McHarg was born in 1898, provincial Melbourne. Her correct, well-to-do parents branded her “deficient in looks and personality”. Understandably shy, to top it all off Madge was born with a spinal condition that forced her, stuck helplessly in a steel corset, to watch as her childhood dashed by. A dull adolescence followed, after which small-town Madge was ripe for plucky adventure. Sent for a short stay at a posh Parisian boarding school, she was enchanted and voila! took the first step towards the “startlingly chic” editor she became by promptly running away to London.
Her almost comically close-minded father made an attempt to reclaim her once he heard she’d become that rare thing; a woman with a job. He wrote to her employer at William Wood, the company which published British Vogue, banging on that Madge was underage (she was 24) and that she didn’t need a job as he was more than able to support her financially, now would they fire her please. Luckily her employers refused to react to Papa’s tantrum, leaving Madge free to reinvent herself amongst fashionable London society with its ‘bright young things’, beads and balls of the 1920s.
Soon however, a gap in employment and a bout of jaundice forced her into marrying Ewart Garland in 1922 as a kind of stopgap. In one interview she even recounted an anecdote of how she summoned him by telegram from her hospital bed. Her wilful spirit showed itself again soon; she seized the reins of the relationship, threatening Ewart with “instant divorce” if he dared impregnate her, refused to take his surname and abandoned what remained of the man a year or so after their vows. Once back on her feet, Madge began working for Vogue under Dorothy Todd, the first ever British editor, appointed directly under Edna Woolman-Chase. (Read more about Edna Woolman-Chase, mother supreme of the magazine who once ran American, British, German and French Vogue at the same time)
Bless Dorothy Todd, she hasn’t been immortalised with the kindest words. When researching I found “butch as pig iron”, “bull-dyke”, “hatchet-faced”, and Cecil Beaton, the legendary photographer who was actually given his breakthrough chance by Todd, still described her as “that filthy editor of Vogue” with an “objectionable face… like a sea lion.” Alright, so she wasn’t a looker. However, in this time our darling Madge had undergone a total transformation and her tasteful dressing was much admired. Aldous Huxley famously once asked her “Are you dressed like that because you are on Vogue or are you on Vogue because you are dressed like that?” The years made her a “woman of high polish”, “maven of beauty and haute couture” with “a delicate porcelain look”, described by Vanessa Bell in “silk and pearls”, by Virginia Woolf as having “rather excessive charm”. In an ironic turn she now adopted ‘Garland’ as her surname (the ex-husband’s name she’d previously rejected) after someone snottily told her ‘McHarg’ was “dreadful”. Thus smitten, Todd promoted Madge to both fashion editor and live-in lover.
Morals in Immorality
To return to Todd. Most upsetting in the representation of Dorothy Todd is how her masculine “stone butch” appearance has overridden her fascinating intellectual legacy. Born in Kensington in 1883 the details of how she was hired British Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief are hazy, what remains clear is her singular vision. As an openly gay woman she was involved with the Modernist movement which gave the first opportunities to “the lesbian or bisexual woman, the politically or socially rebellious woman, the self-directing woman, to speak.” Having by luck been given a voice and a position she was keen to grant other women the same gift and not just to women, but to men who supported women. Dorothy Todd’s unapologetic interest in culture, literature and academic criticism manifested in a desire to turn Vogue from a magazine about “expensive frocks” into “a collaborative vision of gender relations … show[ing] the way for women who wanted to be taken seriously as writers and critics.” Simply put, if Todd had her way, Vogue would be a mad mash-up of LGBT and Culture.
Anyway, with these shimmering ideals Todd collected colourful creatures to write for Vogue. Although she was only editor for 4 years, amongst her contributing roster of stars there was poetry by Gertrude Stein, art criticism by Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister and brother-in-law), essays by Virginia Woolf herself, articles by Vita Sackville-West and Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World). It was the first magazine to publish works by Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. For a brief time Dorothy Todd’s and Madge Garland’s house in Chelsea was the cornerstone of cultivation, where they held parties for these contributors, involving them in ‘The Vogue Project’. I imagine this time as a smokehouse of heady ideas, times with fountain pens and pearls, strings of words hovering beside cigarette holders, feverish giggles hand in hand with philosophical discussion. But the scandalous side can’t be forgotten. Such spectacles may sell out quickly, but they tend to attract bad press overall. It couldn’t last.
An American Intervention
Needless to say the highbrow approach was not the American way. In 1926 Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland were both brutally sacked. Although their flamboyant, openly lesbian relationship seems like the obvious reason for dismissal, there is hot debate around the matter. Some accounts hold it was the uber-intellectual approach that annoyed the upper echelons of Vogue. Another theory claims Dorothy Todd was fired because Conde Nast made the discovery that she had an illegitimate daughter.
Now might be a good time to delve into the little else we know of Dorothy Todd. Todd, despite the heavily masculine appearance, was single mother to the unfortunate Helen, who was being raised as her ‘niece’. The fathers name was never disclosed, and she did not come to know her aunt was actually her mother until she had repeated history; by growing into an unhappy woman with an illegitimate child of her own. “Dody’s niece has had a niece” brutal gossip phrased it. To both Todd and Garland she was an unwanted nuisance, a reminder, if anything, of the evils of heterosexuality.
Whatever reason she was sacked for, after dismissal Dorothy Todd set about ruining the rest of her life. Always given to heavy drinking, her dismissal led to a downward spiralling alcoholism which may or may not have resulted in her physically abusing Madge. Whether beaten bodily or no, Madge found herself financially destitute; Todd had been racking up debts in her name. The amount is described as “on a scale that was almost lunatic” and left Madge broken, broke and broken-hearted. The “worst ordeal” of her life was to follow.
Bailiffs descended whilst a terrified Madge escaped to France, where she had to live and work in poverty for several years paying off the debts. Dorothy Todd was abandoned, sodden and unable to function, little else is known of her. An ending in such almighty crescendo must have reverberated through the rest of their lives; they never spoke again and Madge never ever spoke of Dorothy Todd, even after Todd’s death in the mid-60s.
Coming Back For More
Having narrowly escaped the wreckage of what was once domestic bliss, Madge begun to successfully freelance for the influential Women’s Wear Daily in New York and contributed to many well-respected English magazines. In an almost unbelievable twist of fate she was rehired as fashion editor by Vogue in 1934 and held the position until 1939 with no further drama. Her reputation became respectable, her flair for business unmistakable and her personal life became private. With this new solid social standing, she was able to secure high level positions, including spending most of WWII working for the London department store Bourne and Hollingsworth.
In 1948 her hard work began to really pay off and Madge was appointed first ever professor for fashion at the Royal College of Art. A sharp nose for business coupled with many years in the industry resulted in her creating a pioneering course. By the time she retired in 1956 she was famous for her support of British designers and for founding London Fashion Group, the seed from which today’s British Fashion Council grew. Frankly, we probably wouldn’t have London Fashion Week today if it wasn’t for Madge.
After retirement she travelled and wrote popular books whilst retaining the immaculate, haughty veneer of a Vogue editor. She married one more time, another marriage of convenience to fellow “queer”, Sir Leigh Ashton (1897-1983) director of the V&A Museum. However, after witnessing his relationship with tipple at parties (he drank too and had a “tendency to pass out at social gatherings”) she divorced him in disgust. There seems to be no record of any other lesbian lovers Madge may have had. Though she defined herself as a lesbian her whole life, it doesn’t appear that there was anyone significant apart from Dorothy Todd. Perhaps she was understandably put off by that experience.
Madge remained active well into her eighties and in her final decline was cared for in a convent (though she continued to host parties at friend’s houses), dying in London on 15th July 1990. From ugly duckling to paragon of poise, despite war, ruin, illness and misery and laying the foundations for the entire fashion industry as we know it today; Madge Garland is the woman who could conquer everything except love.