Vogue Legends: Two Editors & Their Antics in Love

It may surprise you to hear how humble the London origins of Vogue were. Erase from your mind the imposing white stone of Vogue House in Mayfair. Conjure up, instead, four dingy rooms in Fleet Street where the doors of the British office first opened. 

At the time an all-American publication, Vogue decided to launch a UK version, but soon after they did, WWI began. It seems a little incongruous to place a fashion magazine amid mass destruction, yet British Vogue soared to popularity just before the 1920s roared. This setting was anarchic, and so were the happenings inside British Vogue. 

Let’s start by meeting Madge McHarg. Born in 1898 in provincial Melbourne, her well-to-do parents branded her ‘deficient in looks and personality’. Worse still, Madge had a spinal condition which meant her childhood was spent braced in a steel corset. A shy adolescence followed, after which Madge was ripe for adventure. 

When her family relocated to London she was determined to stay at all costs and had no intention of marrying, as her family wished. Her solution was to run away. Madge’s father tried to reclaim her, but she had become a rare thing: a woman with a job. 

Writing to her employer, her father insisted Madge was underage (she was twenty-four) and that she didn’t need a job as he was more than able to support her financially. Having made what he felt was an infinitely compelling argument, he demanded they fire her. Her boss refused. This left Madge free to reinvent herself amongst fashionable London society.

However, a near-deathly case of jaundice led her to wed a family friend, Ewart Garland, in 1922, as a tactical stopgap to dodge starvation. Seizing the reins of the relationship, Madge threatened 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 later. 

Madge’s father tried to reclaim her, but she had become a rare thing: a woman with a job. 

Once back on her feet, Madge began working for British Vogue under Dorothy Todd, one of the first British Vogue editors. By now, Madge had undergone a total transformation; and her tasteful dressing was much admired. Aldous Huxley famously 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, as Vanessa Bell wrote, ‘a maven of beauty and haute couture’. Virginia Woolf said she had, ‘rather excessive charm’. Madge even adopted Garland as her surname (the ex-husband’s name she’d previously snubbed) after someone snottily told her McHarg was ‘dreadful’. These changes, and others, were a result of her growing relationship with Dorothy Todd. 

Dody, as she was known, was more than a fashionista. She was an epoch-making intellect and her support of the arts bordered on patronage. Active, energetic, and vital, she was both book smart and street smart. She was also smitten by Madge, her pretty receptionist, and in no time at all promoted her to Fashion Editor, and shortly after, live-in lover.

Dorothy Todd hasn’t been immortalised with the kindest words. She was described as: ‘butch as pig iron’, ‘bull-dyke’ and ‘hatchet-faced’. Cecil Beaton, the legendary photographer to whom she gave his breakthrough chance, called her ‘that filthy editor of Vogue’ with an ‘objectionable face… like a sea lion.’ 

Dody was unfairly tainted by her outward appearance, which sadly mars the details of her fascinating legacy. 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.’ Having a voice and a position she was keen to grant other women the same.

Dody, as she was known, was more than a fashionista. She was an epoch-making intellect and her support of the arts bordered on patronage.

Dorothy Todd’s unapologetic interest in culture, literature and academic criticism manifested in a desire to transform British 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.’ These ideals led Dody to collect exemplary writers for British Vogue. 

Amongst her pages there was poetry by Gertrude Stein, art criticism by Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell, essays by Virginia Woolf, articles by Vita Sackville-West and Aldous Huxley. For a brief time, Dody and Madge’s house in Chelsea became the cornerstone of cultivation, where they held increasingly scandalous parties for these contributors.

But in 1926, both Dody and Madge were unceremoniously fired. Their lesbian relationship made for an easy scapegoat. However, much was suspicious. Some believed they were actually sacked because of their uber-intellectual outlook, as back then, Vogue was meant to only feature clothes, not art or literature. Others said it was because advertising dropped off, though a review of available data shows this wasn’t quite the case.

Following the dismissal, Dody gradually became destitute, and spiralled into alcoholism. Madge found herself declining into penury too, though through no fault of her own. Dody had been racking up debts in her name while working for British Vogue… and the amount is described as ‘on a scale that was almost lunatic’.

Bailiffs encroached. Madge escaped to France, living and working in poverty for years, paying off the debts. Dody and Madge never spoke again and Madge never, ever, spoke of Dody.

But in 1926, both Dody and Madge were unceremoniously fired. Their lesbian relationship made for an easy scapegoat.

Having narrowly salvaged her life, Madge began successfully freelancing for the influential Women’s Wear Daily and contributing to many well-respected magazines. In a 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, and her flair for business unmistakable.

By 1948, her hard work began to pay off. Madge was appointed first ever professor for fashion at the Royal College of Art. By the time she retired in 1956 she was famous for founding the London Fashion Group, the seed from which today’s British Fashion Council grew. We probably wouldn’t have London Fashion Week if it wasn’t for her.

After retirement she travelled and wrote popular books whilst retaining the immaculate, haughty veneer of a Vogue editor. She married Sir Leigh Ashton, director of the V&A Museum, but after witnessing his excessive relationship with alcohol at parties, she divorced him in disgust.

Madge remained active well into her eighties, continuing to host parties until her death in 1990. From ugly duckling to paragon of poise, she overcame war, ruin, illness, and laid the foundations of the entire fashion industry as we know it; Madge Garland is the woman who could conquer everything except love.

This story and others available in Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue by Nina-Sophia Miralles.

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