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Rediscovering Vogue's Jessica Daves

Posted on 20 Nov 2019

Author Rebecca Tuite explores the life and times of the under-appreciated Jessica Daves, one of only seven editors-in-chief of American 'Vogue', whose legacy has been ignored—until now.

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“Who was Jessica Daves?” Several years ago, as a first-year PhD student working on mid-century American fashion, this was the question I found myself asking over and over again. How was it possible for me to have read 1950s Vogue so often but be unable to identify its editor-in-chief? Nestled between the editorships of Vogue legends, Edna Woolman Chase and Diana Vreeland, it quickly became clear that Daves had been somewhat lost to history. How could this be the legacy for a woman who Women’s Wear Daily once anointed both the “high priestess” and the “Grande Dame of Fashion”; who won both the French Legion of Honour and the Italian Order of Merit for her services to fashion; who co-founded the Fashion Group International alongside icons like Eleanor Roosevelt and Carmel Snow? So, who was Jessica Daves? I am pleased to say that the answer can now be foundin my new book, 1950s in Vogue: The Jessica Daves Years, 1952-1962.

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A testament to a changing America on every level, Daves’s Vogue was responsible for a number of innovations: It was the first to embrace a “high/low”blend of fashion in its pages, while Daves was considered a pioneer in her efforts to create “fashion with a merchandising backbone,” which basically means that she worked tirelessly to create strong and profitable relationships between designers, manufacturers, retailers and Vogue. If you could see it in Vogue, Daves demanded that you be able to buy it, too, and in a timely manner. Believing that “taste is something that can be taught and learned,” Daves, and her features editor, Allene Talmey, introduced world-renowned artists, literary greats, and cultural iconsinto every issue with renewed vigor. Daves’s art director, Alexander Liberman, imbued the magazine with his masterful visual artistry, from inventive page layouts and world-class photography, to his own profiles of major artists, including Picasso and Giacometti. Vogue of this era offered readers a complete vision of how design, interiors,architecture, entertaining, art, literature, and culture all connected and contributed to refining anddefining taste and personal style. As such, between 1952 and 1962, Daves’s Vogue profiled numerous icons of American style, from John and Jackie Kennedy to Charles and Ray Eames, alongside some of the most extraordinary fashions from around the globe. Exquisite creations by Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, and Balenciaga (this was, after all, the Golden Age of Couture), appeared alongside the best of American fashion design by Claire McCardell, Norman Norell and Galanos.

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That Daves is relatively less well known in Vogue history seems all the more surprising for two reasons: Firstly, there have only ever been seven editors-in-chief of American Vogue – seven women who have shaped the magazine’s history and legacy, as well as broader cultural, artistic, and fashion landscapes. Secondly, being editor-in-chief of Vogue is such an intensely personal role: The magazine inevitably comes to reflect the passions and priorities of the person at the top of the masthead. As such, the content of Vogue at any given time can be viewed not only within the context of the social and cultural climate, but these different eras of leadership. In Jessica Daves’s case, she was at the helm of Vogue during what have been called the magazine’s “powerful years” (which is to say, the decade during which Vogue survived considerable corporate unrest, documented some of the most monumental years in twentieth century fashion history, and remained a profitable and powerful publication). In fact, by 1960, The Los Angeles Times declared, “The name Jessica Daves means Vogue in the magazine publishing field – and Vogue means the best there is in all the arts of living.” This book examines, for the very first time, exactly how and why Daves and her Vogue are so deeply intertwined.

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A trio of central factors made researching 1950s in Vogue: The Jessica Daves Years, 1952-1962 challenging: Daves’s own deep sense of privacy, her disinterest in self-promotion, and the lack of a single, complete, extant archive for her personal and professional papers. Daves also did not have immediate family to shape and protect her legacy. I found wonderful materials in the Condé Nast Archive, of course, including correspondence, professional memos, receipts and calendars. I went to libraries and archives across the U.S. to locate transcripts of speeches and commencement addresses she gave, as well as reviewing materials from the Fashion Group International and the archives and collections of her colleagues. Daves donated her husband’s correspondence archive to UC Berkeley, which was particularly fortunate, as these letters now provide insight into Jessica herself, and the personal and professional endeavors they shared. For all the careful planning and seeking of Daves-related materials, sometimes Daves would simply appear out of blue (such as the time I discovered the telegram she had sent Sylvia Plath in a library while working on something completely different; or when I was reading something unrelated and realized that the artist, Marcel Duchamp, moved in with Daves and her husband when he first emigrated to New York!). I like to think that these serendipitous moments were confirmation that Daves, too, believed it was time to share her story once and for all!

Joseph Leombruno and Jack Bodi/ Condé Nast via Getty Images

Jessica Daves was a complex, high-achieving, powerful contributor to the landscape of American fashion in the twentieth century, and I am so excited for readers to rediscover her for themselves in 1950s in Vogue: The Jessica Daves Years, 1952-1962.

Words by Rebecca C. Tuite

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