Picks and Pans Review: The Fifties in Vogue

updated 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Nicholas Drake

Images of beautiful women drift by, accumulating in their wake a kind of shallow visual poignancy. There's a gamine-like Audrey Hepburn in a lace peignoir, Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister, Lee Bouvier, smart young society matrons with cropped hairdos. These are the enduring images in this generously illustrated look at the '50s as reflected in the pages of the most self-important of the fashion magazines. Drake, a free-lancer, compiled his account by studying the British, French and American Vogues of the period. It was the age of Brigitte Bardot, drip-dry, pointed shoes and UFOs, and the magazine's view of things was predictable. Vogue's dilettantish compulsion to see everything from its own peculiar perspectives, however, seems an intrusive conceit. Vogue even commented on the arms business, calling the nuclear submarine Seawolf "a masterpiece of planning." It would have been better to read fewer of such pronouncements and more excerpts from articles the magazine published by such literary talents as VS. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch and Truman Capote. Vogue's coverage of the semi-glittering past does come vividly to life in a chapter on society balls, many so extravagant they seem to be from a Proust novel. At one fancy do, a lady arrives as a sleek black cat, the designer Christian Dior turns up as a mustached boy and the Comtesse de Beaumont enters as an "enigmatic Egyptian mummy swathed in gold lame." Although often poorly reproduced, the photographs by such artists as Irving Penn, Howell Conant and Cecil Beaton have clearly survived the '50s. Perhaps the book's most memorable photograph is its least Vogue-ish. Taken by Hermann Landshoff in 1955, it shows the aging harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in a white dress standing at her instrument on a porch outdoors. With her long black hair flowing down her back, she looks like a shriveled child at play. (Holt, $24.95)

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