Seeing Fashion History, By Reducing 130 Years Of Vogue Into Colors

So that’s why Americans always wear white after Labor Day!

British artist Arthur Buxton has just completed an exhaustive study on the history of color in fashion. Last time we wrote about Buxton, he was busy reducing the color composition of famous paintings to pie charts that gave a clinical overview of the palettes of everyone from Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin (and made us feel like dumbdumbs for not being able to tell the difference between The Potato Eaters and The Night Cafe). Here, he turns the same idea onto 130 years of Vogue covers from the United States, the UK, France, and Italy.


Using open-source sampling tools, Buxton located the five most prominent colors in each issue’s cover, then stacked them on top of each other to create a color sandwich. The sandwiches were then arranged into columns, with each vertical column representing a year of magazine covers, and each horizontal column representing a month. So looking at British Vogue covers here, that’s September 1981 at the bottom right. Scan up, and you’ll see August 1981 at the top right; scan across, and you’ll see September 2011 at the bottom left.

British Vogue

What do the charts tell us? Mostly, they just affirm some long-held stereotypes about fashion in different parts of the world. Note how the palettes of Italy and France are overall much darker than those of the United States and the UK, lending credence to the notion that “wearing color” in Paris and Milan means dressing in head-to-toe black. There is also a startling amount of white in U.S. Vogue, and not just before Labor Day. So our terrible fashion sense is all Anna Wintour’s fault. Refreshing to know.

I’m joking, but not really. The other big takeaway here is how freakishly powerful magazine editors are, going on their own instincts or tastes or sadistic whims (see: the aforementioned preponderance of white) to dictate how we clothe our bodies from one season to the next–something we all know, but rarely see in such stark terms. Buxton gives the example of French Vogue:

By looking at ‘Paris Vogue Covers 1981-2011’ we can see a sudden change in tones which occurs in late 1987. Colombe Pringle became the magazine’s editor-in-chief in December 1987. The colours undergo a sudden change again in 1994 when Joan Juliet Buck, an American, was named Pringle’s successor. With Emmanuelle Alt announced as new editor-in-chief, in early 2011, it remains to be seen what changes in colour scheme her editorship will bring.

Buxton’s color visualizations will be featured in the group show Just Press Print at The Northern Print Gallery in Newcastle starting June 21. See more of his work here.


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D