Fashion History was Never Straight: Madge Garland, Dorothy Todd and Vogue

When we consider the ‘staples’ of fashion history, there are a few things that may come to mind: Dior’s ‘New Look’ from 1947; supermodels and designers, Kate Moss and Chanel; decade-based fashion history – the 1960s, the 1830s, the 1770s… and, from the beginning of the 20th century, Vogue magazine. At first and traditionally all glances, these things seem staunchly heterosexual. But, spoiler: Fashion history has never been straight. In today’s post, I’m going to analyse a lesbian couple whose lives and work really shaped fashion and its history over the last century, proving that lesbian fashion history is not simply its own niche, but integral to at least 100 years of clothing cultures. 

If Vogue is a staple of fashion history, it was one forged by lesbians – at least, in its modern format. From 1922 to 1926, Dorothy Todd was the editor of British Vogue. The magazine’s British version was launched in 1916 due to the impossibility of importation from America during WWI, and Todd was its second ever editor. The interwar period was one packed full of innovation and change in fashion – both commercially and socially – and the impact of Todd’s Vogue cannot be erased in this. Vogue’s role in regards to our bodies, fashion and capitalism is not and has never always been positive, but it is important. Sarah Cheang, in her article ‘To The Ends of the Earth: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot,’ has written that: “The concept of fashion that the Vogue title encapsulates is predicated on a series of interrelated ideas about modernity, cosmopolitanism and individual identity construction in an aspirational consumer culture.”1 These ideas – ideas of fashion and modernity – began their Vogue life in Dorothy Todd’s edited pages. 

Todd’s legacy is entirely intertwined with another woman’s: Madge Garland. Garland’s life is fascinating, and far more documented than Todd’s, but the two met when working together at Vogue. Todd saw Garland’s fashion talent and swiftly promoted her from a lower-ranking position to fashion editor of the magazine. The partnership between the two was far more than merely professional, however; for the duration of their time at British Vogue and possibly around 5 years afterwards, they lived together as a couple in a flat in Chelsea, London. Rosalind Jana, in a recent piece about the pair on the Vogue website, wrote that:

Todd’s vision for Vogue – aided by Garland, who also brought in contributors including photographer Cecil Beaton – was thoroughly modern, unapologetically intelligent, and implicitly queer in both tone and appearance.2 

This modernity, intelligence and queerness in the 1920s can be recognised as precursors to things that have grown in the fashion landscape in the decades since (though not entirely naturally – history is never a steady progression), such as gender ambiguity, women in trousers or shorter length skirts, and fashion as an artistic expression. 

Fig. 1: Dorothy Todd (right) and Madge Garland (left), c. 1930. Photography Madge Garland Archive, Royal College of Art Special Collections. Accessed via vogue.co.uk

Above is a photograph of Todd and Garland. It is the only photograph I have managed to find of Dorothy Todd, and supposedly dates from after her editorship. The pair are clearly on holiday together, which, while adding to our image of them as a couple, doesn’t help us paint a picture of how they lived day to day. Todd, for example, is often described as dressing in a far more masculine way than she does in this photograph. Anne Pender writes about how the couple’s friend and contemporary, Virginia Woolf, thought that they “represented two ends of a spectrum of the feminine: Todd was excessively butch and Garland excessively soft and charming.”3 There is another description of the two that is often quoted, by journalist Rebecca West, and I can’t help but to include it here:

Dorothy Todd was a fat little woman, full of energy, full of genius, I should say. Good editors are rarer than good writers, and she was a great editor, and Madge Garland was her equal. She was a slender and lovely young woman, who could have been a model […]. Together these women changed Vogue from just another fashion paper to being the best of fashion papers.4

We might think now of Todd and Garland’s dynamic being that of a butch/femme relationship. This was a concept that had not fully appeared in the 1920s, with the closest named equivalent being the two types of “sexual inverts” posited by sexologist Havelock Ellis, the “congenital” and “pseudo” inverts. These categories essentially described masculine (active) lesbians and feminine (passive) lesbians, categories which most lesbians now will assert are far from our reality. Some lesbians in the 1920s did, however, find the descriptions appealing because they gave a name and a sort of status to their lifestyles. Two such people were Todd and Garland’s contemporaries, Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall (Hall published the first notable lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, in 1928). Their fashion choices and lives as “inverts” has been written about extensively, most notably by fashion historian Katrina Rolley.5 With the little that is written about the relationship and identities of Todd and Garland, I don’t believe that they should be categorised with the “invert” label, even if they would have been aware of its existence. 

Fig. 2: Una Troubridge (sitting) and Raclyffe Hall, 1927. Photograph from Getty Images via the Guardian. 

It is not so much the fashions worn by Todd and Garland themselves that are important to (lesbian) fashion history, but the fashions that their lesbian selves, alongside their queer friends and colleagues, brought to the pages of Vogue. Christopher Reed writes about this in his 2006 essay ‘A Vogue That Dare Not Speak its Name,’ when he describes how:

Vogue’s frequent allusions to styles and mores associated with emerging sexual subcultures not only kept insiders abreast of developments in these communities, but encouraged a wider audience of fashionable women to identify with a “modern” openness to new ideas.6

In other words, British Vogue, between the years 1922-1926, normalised queerness in mainstream fashion – even if that queerness dare not speak its name. When Dorothy Todd was fired by Condé Nast in 1926 for making the magazine too “bohemian” (which I think we can allow ourselves to read as “too queer”), the work that she had started could not be wiped away. 

After Dorothy Todd was fired from British Vogue, Garland walked out in protest.7 Todd tried to sue Condé Nast for breach of contract, but was told that her “private sins” would be exposed if she did so. We do not know if this referred to her lesbianism or her illegitimate daughter, who she raised as her niece. Lisa Cohen, Garland’s biographer, writes that “The firing and attendant disgrace devastated Todd and Garland.”8 Todd tried to work her way back into the fashion world, but never held any kind of editorial position again. Garland, on the other hand, wrote for other publications until 1933, when she returned to the position of fashion editor at British Vogue until 1940. The relationship between the couple eventually crumbled – we do not, of course, know the intricacies of this, but I think that they were unlikely to have still been together by the time Garland returned to Vogue

Fig. 3: Madge Garland by Cecil Beaton, 1927. Bromide print. Copyright Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London. National Portrait Gallery Primary Collection, bequeathed by Madge Garland, 1991. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Dorothy Todd’s fashion history legacy is indisputable, despite only being in action for four years. Madge Garland’s legacy contrasts with it, though, because she remained in the fashion world. For the rest of her life, she continued to leave her mark on fashion in Britain. After Vogue and after WWII, she helped found the first British degree programme in fashion design at the Royal College of Art. Many years later, when she retired from RCA, she wrote books about fashion history – literally building the fashion history canon. To quote April Callahan and Cassidy Zachary from their podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion, she “emerged as a fashion authority.”9

Fig. 4: Madge Garland criticising a lingerie student’s work, photographed by John Gay, 1952. Royal College of Art, London. From the RCA archive, Copyright National Portrait Gallery/Estate of John Gay. Via Google Arts & Culture.

Despite all of this, she is little known. Dorothy Todd, despite her innovative take on Vogue and the way that she highlighted leading modernist artists and writers, faded to obscurity. Their names may not be shouted from the rooftops, but that does not mean that their work does not have a legacy. Attempts, like this blog post, are being made to restore their place within fashion history: Lisa Cohen writes that she would like “to make them visible again,”10 while Rosalind Jana acknowledges that “the industry remains indebted to [Todd].”11 Madge Garland and Dorothy Todd are not lesbian outliers within the history of fashion. We have to keep finding lesbian fashion history and celebrating it. Whether through the lens of lesbian history, queer history, fashion history or any history at all, the role of lesbians and their clothing deserves to take up space. This is an insistence.

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Endnotes

1: Sarah Cheang, ‘To The Ends of the Earth: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot,’ Fashion Media: Past and Present, Djurdja Bartlett, Shaun Cole and Agnés Rocamora, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) 37.

2: Rosalind Jana, ‘The Forgotten Reign of Radical British Vogue Editor Dorothy Todd Paved The Way For LGBTQIA+,’ Vogue, 30th May 2020. Vogue.co.uk 

3: Anne Pender, ‘’Modernist Madonnas’: Dorothy Todd, Madge Garland and Virginia Woolf,’ Women’s History Review 16.4 (2007): 522.

4: Rebecca West (1972), cited in Lisa Cohen, ‘“Frock Consciousness”: Virginia Woolf, The Open Secret, and the Language of Fashion,Fashion Theory 3.2 (1999): 164.

5: See Katrina Rolley, ‘Cutting a Dash: The Dress of Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge,’ Feminist Review 35 (1990): 54-66.

6: Christopher Reed, ‘A Vogue That Dare Not Speak its Name: Sexual Subculture During the Editorship of Dorothy Todd, 1922-1926,’ Fashion Theory 10.1-2 (2006): 46-47.

7: Pender, ‘Modernist Madonnas,’ 529.

8: Cohen, ‘“Frock Consciousness”’, 167.

9: April Callahan and Cassidy Zachary, ‘Fashion Lovers: Dorothy Todd & Madge Garland’, Dressed: The History of Fashion, 11th Dec. 2018. Podcast.

10: Cohen, ‘“Frock Consciousness,”’ 168.

11: Jana, ‘The Forgotten Reign of Radical British Vogue Editor Dorothy Todd Paved The Way For LGBTQIA+.’

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