Described by the blurb as ‘[a] rich, personal, honest and sharply observed account of life lived at the centre of British fashion and cultural life’, I was very much looking forward to reading Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Shulman has edited British Vogue since 1992; this book covers the magazine’s centenary celebrations, starting in September 2015 and ending on 23 June 2016, focusing on the various celebratory events associated with the milestone. Presented as a diary, the degree of editing that has taken place is not entirely clear. The book features a mix of personal, professional and social insights, with varying degrees of candour. Although not above making slightly waspish (and enjoyable) observations about well-known individuals, she is less forthcoming about more influential figures, such as Karl Lagerfeld – understandably perhaps, but her reticence indicates that the diary is not as frank as the blurb implies. Nevertheless, this would not have detracted from my enjoyment of the book if it had been better written. For someone one who has edited one of the most famous publications in the world, Shulman’s opinions and responses are surprisingly unsophisticated. On several occasions she refers to friends with cancer as a way of showing that she has her own stress in perspective; at one point she refers to a photographer shooting the Duchess of Cambridge while his father is seriously ill in hospital as ‘one of those examples where something terrible is happening simultaneously with something wonderful’ (p. 67), a sentiment which seems only a notch above a Facebook ‘like if you agree’ platitude. Furthermore, the glamorous milieu in which Shulman moves notwithstanding, the diary is often rather dull. At one point we are treated to an account of the CEO of Net-a-Porter’s hotel preferences (p. 82); I’m not sure why. Her powers of expression are curiously limited. Describing an up-and-coming designer, she claims that ‘[i]t amazes me how these young designers continually come up with new ideas and push on in such an upbeat way’ (p. 160), an observation so bland that I re-read it several times, suspecting some hidden irony (there was none). Elsewhere she describes Hilary Benn as being ‘preternaturally opposed’ (p. 63) to bombing Syria where I think she probably means ‘naturally’ or ‘instinctively’. These observations may seem petty, but I expected more from a woman living life ‘at the centre of British […] cultural life’. Occasionally Shulman touches on interesting or controversial issues, but repeatedly fails to engage or explain in any meaningful way. At one point, she complains that ‘[p]eople outside my business can never understand why the magazine features impossibly beautiful, thin models […] Or why we don’t photograph the clothes on women of more diverse ages’ (p. 82) – surely this book provides the perfect opportunity to explain? Elsewhere she claims that ‘I also find it depressing how little some of our most junior staff are earning’ (p. 87), without offering any explanation or sense that it could or should be changed. All in all, I found Inside Vogue unsatisfying and struggled to finish it. Sometimes the details of the most unremarkable life can make fascinating reading (I found A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield, utterly compelling) but Shulman’s diary, despite the author’s glamorous job and connections, was actually rather dull.
ps. John Crace’s ‘Digested Read‘ of this book in The Guardian isn’t that much of an exaggeration.