The July 2020 front cover of British Vogue celebrated three workers on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. Photographer Jamie Hawkesworth captured Narguis Horsford, a train driver on the London Overground; Rachel Millar, a 24-year-old community midwife in East London; and Anisa Omar, a 21-year-old supermarket worker in King’s Cross. Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful described the three women as representing “the millions of people in the UK who, at the height of the pandemic, in the face of dangers large and small, put on their uniforms and work clothes and went to help people”.
The cover was a powerful move from Vogue, a moment to celebrate the heroes fighting the virus head first, by putting themselves at risk, day in and out to keep the wheels of society in motion. The cover acts as an essential archive that signifies just how impactful COVID-19 has and will be in every industry.
At present, the cover provides readers of Vogue with the chance of seeing and learning about people just like them. The three women on the cover likely never imagined gracing the cover of Vogue, which gives it a new form of accessibility. Often the models on the cover of these magazines represent a look, body type, lifestyle and confidence that is simply unimaginable for most readerships, which is of course somewhat its appeal. This separation feels less imminent here; we don’t know these women, but it feels like we could. Showcasing the ‘everyday’ person, but on the cover of the most famous fashion magazine in the world, creates a beautiful balance of showing the courage, beauty and heroic nature of being an ‘everyday’ person.
The cover is undoubtedly a great decision from Enninful and his directory currently should be aspired to generally by other editors in the industry. However, it is questionable whether this will be simply an iconic moment for magazines or a new direction for Vogue entirely. I hope it’s the latter. We want to think that one day, we will no longer be in this pandemic – a new normal. And the state of fashion itself, let alone fashion magazines, has the opportunity for a significant shift. Will this new good faith by Vogue continue? Or will we return to having models with unattainable figures, bank balances and lifestyles? Will we still desire this idolisation of grandeur and fantasy in the fashion media we consume?
People like Rachel, Narguis and Anisa, even if not working on the frontline against a deadly disease, should continue to be recognised by the likes of Vogue and beyond for their contributions to public service. Otherwise, the suggestion is that the usual Vogue aesthetic is only alterable when women are making enormous sacrifices for others.
Vitally, more needs to be done for people working in roles such as public health, transport and the food industry, etc. In 2017, MPs voted against an amendment that would mean the Government would end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise. Boris Johnson himself voted against this, and would a mere three year later be thanking those same NHS nurses he went against for saving his life.
While symbolic gestures such as this from Vogue are significant, they are just that, symbolic. There needs to be change on a structural level within the industries and communities in which people like the cover stars work. And not only when the heroic action occurs in unprecedented times, but in better times too.
– Isabelle Gray
All images are original.