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Harry Yoxall – the power behind British Vogue

October 24, 2021

Perhaps it seems a side note too far to write about the managing director and later chairman of Vogue. After all, there must be many such office types who keep the clerical side of things going behind the scenes. Why not write about the secretaries and accountants while I’m at it? But Harry Yoxall formed a pivotal influence in Vogue’s position as one of the top fashion magazines of the 20th century. He was closely involved in its day to day activities, and every big decision about it. 

 

He saw many a Vogue editor in chief come and go and his name comes up with regularity in their memoirs. Yoxall was in charge of British Vogue for over forty years, from 1924- 1964.

 

Capt Harry Waldo Yoxall OBE MC JP was born on the 4 June 1896 in Redditch, UK. His family were well-off, and they had two maids. Yoxall had two sister. HIs father was James Yoxall, a teacher, then headmaster, then the Liberal MP for Nottingham West. Yoxall senior was also a literary journalist, editor of The Schoolmaster magazine, and wrote romantic novels.

 

His mother was  a nurse, a talented woodcarver and played the piano. She was also involved with political, educational and temperance committees and political campaigns for her husband. Yoxall remembers watching the coronation of King Edward VII from inside the palace yard, where, in between watching the parade of dignitaries, he delightedly ate massive amounts of sandwiches, ices and lemonade from the refreshment tent.

Harry Yoxall in uniform (seated front) with his family. Image via One Name Study

Harry Yoxall in uniform (seated front) with his family. Image via One Name Study

Harry Yoxall – Education and Army Commission

He was educated at St Paul’s School and won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, but initially didn’t take it up due to the war. In 1915 he joined the army as a second lieutenant in the18th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (41st Division). He fought on the Western Front and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar. He had many near misses and was relieved to be posted, two years later, as an instructor to the British Military Mission to the United States.

 

Whilst there he met his American wife-to-be, Josephine Baldwin, and they were married a few months later. The couple remained married until death and had two children and three grandchildren.

Harry Yoxall – Oxford Educated (Just About)

Returning to England, Harry Yoxall took up his offer for Balliol, but his appetite for learning had gone after the excitement of war and he only took a short course in economics and political science. He and his wife went back to America, as he had promised her family that they would. He would have liked to earn his living by the pen, but needing to support his wife and an imminent family found a job in advertising instead.

 

In 1921 Yoxall joined Condé Nast Publications in the promotions department. Three years later, Condé Nast cabled from London, where he had been inspecting British Vogue. He found it in poor shape, and demanded that Yoxall come and take charge. A decade later, in 1934, Yoxall was appointed managing director of Condé Nast Publications. From 1957 to 1964 he was Chairman.

 

Ironically, he was not much interested in the whirligig of fashion. As he said in his memoirs, “A Fashion of Life”, “I liked, of course, pretty clothes for women (who doesn’t?) – I like fine textiles, beautiful jewellery, well-designed accessories, attractive hair-styles and make-up. But the semi-annual change in fashion, or quarterly change, as it used to be – never gripped my imagination as it does that of some people, supplying them with the excitement that others find in the form of horses or the rise and fall of shares.”

Cutting Opinions

Nor was he too excited by fashionable people. “I’ve found most of the prominent people I’ve met rather dull in comparison with their reputations, but none more so than those whom the American newspapers call “socialites”. It’s even worse if the fashionable pretend to intellectualism. When they affect general taste it’s usually affectation. Women who have a brilliant sense for clothes, perhaps also for entertaining and even décor, seem to have an unerring flair for the ephemeral and second-rate in art and letters,” were his cutting remarks on the subject.

 

Although Harry Yoxall was not too interested in fashion, the business of fashion was extremely interesting. “The job of building what was a heavily-losing little property into a considerable one paying substantial dividends was a gratifying interest. To see a team grow from thirty persons to, at its zenith, three hundred and fifty; to work with the essential core of solid, responsible colleagues and the still more essential nimbus of inspired lunatics; to have to deal with the emotional problems of a staff preponderantly feminine, whatever its apparent sex; to win so many genial friendships and a few exciting enmities: all this has made for me a life of absorbing application.”

 

And the printing side of the magazine held him enthralled. “Paper, print, engraving – I loved them all… The scent of printer’s ink has always been my favourite perfume.” As well as this, the travel had always been a very attractive part of the job. In fact, he took the job because he had married an American woman. As he was English, he wanted opportunities for travel between the two countries.

Not Merely a Fashion Magazine…

About Vogue itself, he wrote: “Although Vogue has always been primarily a fashion magazine, it has never been merely a fashion magazine. Its bound volumes contain a richer anthology of the art and writing of our times than those of many literary and artistic magazines. Onto what plays and ballets, operas, concerts, art shows, has it not opened magic casements in my forty years?”

Harry Yoxall in his later years. Image via One Name Study

Harry Yoxall in his later years. Image via One Name Study

After retirement, he wrote his memoirs, which were published in 1966 as “A Fashion of Life”. An OBE was awarded to him that year for being the governor of the  Star and Garter Home for Disabled Servicemen. He also became a magistrate and joined many other committees and did a lot of other charitable work. The Daily Telegraph commissioned Yoxall to write a regular column on wine.

 

He also wrote several other books, including Modern Love, 1927, All Abroad, 1928, A Respectable Man, 1935, Journey into Faith, 1963, Forty Years in Management, 1964, The Wines of Burgundy, 1968, rev. edn 1978, Retirement a Pleasure, 1971, The Enjoyment of Wine, 1972. He loved ballet, travel, and good wine, (and after a severe bout of hepatitis, cheerfully admitted to loving prescription sedatives too.) In later life he was a committed Christian. 

 

Two of his wartime diaries are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Harry Yoxall died on the 5 May 1984.

 

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