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Vogue Magazine Front Cover Analysis Essay

Vogue has been hailed as the world’s most influential fashion magazine since its debut in 1892. Yale Librarians Peter Leonard and Lindsay King are now becoming Vogue experts — not because of their interests in next season’s fashion, but because of the extensive efforts to digitize the magazine’s entire record.

Since Vogue’s inaugural issue on Dec. 17, 1892, it has published more than 400,000 pages of fashion and lifestyle articles. Now, everything from feature stories to advertisements has been digitally labeled with critical information including photographers, image features, and product brands and names.  

Leonard, King, and other Yale researchers and digital humanists are now using modern computer algorithms to dive through Vogue’s culturally, artistically, and textually rich electronic record in order to ask new and meaningful questions about the evolution of fashion and culture in the media.

Starting with words

“How well do you know fashion terms of the 1920s?” asked Leonard as he compared the use of words like “frock” and “dress” over time using a system called “Bookworm.” Similar to Google Ngrams, Bookworm generates graphs to illustrate the frequency of single words in Vogue over time, and under different editors. This enables Leonard and King to track not only how the linguistics of fashion have evolved, but also how other cultural norms and ideas have morphed in popular media.

A comparison of the usage of “women” and “girls” shows that “girls” cyclically falls out of favor — today, “girls” is most often used in reference to models, notes King. While this verbal change may be indicative of a paradigm shift in the female image, she said, it offers a starting point for more in-depth analysis.

 “We want to let the data organize itself,” explained Leonard, noting that he aims to create tools that will allow users to ask better questions instead of searching for a digital needle in a haystack.

Bringing words into context

Collecting trends for individual words can leave you with a Jackson Pollock-like map of evolving cultural history. To start connecting these dots in a comprehensive way, Leonard and King turned to a statistical tool known as “topic modeling,” which evaluates the frequency of words and categorizes those that are commonly associated with one another to create a topic. Using this technique allowed Leonard and King to find groups of words like “doctor,” “health,” and “women,” revealing that women’s health once held a prominent place in Vogue.

“I would have never known to search for these topics, but the topic modeling algorithm tells you what to look for,” explains King. “It’s like magic.”

A picture is worth 1,000 words

Black-and-white text, however, is not what grabs your eye as you pass Vogue on the newsstand. Rather it is the bright colors and striking faces on the cover that draw your attention. Focusing on text alone would neglect the artistic richness of the magazine, notes Leonard, so he used color as his starting point for another type of analysis: color.

By the 1900s, color images had replaced their black-and-white counterparts. Focusing on the covers between 1911 and 1951, Leonard digitally analyzed the covers to identify the five most prevalent colors on each cover image. With this information, he created an iPad tool that allows users to see how the use of these colors changed over time and to see which cover images use specific colors.

Even though color images were available, Leonard found that during the first half of the 20th century, covers primarily featured more muted tones such as grey, slate, and silver. More vibrant colors such as hot pink and midnight blue were prominently used only a handful of times.

The images laced throughout the 400,000 pages of Vogue amassed to five terabytes of data and took nine days to transfer onto a desktop computer.

Analyzing the remainder of the images proved to be a more substantial technical challenge. To help analyze the terabytes of graphics data, Leonard and King turned to Holly Rushmeier, a computer science professor at Yale with an interest in computer graphics and computational tools for cultural heritage.

Rushmeier, in turn, enlisted the help of David Li ‘14 and Christiana Wong ‘14, two students working on their senior projects in the computer science department, to explore the graphics.

Their first challenge was simply getting the data. The images laced throughout the 400,000 pages of Vogue amassed to five terabytes of data and took nine days to transfer onto a desktop computer.

Li organized the image data — a more challenging task than it may seem. Unlike the Vogue covers, which took up an entire page, many of the other images and advertisements did not. Li drew upon his computer science education to identify and extract individual images and the important content tags associated with each image in XML code.

These XML code tags provide critical information, including the year of the image, the main content of the image, and classification as an advertisement or editorial content. Having text to describe each image allowed Li to create a search engine specifically for Vogue images that allows users to easily navigate the wealth of visual data.

As Rushmeier discovered, shifts in cultural opinions can happen at any time. She demonstrated the capabilities of Li’s search engine using the term “fur” applied to images published in the 1970s. Instead of exotic furs or runway images of haute couture that you might expect to find in Vogue, the images that resulted from the search were actually of furniture. Tweaking the time frame of the search to the early 1900s, however, returned numerous images of full fur coats and other fur products that you might expect.

Scanning through the images, a cigarette advertisement catches Rushmeier’s eye, and she is off to the next image search for “Marlboro.”

“As you can see, you start getting lost in the data really quickly,” said Rushmeier.

The women of Vogue

Of all the images in Li’s search engine, one type of image in particular piqued Wong’s interest: women’s faces. Although Wong earned her degree in applied mathematics, she has also become interested in the portrayal of women in the media.

The plethora of photographs of female faces in Vogue offered Wong the opportunity to hone her computer science skills and contribute to the growing investigation into “faceism” and its role in depicting gender in the media.

While we may not recognize it, research has shown that we often assume characteristics such as intelligence, ambition, and attractiveness simply based on how a face is displayed in an image. To quantitate this idea, those studying the portrayal of women have created a “faceism index” — a measure of how faces are presented and how that connects with our subconscious assumptions.

“Men are often presented with more prominent features, whereas women are shown with smaller faces,” explained Wong. The larger, generally male, faceism indexes tend to evoke more positive responses from viewers, she adds.

“The link between larger faces and the perception of more confidence really intrigued me, and I wanted to use the information from Vogue to bridge a gap in our understanding. I wanted to see how the prominence of women’s faces changed over time,” said Wong.

Building off of Li’s image database, Wong used facial recognition software to scan nearly 1 million images. The result was 287,970 images of faces. She then used her program to detect the eyes, nose, and mouth in each pictured face. With the coordinates of the predominant facial features on the page, Wong rapidly calculated the faceism index for each of the nearly 300,000 images.

Don’t judge a magazine by its cover

What Wong found may not surprise avid Vogue readers — Vogue is on the leading edge of a continually changing female image.

While the facial perspective in images was highly dependent on the editor-in-chief at the time, Wong found that the 1960s marked the beginning of a steady rise in female facial prominence on Vogue covers, or in other terms, a higher faceism index. The concurrent second wave of feminism during the 1960s may have been the impetus for Vogue’s stylistic changes, but Wong believes that more research is needed before that can be concluded.

Wong compared the Vogue cover images to advertisements in the magazine with a particular focus on female cosmetics. As Vogue’s covers more prominently featured female faces, companies like Clinique, Estee Lauder, and Almay strayed away from that trend. Over time, the female images within the body of Vogue remained constant, even as the covers evolved.

What’s next for Yale’s exploration of Vogue?

In addition to her research with faces, Wong is interested in gender and body position in popular media. A subject’s pose also speaks to a reader’s subconscious — lying horizontally evokes associations with submissive behavior, for instance, while upright angles display dominance. Historically, women tend to be pictured in more submissive roles than men.

While Wong and Li graduated from Yale in May, the field of digital humanities and the exploration of the Vogue record are only just beginning.

“These digital records are an entry point,” explains King. “It is a totally new field and offers new directions for scholars with potentially huge implications.”

“We need someone to ask the right questions, then we can come up with the tools for the answer,” added Rushmeieir.

With the start of the new academic year, Rushmeier is seeking new and curious students interested in using computer science to explore these digital archives and to help find out what is truly in Vogue.

For more information on the results of these studies, Leonard and King have compiled much of the work done at Yale in Robots Reading Vogue.


Arts & Humanities

Science & Technology

Adele Atkins graced the cover of Vogue’s October 2011 edition in light of the release of her newest album, 21. The young, successful singer uses the worldwide publicity of featuring in a magazine- particularly the front cover- as a factor in her promotional campaign. Her appearance on the magazine’s front cover will have increased sales for both her newest LP and Vogue magazine itself; this is due to the singer and magazine having similar demographics. This target audience (or demographic) is a young to middle-aged woman, most commonly between socio-economic class B-D.

Vogue is an extremely popular lifestyle and high-end fashion magazine which focuses on the latest trends and often features articles of up-and-coming artists (and fashion icons), like Adele. The stylish nature of Vogue- literally meaning popular fashion- is showed in its masthead where a serif typeface has been used to depict class. The serif font used for the subtext in the puffs also evidences the ‘chic’ way Vogue presents itself.

A medium to close-up shot of Adele has been used, which is both artistic and easily recognisable as the singer; she is also looking directly into the camera lens. This direct mode of address is used to establish a personal connection between Adele and the reader. This is a common convention of Vogue magazine- and most magazines in the fashion and lifestyle genre- as it can play a factor in persuading a potential reader to buy the magazine once combined with Adele’s level of fame. This image of Adele is also the only picture used on the cover, displaying her importance and appeal toward Vogue’s main audience.

Predominantly blue and orange have been used on the front cover of this edition, mostly because they are contrasting colours which are often used to draw attention to a magazine. Although blue if often associated with a more male demographic, the softer shade of blue of Adele’s dress, which is reflected in the background, has stronger connotations of calm and depth, which are major themes in Adele’s music. White has been used for the puffs as a contrast to the darker blue background.

Adele’s makeup is neutral reflecting the how the singer is not trying to be ground-breaking or elaborate; she would rather portray a more feminine and sophisticated woman than an artist using bright colours in their promotional campaigns to draw attention. Adele is dressed in a fashionable way, due to the high-end nature of Vogue which is also appealing to a female demographic keen to find out what Adele is wearing in the magazine editorial. The lack of bright colours attracts an older audience.

Furthermore, the anchorage text used, (‘Adoring Adele’) gives the impression the article will include remarks about Adele’s personal life as this breaks down the ‘celebrity’ persona which places a wall between the artist and the reader- this also relates to how Adele looks directly into the camera as if to address the reader.

In turn, the anchorage text underneath, ‘Hometown girl goes global’, whilst cleverly using play-on-words by linking the line to one of Adele’s first singles ‘Hometown Glory’, demonstrated how Adele is keen to show that anyone can become a sensation globally, like she has. The artist has always been eager to make references to her hometown often in her music and this is reflected in this subtitle chosen.

Persuading a potential reader into buying the magazine, buzz words have been used including ‘man of the moment’ and ‘essentials’. These word choices are effective in forcing the reader to believe that they need the product featured as it is classified as an ‘essential’ by Vogue.

Rolling in the Deep- Music Video Analysis

Winner of three prestigious 2012 Grammy Awards including Song of the Year, ‘Rolling in the Deep’ has arguably become Adele’s signature song. Having been recently certified as the highest selling digital song by a female artist, the song’s accompanying video has been watched over a quarter of a billion times on YouTube. Receiving seven MTV Video Music Award nominations, the ‘Rolling in the Deep’ video has become Adele’s most critically acclaimed yet.

Although not as clear as other music videos, ‘Rolling in the Deep’ is a narrative video, where the story is conveyed through use of stark metaphors. However, there are also performance aspects as Adele is seated, miming throughout the video. The song represents a love between Adele and her ex-partner that, through turmoil and many heated arguments, has shattered to pieces and this is demonstrated during the video where metaphors can be generated from each individual shot.

The video begins with Adele seated; the mise-en-scene is extremely dull featuring only neutral colours with a heavy contrast between the black of Adele’s dress and the white background. The fact that Adele is seated throughout the video could symbolise defiance which is one of the issues faced in the song. She could also be seated as to focus the entirety of the music video on her voice instead of her appearance or (lack of) dance. Adele is dressed in a sophisticated way, showing the growth and change from her previous album 19; the singer’s clothing in the Vogue front cover also reinforces how Adele has matured both appearance-wise and musically.

Furthermore, the constant use of black and white colours demonstrates connotations of a fight between good/evil- relating to the message of the song. Like the metaphorical way to show defiance, there are other metaphors scattered obviously throughout the video. For example, the repetitive breaking of plates could connote how often Adele fought with her partner: each plate representing a different fight.

‘Rolling in the Deep’ also depicts a dancer dressed in a Samurai costume, distorting the air with a substance like powder. This blotching of the air could metaphorically represent the deformity in her relationship; how she cannot see clearly where the relationship is going.

Becoming a more commonly used convention in modern music videos, artists often depict the story they are telling throughout their song via use of stark metaphors during their video. The visuals used in ‘Rolling in the Deep’ are often metaphorical and not strictly blatant, although are often used to reinforce, magnify and reiterate the lyrical meaning.

Flowing with the heavy drumbeat of the song, the (most commonly midshot) shots change rapidly in time with the beat. This form of editing is common in narrative videos because it is emotive; as the song’s beat and tempo changes the editing reflects this. The editing is fastest during the chorus, where the beat is fastest.

Because Adele is the central figure featured, her shots are often close-ups so the singer is easily recognisable. The camera is mostly sturdy and panning shots are rarely used. However, as most of the shots focusing on Adele are close-ups, panning shots are used when retreating from the singer to show the full set, further emphasising how alone Adele is.

Like in her Vogue magazine editorial, Adele is portrayed as a young, sophisticated and relatable lady dressed in simplistic black attire in the video.