A HOMETOWN GIRL REVOLUTIONIZES WHAT'S IN VOGUE by Adrianna Donat
You can take the editor out of Maplewood....
This story spotlights Grace Mirabella, a woman who graduated from Columbia High School and whose professional life reflected the values of our community. She passed away in December 2021. We hope you enjoy learning more about a local visionary.
To Grace Mirabella’s colleagues in the fashion industry, being from New Jersey, and particularly having grown up in Newark, was just short of scandalous.
Despite her associates’ disdain, Grace Mirabella (1929-2021), editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine for 17 years and founder of Mirabella Magazine, embraced her New Jersey roots. She was very proud to be part of the class of 1946 at Columbia High School. In more than one interview she sang the praises of CHS, calling it, “a very good school.” She moved to Maplewood from Newark with her family when she was in junior high school, and spoke happily about playing tennis, going to her favorite local ice cream shop in town with friends, and ironically, failing home economics. Once she graduated, she went on to study economics at Skidmore College.
For Mirabella, being from northern New Jersey may have been the critical point of difference that made her one of the most significant cultural influencers of the 1970s. Unlike her colleagues, who were brought up in wealthy enclaves of Manhattan, Long Island, and even Europe, Mirabella’s past in the solidly middle-class areas of New Jersey made her an outsider. But she was an outsider poised to understand the coming social changes as women joined the work force.
Mirabella started in the world of fashion in the 1950s, where she later described editors who were found in the pages of the social register; most were chosen because they had long legs and high cheekbones. While it was not policy, women were encouraged not to wear glasses. There was a heavy European influence, and the employees were predominantly white. The industry joke was that society parents could send their daughters to college or to Vogue. The benefit of working at Vogue was they would earn “pin money” to amuse themselves on the social scene in New York City.
But Mirabella wasn’t interested in telling debutantes about the latest in European fashion.
In fact, she wasn’t interested in fashion at all.
What did interest her was style.
To Mirabella, saying someone was interested in “fashion” was insulting. “Fashion to me isn’t, and never has been, an end in and of itself. You’ll never find me getting excited about shoulder pads or caring deeply…if hemlines went up or down,” she said in her 1995 memoir, In and Out of Vogue.
“What I’ve always cared about, passionately, is style,” she wrote. “Style is how a woman carries herself and approaches the world. It’s about how she wears her clothes and it’s more: an attitude about living.”
Her idea of style was new when Mirabella came on the scene at Vogue in 1952. She was a middle class girl trying to survive in a high-society world. In her memoir, she mentions learning not to ask what things cost. “What things cost – what one might have to do to earn them – were questions that were dreadfully middle class, and if they arose (if you were smart) you shrugged them off with a gesture of fatigue and boredom.”
Mirabella’s upbringing was important to her as her career progressed. As women joined the work force in the 1960s and 1970s, being middle class and having a middle class lifestyle became vital to a generation of American women.
Working women needed advice on what to wear to work, how to wear it, and how to find clothing that worked with their new lifestyles.
“My idea of a great American style moment would be a woman going in the rain to a big dinner, or running to catch a taxi, not worried the least about her hair or her dress because she doesn’t have to worry any more. She’s not wearing some great beehive hairdo. She’s not wearing six-inch heels. Her hair is so well cut and her clothes move with such ease that suddenly being caught in the rain is not a major drama: she’s not going to be ruined, and she’s not a mess.”
These are not the ideas of someone born and bred to the society pages and debutante balls of Manhattan. They reflect Mirabella’s upbringing as the daughter of a working mom from the New Jersey suburbs. And they set Mirabella up to lead women to a new concept of how to live their lives: no more uncomfortable fashion that kept them from doing what they wanted to do. Mirabella’s mission was to help women create an empowering style all their own.
Her ideas propelled her up the ladder from being a junior editor at Vogue in the mid-1950s to editor-in-chief in 1971.
Under Mirabella, Vogue focused on editorial pieces about health, careers and affordable, stylish clothing for modern women. This was a significant change from Vogue’s previous editorial emphasis on outrageously expensive high fashion that was not available to most Americans.
Her strategy paid off. Under Mirabella, Vogue’s circulation grew from 400,000 to 1.2 million readers, and it boosted its advertising revenue. That was particularly impressive, as Mirabella made the courageous decision to eliminate advertising from tobacco companies years before her competitors did the same.
In another industry-shocking event, Mirabella put the first person of color on the front of a major fashion magazine. Beverly Johnson was the cover girl for Vogue’s August 1974 issue. This seemingly simple act opened the door for models of color to participate in all levels of the world of fashion.
These amazing professional acts are all rooted in Mirabella’s northern New Jersey past. Her refreshing take on women’s style changed the way American women wore clothes and even thought about themselves.
It was clear to Mirabella that her past drove the way she thought, which is why she was often surprised that her background was rarely discussed. Though she spoke about it often, “it somehow never made it into [printed] interviews,” she said.
After her career at Vogue, Mirabella was offered her own publication by Rupert Murdoch. Mirabella launched in 1989 targeted to women interested in an active lifestyle and casual wear. Its namesake stayed at the helm for seven years before retiring.
Grace Mirabella passed away in December 2021, and was posthumously inducted into Columbia High School’s Hall of Fame this spring as a hometown icon whose upbringing in our town helped her liberate women from a world where fashion was more important than living life.
Mirabella was a champion of all women. Next time you, or a woman you know, is able to find clothing that is comfortable, looks good, and suits her lifestyle, send a thought of gratitude to Mirabella.
Adrianna Donat is a freelance writer who celebrated Grace Mirabella’s spirit by writing this while wearing leggings.