MUCH IS KNOWN about the arc of Lee Miller’s career: her early modelling for Vogue; her partnership (both professional and romantic) with Man Ray, a leading surrealist artist; the establishment of her own studio in New York and, most significantly, her photographs taken on the front lines of the second world war. She was one of four female photographers accredited with the American army and she witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. Hours before Adolf Hitler committed suicide, she posed in the bathtub in his apartment in Munich.

A new exhibition at Farleys House and Gallery—the Sussex home of Miller and her second husband, Roland Penrose—explores a stage in her career that is mysterious by comparison. Between 1939 and 1944 Miller produced fashion photography for British Vogue, bringing her absurdist sensibilities to bear on hats and frocks. It is the first time this body of work has been displayed publicly: the magazine had turned its archives into pulp in 1942 amid paper shortages. The images were reprinted from negatives only recently catalogued by the Lee Miller Archives.

Miller had left Egypt, where she had been living with Aziz Eloui Bey, her first husband, as conflict erupted. “When I got to London, the day of the war here, September 3rd 1939. I’d barely settled into Hampstead when Condé Nast (British Vogue) collared me and I found myself running their studio,” she later wrote. The photos Miller produced in this period covered more than 400 magazine pages. “She has borne the whole weight of our studio production through the most difficult period in Brogue’s history,” Audrey Withers, then editor of British Vogue, wrote in the summer of 1941.

Miller was not just taking pictures, however: the Ministry of Information was leaning on women’s magazines to become instruments of propaganda. Miller was charged with making the government messaging—make do and mend, be economical, stay fit and healthy—visually appealing. “Your autumn suit will be devoid of trimming, tailored on austerity lines. Your hat will follow suit,” Vogue told its readers. The edict was playfully illustrated with five women photographed as Queen of Hearts playing cards. Next to a striking shot of disembodied stockinged legs resting on a mantelpiece, readers are urged to opt for sturdy cotton lisle, as pictured, rather than delicate rayon. “Stockings, you’ll agree, are the principle [sic] problem raised by rationing.”

After British women kept getting their long hair caught in factory machines, sustaining grim scalping injuries in the process, Miller had to make short and tied-back hair seem fashionable. In a feature titled “Fashion for Factories”, Miller shows a woman at work, her hair wrapped in a cloth turban, her profile as poised and chic as any glamour model.

Withers and Miller, a “formidable duo”, took this chance to “do their bit” with vigour, says Ami Bouhassane, Miller’s granddaughter and the co-director of Farleys House and Gallery. The artist’s playful eye enlivened the dull and potentially dispiriting messages, on occasion making the frugal look outright glamorous. Much of this she did with illusions and allusion. In one image the scalloped front of a simple outfit mimics the decorative bands of a stone urn. In another, the lines on the trunks of a tree emphasise the black-and-white pattern of a coat. Among the most eye-catching photographs in the show is of a woman in lingerie: Miller used double exposure so that the model looks as if she is catching alight. Such techniques brought the ordinary and the extraordinary into harmony.

How did Miller, a surrealist and non-conformist, feel about being the mouthpiece of the British government? “The surrealists weren’t just about being non-conformist: in their manifesto they were political as well,” says Ms Bouhassane. “She and Audrey Withers very much wanted to push the narrative because they wanted to support the war, and they saw that was the wider picture.” Yet Miller did come to find the work challenging, writing to her parents that her efforts for the “frivolous paper” were “good for the country’s morale” but “hell” for her own. In 1943 she sought accreditation as a war correspondent; a year later she started submitting photo-essays to British Vogue of the war itself.

The images from this period, then, not only reveal Miller’s influence on British wartime fashion, profound though that influence was. They also offer a glimpse of how she trained her surrealist eye to conflict, dutifully reporting the messages and events of war.

“Lee Miller: Fashion in Wartime Britain” continues at Farleys House and Gallery until August 8th