A friend of The Frump Factor, the inimitable Maggie T, recently drew my attention to some interesting online content created a few years back for Harper’s Bazaar’s 140th Anniversary.
Now, I’m sure the rest of the Fashion Industrial Complex was all over this story when it originally occurred, back in 2007. But this blog wasn’t around then; in fact, I didn’t even know fashion blogs existed. (Did they?) And while I did occasionally read Harper’s, it wasn’t one of the subscriptions that I hoarded, in secret shame, from friends and loved ones who – I was convinced — only read literary works of great intellectual significance.
So the “140 Years of Harper’s” content was brand new to me. I hope it’s new to many of my readers, as well, because it’s a delightful way to spend a little time. Starting in 1867, the magazine spans era after oh-so-stylish era. By perusing the magazine’s covers, you can see the evolution of so many different things: fashion, art, photography, modeling, and of course, women’s roles. It’s a treasure trove for historians and social scientists of many types, I would imagine. From my seat as an amateur cultural observer, I noticed the following:
1) Apparently, there was an Era Before Euphemisms. In 1902, Harper’s thought nothing of promoting “Fashion for Old Ladies.” No seasoned women of a certain age here! I imagine this was also the era when ladies introduced themselves as Mrs. Insert-Last-Name-Here, not even cringing at the sound of “Ma’am.”
2) Before Sports Illustrated, the “swimsuit cover” was a very different animal. An 1876 cover shows a ladies’ swim costume: a dress-type garment with short sleeves, belted, and layered over bloomers. The outfit also features strappy shoes, laced all the way up to the knees, and is topped off with an adorable little hat. Now we are talking! I don’t want to hear any more crap about swimsuit diets. (Tankini, my ass!)
3) Overdoing trends is apparently nothing new, nor is poking fun at fashion excess. A cartoon about the raging 1870′s “fan trend” shows two women in formal gowns, seated in an elegant parlor, holding giant fans that hide their entire upper bodies and heads. (The caption reads, “What next?”) Now, I don’ t know about you, but there are mornings when I wouldn’t mind one of those face-obscuring fans.
4) Then as now, the line between artistic and creepy was a fine one. A 1951 photo “collage” showing pairs of elegant gloves, in cheery pastel colors, alongside Diana Vreeland’s own impeccably manicured hands? Fabulous! An assortment of sleeve designs, depicted in line drawings that look like free-floating, dismembered arms? Not so much.
5) As in today’s magazines, vintage issues of Harper’s include items I wish I could wear (sky-high heels), items I’d wear if only I had an occasion (a 1920′s flapper-style gown with beads); and items I would never, ever wear (anything involving a corset. There was a lot of that, apparently, back in the day).
6) The first photographed model appeared on a Harper’s Bazaar cover in 1888. Could the first airbrush artist be far behind? If only that poor young woman knew the reality-TV carnage that her profession would spawn!
7) Lingerie sets from 1906 were more modest than much of my summer wardrobe.
8) So many of these magazine covers are just so, so gorgeous. Do we ever truly appreciate the artistry of our time? Did readers notice the elegant illustrations, the exciting layouts, and the vibrant splashes of astonishing color? Or did they just see magazine covers?
True, many of the featured covers were produced by people now recognized as great artists. You can see drawings by Andy Warhol, including an array of colorful strappy shoes and an “explosion” of beauty products floating upward from a decorative box. There is a 1912 cover by French illustrator Georges Barbier that almost takes my breath away. Others echo the artistic trends of the time, including early 20th century Dadaism and 1950s modernism.
I have to wonder — will today’s magazine covers ever seem so beautiful, when removed from their original marketing context and viewed as pure aesthetics? Do we just tune them out because they are all around us? Or do they really not make them like they used to?
9) In case you hadn’t learned this from reading The Feminine Mystique, magazines have been giving advice to women for a long, long time. The nature of that advice reveals something about the era, maybe, or about the values of those writing the advice, or — and I think this is more to the point — what the writers imagine to be meaningful or significant to their perceived demographic, even if it is completely, woefully unrealistic for most women.
In its 140 years, Harper’s Bazaar has offered advice from the lofty (how to manage a summer home; what gowns to wear in Newport) to the mundane (throw a Japanese hair stick in your hair! Wear diamond stars like the Duchess of Kent!) Conspicuously absent from this advice is “don’t rely on advice from others” or “spend less money on clothing and accessories.”
Which brings us to my last observation:
10) I suspect the only path to sanity is, and always has been, not to emulate the women in magazines, at least not too much. My great-grandmothers were amazing women, I’m told, but they were probably nothing like the woman on the cover of Harper’s Thanksgiving edition in 1894. Not only is she flawlessly dressed — flowers in her hair, and not a hair out of place — but she’s also serving up a perfectly cooked turkey.
Are today’s magazines really any more realistic in their expectations of us? True, they now acknowledge women’s professional lives, as well they should. But doesn’t that just mean there’s a longer list of things we’re supposed to do perfectly? Why, that woman just spearheaded a billion-dollar corporate merger! And then she prepared that free-range, locally sourced turkey with gluten-free stuffing!
So let’s remember that magazines are fantasy. We can choose what to imitate, adapt, or ignore. We can say, for example, “Today, I will be gorgeously coiffed OR perfectly dressed. I will look good OR I will cook.” Or, “I’ll wear whatever the hell I want, and we’ll get takeout, because this is my first day off in weeks.”
We’ve come a long way, baby. Thank you, Maggie T, for the reminder.