Looking at a poster of Frank Leslie’s Gazette of Fashion and Fine Needlework from the 1850s is similar to stepping through the looking-glass of women’s fashion magazines. On such a poster one finds the latest hair styles and the most fashionable dresses, jackets, and hats. One hundred and forty years later, if one was to walk past a magazine rack the content would be more or less the same.
As a teenage girl growing up in the twenty-first century, I can recall numerous times I would ask my mom to buy the latest copy of Seventeen or Cosmopolitan. I could not wait to bend the binding and discover new things about femininity: new make-up tricks, new ways to style my hair, tips on how to socialize. My mind would reel at the thought of trying out what I learned as soon as I could; magazines helped me in discovering who I wanted to be. They answered questions I did not dare to voice out loud. If the magazines of today could have such an impact on my life, what sort of effect did magazines of the nineteenth century have on its readers?
As it turns out, The Boston Globe asked the same question back in August of 1877 when they published an article titled “Influence of Magazines.” The consensus of the time was that while magazines did “put your own thoughts into vigorous English” they also created “few writers [that] gleam with bright intelligence” (“Influence of Magazines” 1). In other words, magazines did not produce great works of literary merit; they were soft, light, entertaining, and perhaps detrimental to our intellectual growth.
Looking closer, perhaps these “superficial” magazines hold more merit than given credit. They may not produce epic, legendary documents of the written word but they do capture, in less than one hundred pages, a snapshot of the social order of the time period. Women’s magazines cater to the topics that are most on the minds of their readers. O Magazine is geared towards women that average 47-years-old and promotes a “core mix of advice, spirituality, beauty, fashion, health, lifestyle, and fitness” (“O Positive”). With over two million subscribers, it would seem these topics are at the forefront of the minds of women in today’s world.
As the magazine industry began to hit its stride in the mid-1800s, women’s magazines saw a large growth in publication. Magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Gazette reflected the social issues of the 1850s in that it covered hairstyles, the latest fashions from Paris and London, and housekeeping tips. Women of the upper class would often take clippings from the clothing section of the magazine and bring them to their trusted dressmaker and request a similar looking frock.
The styles exhibited in Frank Leslie’s magazine are curious to look at considering that how a woman dressed said a lot about who she was in the nineteenth century. Women of the middle class straddled the line between having money— and therefore status— and falling into poverty. Christopher Breward discusses this topic in his essay “Femininity and Consumption: The Problem of the Late Nineteenth-Century Fashion Journal” as he describes how families of “lower to middling income spent the greatest portion of family wages on clothing…who put the greatest emphasis on appearance” (Breward 72). If a woman read a magazine that featured the latest in high-style clothing, she could have a dress made that reflected a higher social position and perhaps earn her family more respect, honor, and status. A woman then became the communicator of her family’s social position and the magazines became her guide. Breward explains in his essay that Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion was one of the biggest guides to providing “the greatest possible use and comfort to all womankind” (Breward 73) in 1876.
A similar experience takes place when the people of today open up Vogue or Girl. Flipping through the pages gives readers a guideline for what else is out there in the world of fashion. Whether the featured styles suit one’s tastes or not is part of the experience; one is not expected to wear exactly what is being modeled, but instead to tailor the tastes to fit one’s interests. Luckily enough for people of the twenty-first century, there is no pressure to represent their family’s status.
Contrasting women in the mid-1800s to current women, they are not expected to look a certain way according to our social class. Women now have the luxury of creating, inventing, and experimenting with self-image. Women’s magazines demonstrate the limitless possibilities in creating a self-image that represents who she is at her core. Eclectic expressionism did not exist in the mid-nineteenth century like it does today. Magazines such as Leslie’s Gazette and Myra’s Journal along with dozens of others that permeated the market in the mid to late nineteenth century helped to create a new culture of femininity through the lens of fashion. Publications such as these paved the way to the culture of imagination and creativity that we now take for granted.
The women’s magazines of the past act as a snapshot capturing the elements of social order that we can reflect on today and study to improve our knowledge of history and make room for growth. Magazines preserve the thoughts of a time in history we have a difficult time relating to today; yet if we step through the looking glass we find that we are not so different and we have women of the past to thank for how we dress today. The continuity of the human experience spans centuries, crosses clothing styles, and ties us together.
Breward, Christopher. “Femininity and Consumption: The Problem of the Late Nineteenth-Century Fashion Journal”. Journal of Design History. Vol 7, No. 2. (1994). Oxford University Press. Web. 28 January 2015.
Citations: O’Leary, Noreen. “O Positive”. Adweek, Eastern Edition 42.10. March 5, 2001. ProQuest. Web. 28 January 2015.
“Influence of the Magazines”. Boston Daily Globe. 10 August 1877. ProQuest. Web. 28 January 2015.
Steele, Valerie. “Victorian Fashion.” Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 51-84. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Lynn M. Zott. Vol. 128. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.