Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dissing Models, Victorian Style

I bought 300 pounds (in monetary terms) worth of the Girls' Friendly Society's monthly newsletter, Friendly Leaves. I'm sure the bookseller thought that he would never live to offload ten bound volumes of them from 1898-1909. Especially as it was a scientific and technical bookshop in Wales where demand for an Anglican Church girls' group's newsletter was unlikely to be raging. And extra especially because it's not a particularly exciting read. (Quite a few years are edited by Christabel Coleridge, constant reader Kris, so I'm happy to share the tedium around.)

Amidst the preaching, advertisements for workers, and marriage and death notices (it's shocking to see how regularly women died in their twenties and thirties- they have the death column in every issue of a publication for a girl's society), were a few fun gems. The best, from February 1899, begins with an explanation of why the magazine does not include fashion plates (illustrations of the latest clothing styles).

Do you know, girls, we are sometimes asked why we don't have more about 'the fashions' in Friendly Leaves ? I think that it would be a great pity to take up our tiny space with fashion plates and notes, when there are so many nice little penny magazines which give such useful ones. We have got other things to talk about. Home Notes and Home Chat and Mothers and Daughters , and many others, give really nice hints how to make one's things look pretty without too much expense, and the pictures help us to carry the directions out. But oh, my dear girls, how dreadful it would be if sweet pretty maidens really could make themselves look like fashion plates! Do you know that they are nearly all monsters? A real woman's figure ought to be seven times the height of her own head. That is the perfect proportion, but I have seen fashion figures into which you could get ten or even twelve heads without any difficulty. They would not be able to walk in at the door....Then the necks! Some of them look as if the girl's head had been cut off and sewn on again, and had to be kept in place by a tight band. And the waist! But I won't forestall what will be said about that in 'The Way to be Well'.

The description of the illustrated clothing models is none too dissimilar from how many people describe catwalk models today, or from the discussions about Barbie's body weight rendering her unable to menstruate (or walk, quite possibly). I was surprised to see this kind of recognition that the fashion world is not reality and can even be seen as grotesque in a turn-of-the-century publication. Incidentally, 'The Way to be Well' didn't have anything useful to offer about waists, but provides a solemn warning not to place 'pig-styes' and 'manure heaps' close to one's house.


Kris said...

So, I'm completely, ridiculously excited to hear that my buddy Christabel has edited some of the GFS numbers. Thanks for sharing. And I have to imagine (despite your tedium), that it is actually quite interesting reading. The observation about the obituaries is fascinating since it speaks loudly about the dangers of childbirth even at the end of the century. I somehow thought that was a much earlier phenomenon.

Have fun! What's this for, anyway? Or are you just randomly purchasing girls' periodicals?

Michelle Smith said...

It's really quite sad to read the obituaries. I'm not sure of how big the membership of the GFS was at this time, but there are always at least ten deaths each month. Usually almost as many as the marriages.

This madness originated from Mavis's suggestion that I needed to see the ways emigration was framed in Friendly Leaves for my paper on Australian girls. There is definitely much more on Canadian emigration in terms of the regular column advising girls when ships would be leaving, the conditions, skills required etc. and even a few longer articles on life in Canada. There's nothing like this on Australia, unfortunately.

But I think I now have the only copies of Friendly Leaves in Australia as I could only find one year listed when searching all Australian libraries. In any case, I will save them for your eager attention.