Saturday, May 5, 2012

Beauty in Victorian Women's Magazines: Part Two

London Morning & Fall Dress
Lady's Magazine, August 1810
In my second post on beauty in Victorian women's magazines, I'd like to consider how British women's magazines came to focus on fashion and appearance such that the beauty advertisements in my earlier post slotted in seamlessly within an already existing genre of women's print culture. The origins of what we recognise as a women's magazine rest at the end of the eighteenth century, yet it was in the nineteenth century that magazines moved to a central place in popular reading. Part of the reason why magazines became so prolific, profitable and important to advertisers was because publishers began to target women readers as a specific audience.

A small number of titles intended especially for women were published in the eighteenth century, such as the Lady's Magazine or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement (1770) (from which we can see a hand-coloured engraved fashion plate here, a feature which the magazine popularised in England). But most periodicals were directed at the household generally or were intended for men, such as the The Gentleman's Magazine (1731). Other magazines of the period had strong affiliations with church groups and were therefore uninterested in discussing fripperies such as clothing and hairstyles.

Court Dress, Gallery of Fashion, July 1794
In the 1790s, a number of specialised publications devoted to fashion began to appear, such as the Gallery of Fashion (1794) and the Magazine of Female Fashions of London and Paris (1798). These magazines encouraged existing magazines for the women's market, such as the Lady's Magazine, to pay greater attention to fashion coverage amid the usual content of short stories, serial fiction, poetry, essays on modesty, advice for wives and mothers, recipes, biographies of famous figures and local and international news reports.

Dress and appearance entered the women's magazine as "fashion" through the inclusion of reports of what was being worn by court ladies in London and in Paris. As Margaret Beetham explains in A Magazine of Her Own?, this type of content "was to become a staple of women's magazines for the next 200 years and has entered deeply into the ideology of gender" (31). From the nineteenth century, then, women have learned through women's magazines and how they present and construct ideas about women's dress and appearance how to be appropriately feminine.

La Belle Assemblee, 1809
La Belle AssemblĂ©e or Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies, which began publication in February 1806 and continued until 1837, was the first popular interest fashion magazine. It was an expensive publication at 2 shillings and six pence for each edition, which was reflected in its elaborate production values and high-quality engraved portraits. In addition to fashion, the magazine also featured intellectual content pertaining to science, biography and political news to develop its female readers' knowledge.  This mixture of article types was common until around the 1820s when La Belle AssemblĂ©e, and women's magazines more generally, began to increase the quantity of fashion and domestic articles designed to entertain and intellectual and literary content was reduced.

Young Ladies' Journal, January 1881
While women's status was undergoing a seismic shift through higher education and the opening up of careers outside the home later in the century, many women’s magazines do not mirror these changes and are devoid of content about intellectual matters, education or employment. The Young Ladies’ Journal , which was published from 1864 to 1920, focused on news of Paris fashions, patterns for needlework,  recipes, correspondence, household tips, court gossip, fiction, and sentimental poetry. Like other women's magazines of the time, Katherine Ledbetter argues that the Young Ladies' Journal “models feminine beauty in relation to [a woman's] traditional role in domestic ideology as a potential partner to a young man” (British Victorian Women's Periodicals 135). A woman's beauty, or her ability to cultivate her appearance to fit beauty ideals, were an indicator of her ability to be a successful wife and mother.

Homes Notes, July 1894
One of the most influential books about beauty was published in 1836 and was entitled Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Women. The author, Alexander Walker, identified three main kinds of classic beauty in women: the locomotive type, which was “striking and brilliant”; the Vital or Nutritive type which was “soft and voluptuous”; and the Thinking Beauty who displayed “intellectuality and grace”. Walker suggested that the expanded bosom and “general plumpness” of Nutritive Beauty was more aesthetically pleasing than the other types, but these features were also symbolic of women's proper mothering role. Ideas about women's maternal beauty often inspired angelic connotations, as in this cover from Home Notes from 1894 that uses the familiar phrase "The Hand that rocks the Cradle Rules the World" to suggest women's maternal influence on the next generation. (And you can't miss that she's surrounded by nature in the form of flowers and a bird.)

While I am just starting to think about how women's beauty is understood in the Victorian period, there is no doubt that we have abandoned the phase of admiration for the "plumpness" of Nutritive Beauty. Men no longer consider outward signs of a woman's ability to bear and nurture children, such as wide hips or sufficient body fat, as integral to sexual allure. Indeed an extremely thin woman with artificial breasts that may even hinder mothering are what are most often found on the covers of men's magazines today. Though I've yet to look at men's magazines at all, I'm of the understanding that women aren't featured on their covers in the nineteenth century as they are today. How do we move from maternal beauty as an ideal? And how do images of women end up selling magazines for both men and women? These are some of the questions I hope to answer with future work on beauty in Victorian print culture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The fashion magazine did make fashion more 'democratic' though - which intrigues me. Women who previously would have to rely on gossip to discover new trends were more able to 'keep up'. Earlier fashion dolls, used to spread fashion details, were largely for the wealthier fashionistas. And as you see the fashion magazine enter the twentieth century, it's interesting how it absorbs the realities of the working girls and women who had to be crafty about the house - the fashion magazine is followed pretty quickly by the knitting magazine. But I'm really interested in how your work is going to shed light on female beauty.