The Trail of the Fashion Magazine

An early 20th-century writer pokes fun at the "facial expressionlessness" of models showing off designer clothes.

We are, for the first time, subscribing to one of those domestic journals wherein literature and discussion of the styles are neatly sandwiched together, and where only the utmost correctness in human conduct, as well as in human costume, is admitted. Perhaps it is intellectual snobbishness which makes me add hastily that we are doing it for our maid, who is the only fashionable one in the family.

As this paper happens to fall, now and then, side by side with other illustrated magazines, our best and worst literary periodicals, taken regularly, or incidentally purchased, it throws a flood of light upon our vaunted art of illustration, which, we are often assured, whether done in delicate colors or in black and white, surpasses the art of illustration in all other lands. I had long wondered what could be the vague influence looming behind the varied show, dominating the motifs, determining the drawing, setting its seal upon the work, and producing an unpleasant sameness, a tendency toward type and toward commonplaceness in type. Slowly, but with unmistakable certainty, the answer comes, as the pages lie open side by side: it is the fashion magazine. In these superior weeklies and monthlies, full of tales and verse dealing with human souls and human emotions, the emphasis on clothes, as of paramount importance in life, is quite as obvious as in Butterick's fashion magazine, dealing with spring styles.

Observe, in this choice publication, the crucial moment when he—in the pergola studied from directions in The Ladies' Own for manufacturing Italian gardens—stands, with elbows correctly bent, a perfect facsimile of 'Gentleman's Afternoon Wear,' on page 2 of the fashion circular. She, in Empire style without folds, is gazing at him with that facial expressionlessness that means a perfect fit. It is most effective, after its kind; but should a man, at this great crisis in life, be thinking quite so hard about the lines of his shoulders? Should she, at this time, which The Ladies' Own would pronounce the supreme moment of a woman's life, be quite so careful to tilt her head in just the way that shows off the under side of her hat?

Again, in another equally superior journal, I encounter another heroine and see her waiting, all suspense, to know whether it is joy or doom; but the only idea that comes to me is, —'Ladies' seven-gored skirt.' You see, I am paying for my recent sophistication at the hands of the fashion magazine, and cannot help seeing influences which so clearly present themselves. Is this despair? No, it is only old-blue chiffon-taffeta with Venetian point. Is this, bending over the cradle, the rapture of motherhood? Not a bit of it! It is an old-rose tea-gown, with pipings of a darker shade, and insertions of Irish lace. So it runs through the whole range of human feeling and experience. We have love, directoire; hate, princess; compassion, early Victorian, with capes. Into the subtlest moment of passion bursts the spring style in hats; into the deepest grief, when the mother bends over her dead child, intrudes the thought, that, if her house-dress of cash-mere and silk is so correct, her mourning will be equally effective.

It is evident, after prolonged study of many magazines, first, that the various motifs of love, passion, grief, fear, are carefully rendered with a view to displaying late styles to best advantage; second, that no emotion must be carried to the point where it will wrinkle, injure or destroy the fit of a costume. Must our range of feeling, then, be determined by our clothes? You will see at once how this is going to limit our expression of passion. Must we confine ourselves to those phases of achievement that will not injure ruffle or waistcoat? How could yonder hero rescue, in boots so palpably tight, the heroine from a watery grave? Through his pictured self he will go down in memory as less than he really was, in the story at least, because of limitations set, not by his inner self, but by his costume. Prophetically I glance into the future, and I see represented in our art only correct moments of experience, met with unruffled composure,—unless ruffles should happen to be in vogue,—wherein The Ladies' Own shall dominate our ideals.

As I think of the faces and forms that have come before me in these illustrations, my mind dwells perhaps longest on the children, so like the simpering youngsters of the fashion magazines, thinking about their frocks, marching by the side of cat or dog with an eye to pose, looking out from under their lace hats with unnatural smiles. If I had a child that looked up at me this way I should be tempted to follow the example of the mother of a little girl who was with me long ago in boarding-school. My young comrade had been reading a story about an Elsie-book 'kind of heroine, and tried to follow her example, looking up with a bright, engaging smile.' Her mother, mistaking it for impertinence, spanked her. As I look at the many faces representing our youngest I cannot help realizing that I, too, should consider such an intentional look of intelligence a breach of the Fifth Commandment.

Jesting aside, there seems to me in all this work, a fatal tendency away from close study of individual characteristics toward types, and rather foolish types, like the wax figures of show windows. Is this our nearest approach to the presentation of ideal beauty? A host of inferior illustrations, even a long line of our choicest and best, the Gibson pictures, answer ‘Yes'!

But I am tired of the subject, and I throw aside literary magazines and fashion magazines together. What will be the new style in love, this spring, I wonder, and how will jealousy be draped? Will anger have an overskirt? And human anguish tight sleeves?