‘Elegance with a Dash of Daring’: Exploring Womanhood in Harper’s Bazaar

By Anabel Pasarow

HarpersBazaar_April_1949

 

“What I understand by manners, then, is a culture’s hum and buzz of implication. It is that part of a culture which is made up of half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable expressions of value. They are hinted at by small actions, sometimes by the arts of dress or decoration, sometimes by tone, gesture, emphasis or rhythm, sometimes by the words that are used with a special frequency or a special meaning. They are the things that for good or bad draw the people of a culture together and that separate them from the people of another culture. It is the part of a culture which is not art, nor religion, nor morals, not politics, and yet it relates to all these highly formulated departments of culture. It is modified by them; it modifies them; it is generated by them; it generates them,”[1] said Lionel Trilling, in his address to the Conference on the Heritage of the English-speaking Peoples and Their Responsibilities on September 27, 1947 at Kenyon College.

The following year literary critic William Van O’Connor touched on Trilling’s speech in his essay “Mannequin Mythology: The Fashion Journals.”[2]

O’Connor saw an undeniable connection between 1940s New York City fashion magazines and the “manners” of which Trilling spoke. He noted the stress on appearance and symbols of luxury that inundated these magazines: “They furnish us with a mannequin mythology, a world of symbolic creatures and sophisticated values. Their primary object is to sell merchandise. And their technique is to create a world, half illusion, half real, in which these objects have a place. If one owns the object, one can create or partially create that world—and begin to belong to it.” O’Connor cites fashion magazines Vogue and Mademoiselle briefly in his argument and then settles on Harper’s Bazaar, perhaps different from its counterparts. O’Connor wagers that Harper’s Bazaar represents Trilling’s idea of culture better than any other of its sister magazines of the time. He says of Bazaar’s content: “the thrill-seeking habits of our society are here, but with aesthetic and intellectual overtones,” noting the magazine’s “air of sophisticated knowing.” So what did Harper’s Bazaar know? What themes united its pages? Was there a cohesive idea of the 1940s New York woman that its variety of content synthesized into existence?

Under the unprecedented and fearless leadership of female powerhouse editor Carmel Snow, Harper’s Bazaar’s mix of fashion, art and literature was made possible by its historical moment, and yet it extended far beyond its moment, allowing for a new type of woman to emerge out of it and take up its pages—a more forward-thinking and powerful metropolitan woman. Harper’s Bazaar set a new precedent for women in media. Perhaps best stated by Trilling in his address on culture’s relationship to art, religion, politics and manners: “It is modified by them; it modifies them; it is generated by them; it generates them.” In this way, the Bazaar woman of the 1940s came out of social changes of her time and functioned to influence a nation, paving the way for more change to come after her. Trilling himself even noted in his speech America’s position at the cusp of “great social changes,” noting the necessity of “greater social liberality,”[3] which certainly referred in part to the progress of the American woman in society.

Harper’s Bazaar stood out among its sister magazines for its departure from the domestic sphere; it helped liberate its female readers by providing for them a possibility and an example of something more than macaroni and hot dog recipe ideas (which magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal were known for including).[4] Harper’s Bazaar “acknowledged a culture that existed outside the traditionally domestic but affected it.”[5]Bazaar differed from its women’s journal counterparts in that it offered a different idea of the relationship between women and work—extending beyond the home (and presented racier, non-kid-friendly recipes, like those requiring liquor and wine, unlike its tamer counterparts.) Carefully curated by Carmel Snow, for whom “elegance was good taste plus a dash of daring,”[6] the art, fiction, advertisements and other content steered clear of the normative homemaker audience that its competitor magazines, like Women’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, and even Vogue, depended on. Bazaar sought a broader audience. Snow’s Bazaar promoted an independent and powerful female existence: one of leisure, glamour, affluence, and intelligence. Still, though, desire for female power was not without the accompaniment of public anxiety. This anxiety was also brought on bywomen’s wartime roles, which confirmed their ability to rise to new challenges but also caused much public anxiety over the departure from domestic convention. Although Harper’s Bazaar was progressive, it did not totally break free of the class and gender constraints of the time. What can be said for sure, though, is that Harper’s Bazaar served as a hallmark in the New York City literature and art worlds, providing a space for female artists to showcase their work and gain credibility.

During the war years, female mobility and responsibility increased and was matched by the rise of simplified, practical clothing. With the occupation of Paris, attention turned for the first time to homebred fashion, and thus the New York fashion aesthetic was born. The New York woman of the early 1940s dressed trim and businesslike, which served as a stark contrast to the overly-draped aesthetic of French fashion. This rise in American fashion established NYC as a hub of culture and style even greater than it had been prior to the war. Still, this was a time where models of womanhood were created in systems mostly controlled by men—in the media, in particular.[7] Did men edit differently from women? Was there some crucial touch of femininity lost when a man edited a woman’s magazine? Before Carmel Snow it was not deemed necessary to have a specifically female connection between editor and reader. But under the leadership of Snow, Harper’s Bazaar transcended gender norms of its time and became a strong female publication with a definitively female voice. Snow’s Bazaar addressed the “well-dressed woman” with the “well-dressed mind.”

“A revolutionary in a pillbox hat,” Irish-born Carmel Snow was known for her “deep, throaty voice” and her unrelenting commitment to achieving exactly what she wanted, in pursuit of “top quality,” which remained her mantra throughout her career.[9] She spent her early career at Vogue under the leadership of Conde Nast, after which she took a gamble and moved to Harper’s Bazaar in 1933. She made it her mission to convert the lackluster fashion drawings and languid photographs of the Bazaar she began with into a flood of culture: theater, books, movies and visual art for the dynamic woman whom she targeted. She introduced writers like Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote, and artists like Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali to Bazaar, catering more to the “well-dressed mind” than the “well-dressed woman.” In doing so, she made the magazine much younger, contributing to the rise of a generation of writers and artists who went on to become successful and influential after getting their start in Bazaar. Babs Simpson, who worked under Snow in her early days as a writer at the magazine, said of the editor “She knew exactly what she wanted the magazine to look like. We thought nothing of Vogue in those days. Vogue was for suburbia—dowdy. Mrs. Snow managed to produce a very racy magazine, more intimate and much freer than Vogue.”[10]

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It is important to note Snow’s casual attitude about the fashion itself. Although she was fiercely committed to wearing designs of the likes of Balenciaga and Dior almost daily, she did not regard fashion as too serious. Said Snow of this element of her magazine, “Fashion is an element mysterious as uranium and just as explosive, but light—lighter than air.”[12] More than fashion, Snow prioritized the literature component of the magazine. The works of the writers she chose to include contributed to the image of the woman that Bazaar reflected. Harper’s Bazaar provided avenues for female artists to explore and push boundaries of societal norms through their art, and thus presented different perspectives of gender, sexuality and society in each issue. In keeping with this trend, prominent Bazaar fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s photos demonstrated a shift from clothes themselves to the “the life images that designers wanted them to project—images of freedom and spontaneity and youth, for the most part, with an increasingly strong under layer of sexuality.”[13] Magazines like Vogue were, first and foremost, about fashion. But Bazaar used fashion as a means of exploring the bigger picture. Bazaar encouraged social progress and offered glimpses into a lifestyle perhaps unfamiliar to some of its readers—providing a space for female creativity, sexuality and intelligence.

The New York woman at this time stood apart from her fellow Americans. The departure from Paris fashion and the resulting emergence of a uniquely American look provided the New York woman with the chance to set the style for the rest of the country; she was a trendsetter whom the rest of the country would then follow.America’s booming fashion industry impacted the economy greatly and quickly became the seventh largest industry in the country.[14] The industry’s goal was to create a need amongst women for material goods that they, in fact, really did not need—to instill a need for excess clothing.[15] This new attitude towards American fashion was exactly paralleled in the fashion magazine realm. Harper’s Bazaar wanted its readers to feel the need to own the newest fashions in the magazine. This emphasis on fashion, though not the main focus of Bazaar, helped to empower female readers—providing for them a space that was theirs. Clothing served as a means of sophistication and something distinctly feminine, of which they could be the judges. O’Connor’s idea of mannequin mythology, “a world of symbolic creatures and sophisticated values,” kept alive the fashion industry through its dedication to top quality and elegance. Bazaar’s readership was diverse geographically and socioeconomically, and yet it exclusively presented the chic, cushy life of the city sophisticate. Though not exactly representative of “an actual society,” it provided an example of female glamour and sophistication for a nation of women.

hb photo[16]

But how else might one gain insight into the exact identity of this Harper’s Bazaar 1940s New York woman? Perhaps what sheds the most light on this woman is the female-written short fiction about her, which made up an integral part of the magazine. Mary McCarthy and Eudora Welty both graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1940s. Though markedly different women, they each contributed great works to the American female literary canon and pushed on the boundaries of gender norms.

The early fiction of infamous New York Intellectual Mary McCarthy was published by Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1940s, including her short story “Ghostly Father, I Confess.” Printed in the spring of 1942, “Ghostly Father”places protagonist Meg Sargent in a therapy session as she chronicles the story of her childhood and subsequent relationships with men. This story is one in a compilation called The Company She Keeps, and the irony is that the only company that Meg keeps is male. The other women she encounters or discusses are merely dismissed or fleeting. Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy, a summary of her works and an anthology of important criticisms in reaction to them published in 1996, highlights main character Meg Sargent’s state as “neither a victim nor a role model.” Perhaps this is the key. Meg is a compelling character because of her agency and intelligence; she belittles her therapist despite his would-be position of power over her. Meg’s life revolves around men, and yet she is harshly critical of them—they are all unsatisfactory. Meg Sargent mocks her therapist and doubts his ability to offer her any help and proves that she can hold her own as a woman in a man’s world. One of her peers in the group of New York Intellectuals, Alfred Kazin, said of McCarthy: “She had, I thought, a wholly destructive critical mind, shown in her unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure— surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity.”[17] Another consistency in McCarthy’s writing about male characters is her use of sharp objects in conjunction with them. In fact, many of McCarthy’s critics take note of the cutting voice with which she rips her victims apart (who happen to be mostly men). Unlike most fiction that preceded hers, McCarthy presents her female protagonist (in this case, Meg Sargent) as the powerful hero, who is only brought down by the men around her. In Mary McCarthy and Her World, Carol Brightman asserts that McCarthy presents her heroine as “the perfect bitch.”[18] Perhaps this is best exemplified in Ghostly Father itself, when Meg’s husband tells her: “You use your wonderful scruples as an excuse for acting like a bitch.”[19] In addition to Meg’s (and, more importantly, McCarthy’s) flippant and even hostile attitude towards men and others, Meg also values intelligence. More important than this story’s revolutionary introduction of psychoanalysis into the realm of fiction is Meg’s resistance to it. She says: “Damn my stream of consciousness, her mind said, why must it keep harping on this embarrassing topic?” She needs to be in control and fears rambling along a flow of free associations. Her focus on Freudian storytelling enables her to regain control over the story and the narration—despite the nature of psychoanalysis, which would have her in the opposite position. To this end, Meg’s critical attitude toward men and her insistence on being seen as intelligent contribute to what Harper’s Bazaar defines as womanhood.

Irvin Stock’s Mary McCarthy presents another interpretation of this story. The combination of gender inequality and psychoanalysis attempts to undermine Meg. The object of the therapy is to perform “a perfectly simple little operation”[20]—which invalidates the severity and intensity of Meg’s life and experiences, attempting to tie them into a little bow and reduce them to something easily repairable by a man. [21] At the end of the story, Dr. James would like Meg to believe that all can be fixed, when she recalls a dream she has had, “which tells her that all will not be well, that unable to love herself except through the love of men, she will again seek a new love to rescue her from past failures and will again snatch at it blindly and perhaps unscrupulously.” This highlights her dependence on the love of men, despite her established identity as a strong female intellectual and critic of men. This is similar to the fashion of Harper’s Bazaar and the goal of attracting men through sexualized clothing. An important element of fashion is the appeal of attracting men with dress. Female dependence on the love of men, and the performance of femininity, is present in Bazaar and in Meg. But this element of performance can coexist with strong female power, as demonstrated by Meg.

So why might one regard McCarthy’s short story, merely one single story published amidst a whole slew of fictional shorts, as a microcosm for women in 1940s New York City and America? Or at least for the image of women that Harper’s Bazaar sought to portray and endorse? McCarthy’s Meg is much like the intended audience of 1940s Harper’s Bazaar. As an active narrator, as one that controls the dialogue between herself and her male therapist, she is powerful. In fact, her power relies on her status as a critically intelligent woman—criticizing her male therapist and yet capitalizing on her femininity as well. Bazaar seems to encourage this liminal status—as the autonomous woman who still maintains her beauty and sex appeal too, which Mary McCarthy herself was known for. Perhaps the inclusion of this story in Bazaar was meant to indicate to readers—even to those in Midwest suburbia, who were not explicitly bornein mind during the construction of the magazine, that being Meg Sargent was attractive and sophisticated. Of McCarthy, film critic and peer Pauline Kael said, “McCarthy was the culture heroine of my generation….In the 1940s [The Company She Keeps] was wonderfully giddy and daring. It was tonic. It was the story that bright people—women especially—talked about and identified with. This was a feminist heroine who was strong and foolish; it was before feminist writing got bogged down in victimization. She was asinine but she wasn’t weak.”[22] Similarly, American novelist Alison Lurie said, “It’s hard now to realize how shocking it was at the time. The attitude toward men. That you could have a relationship with a man just for the fun of it and you didn’t have to feel guilty or upset or anything like that. ”[23] McCarthy affected male contemporary readers in a different way. Contemporaries like Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin and George Plimpton complained of McCarthy’s unwarranted and irrational disdain for men.[24] But this disdain for men was an example to Bazaar readers that it was okay to be critical of them; that women can hold their own.

Important also is the autobiographical nature of McCarthy’s work, which was even clear at the time of its publication. This perhaps normalized Meg’s character for readers and showed that Meg’s way of being was a possibility for them. McCarthy, though not exactly a feminist, always valued the strength of women. In her story “Vassar Girl,” McCarthy remembers being fourteen years old and admiring her female English teacher for being “everything I suddenly wished to have and be, from the moment I first heard her light, precise, cutting voice score some pretense.”[25] It is this woman who sets the precedent for Meg Sargent’s character and the kind of woman that McCarthy sought to become.

Eudora Welty’s work, though strikingly different from McCarthy’s, is also important to note in the context of Harper’s Bazaar. Michael Kreyling’s book Understanding Eudora Welty views her early stories as fixated on arepresentation of sex and gender in her culture. They helped to color in a more thorough portrait of the woman of 1940s American print media. Welty, a Southern writer, weaved motifs of classical mythology and modernist imagery throughout her writing while fearlessly exploring female sexuality. Her story “The Purple Hat,” published in Harper’s Bazaar in November of 1941, follows a man who tells the story of a woman in a purple hat, whogambles with younger men and drains their money without providing sexual favors, or favors at all, in return. Most notably, the man “is enamored of her hat—her ancient, battered, outrageous hat with the awful plush flowers. She lays it down below the level of the table there, on her shabby old lap, and he caresses it… Well I suppose in this town there are stranger forms of love than that, and who are any of us to say what ways people may not find to love? She herself, you know, seems perfectly satisfied with it.”

The “battered, outrageous” purple hat seems not at all to reflect the chic style of Harper’s Bazaar (like Snow’s pillbox hat), and yet still, the woman who wears it is clearly powerful. This is consistent with Carmel Snow’s attitude about fashion—that it is less important than the woman who wears it. The elegance of the Bazaar woman is incomplete without the “dash of daring” which Snow advocated (which is, in this case, the woman’s strong behavior in the face of the gambling men.) This story serves as a perversion of fashion’s role in creating desirability. The unfashionable nature of her hat does not get in her way. Here is an exploration of the definition of love—a suggestion that it must not always exist between a heterosexual, passive, docile, female homemaker and a manly male breadwinner. This powerful gambling female who takes and gives nothing back is similar to Meg Sargent. Welty’s woman is powerful in her own way. These two women are Harper’s Bazaar readers with well-dressed minds.

In another of her stories published in Harper’s Bazaar, “The Wind,” Welty positions male sexuality in a negative light. The story, published in 1943, chronicles young protagonist Josie as she dreams of being with older girl Cornella. She longs to find the female archetype—and in her quest for such, she explores the fluidity of sexuality. Though not explicitly clear, her need for female identification might also blend into a lustful desire for the female. The story blurs the lines between homoeroticism and femininity. Josie thinks to herself, “Cornella, Cornella, let down thy hair, and the King’s son will come climbing up,” as though comparing herself to a boy vying for the attentions of a beautiful woman. In this story, fashion and beauty are inextricably linked to sexuality. Cornella’s body and swinging skirts are glamorized and sexualized. The way in which Josie rides her bicycle is described as sexual and even masturbatory. Michael Kreyling sees Josie as the embodiment of “female change, maturation, and negotiation with experience that is clearly sexual and still hazy.”[27] He also notes that the masculine forces in the story remain at the sidelines, in a different way from how they are portrayed in McCarthy’s stories. While Meg experiences life through her encounters with men, Josie’s story does not rely on them.

Welty’s characterization of the female as an innately sexual being is important in understanding Harper’s Bazaar. This theme is consistent with the simultaneous departure in fashion from long, draping French designs to characteristically American styles with less fabric and more skin. Harper’s Bazaar of the 1940s embraced sexuality and equated it with womanhood.

Welty’s story “The Wanderers,” published in 1949, portrays women in a slightly different way. This story studies a mother-daughter pair and the strength of their womanhood. Dilek Direnc, author of Eudora Welty on Writing an American Quilt, points out the traditional female traits that Welty’s characters display and how they amount to more than what they seem. She hones in on female crafts like baking and knitting—but does not paint them to be domestic, weak tasks. Instead, Welty exposes the strength in practices like these, depicting them as activities of “self-expression, creativity and communication.”[28] Upon the death of her mother Katie, Virgie feels tied to her mother by the practice of quilt-making that they shared during her life. When her mother dies, the women of her town, Morgana, worry for Virgie that with no successors to inherit the “possessions, recipes, patterns, and quilts, it’s the end of a family.” In this way, these products, which are created by the women and specific to the women, uphold the family. The family’s identity and stability depends upon them.

This is a kind of female strength and independence different from Mary McCarthy’s. Still, Virgie represents the Harper’s Bazaar woman. During her mother’s life, Virgie combines a job outside the home sphere with daily domestic chores assigned to her by her mother, who represents the old generation of women. At work she uses “the strength in her hands” to type and at home “to pull udders of the succeeding cows”. Virgie opts for a life different from her resourceful and strong domestic mother, and after Katie’s death, instead of retreating to the normative female way of life, represented by housewares, recipes and traditional skills, Virgie chooses to join the wanderers, a trope typically reserved for male heroes only. She is a free spirit who defies the social codes and gender norms of Morgana.

Literary critic John A. Allen notes how Welty in her fiction clears “the way for a conception of heroic action which does fuller justice to the actual potentialities for heroism in men and women alike”.[29] The story’s end finds Virgie on the road, leaving behind the quilts and traditions of her mother’s world and embracing a new kind of womanhood. “Traditional gender roles become more fluid than fixed as social change erodes the traditional and renders values more relativistic,”[30] according  to Direnc’s critical essay. Virgie’s journey establishes a claim on the part of women to the unknown possibilities of the future. Virgie opens a new door and definitively shuts the door to the old order, one that her mother was once embedded in.

Welty’s contribution to the depiction of women in Harper’s Bazaar was quite different from McCarthy’s. She promoted exploration of sexuality and gender roles, while still maintaining the importance of tradition and the old social order of the world. Without McCarthy’s acerbic style, Welty introduced these ideas more mildly and offered a new outlook on women to the Bazaar readership.

At the end of Lionel Trilling’s speech “Manners, Morals and the Novel,” he summarizes what he believes to be the importance of the American novel. His thought, which just as well applies to Harper’s Bazaar, is this:

“It taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human variety and the value of variety. It was the literary form to which the emotions of understanding and forgiveness were indigenous, as if by the definition of the form itself. At the moment its impulse does not seem strong, for there never was a time when the virtues of its greatness were so likely to be thought of as weaknesses. Yet there never was a time when its particular activity was so much needed, was of so much practical, political and social use—so much so that if its impulse does not respond to the need, we can be sad not only over a waning form of art but also over a waning freedom.”[31]

 

Harper’s Bazaar did teach its readership “the extent of human variety” in depicting the New York woman as intelligent, sexual, powerful and autonomous. Carmel Snow curated a magazine that reflected the kind of woman she was. With the help of fashion and fiction, Harper’s Bazaar introduced a new, progressive type of American woman, who functioned to influence women all over America and set the precedent for the media’s depiction of womanhood to come.

 

[1]Lionel Trilling, “Manners Morals and the Novel,” Kenyon Review, vol. 10, no. 1 (1948), 11-27.

The Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter, 1948), pp. 11-27.

[2]William Van O’Connor, “Mannequin Mythology: The Fashion Journals,” Poetry, vol. 72, no. 5 (Aug., 1948), 284-288.

[3] Trilling, 25.

[4]Nancy A. Walker, Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

[5] Walker, p. 106

[6] Calvin Tomkins, “The World of Carmel Snow” The New Yorker, Nov. 1994, 148.

[7] Hartmann, Susan. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982).

[8] James Danky and Wayne Wiegand, Women in Print: Essays on the Print Culture of American Women from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2006).

[9] Tomkins, 148.

[10] Tomkins, 148.

[11] “Carmel Snow”, last modified Feb. 15, 2006, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2006_07_wed_01.shtml

[12] Tomkins, 148.

 

[13] Tomkins, 148.

[14] “That New York Look,” Challenge vol. 1, no. 11 (1953).

[15] “That New York Look,” Challenge vol. 1, no. 11 (1953).

[16] “That New York Look,” Challenge vol. 1, no. 11 (1953).

[17]Eve Stwertka, Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

[18] Stwertka, 134.

[19] Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (New York: C. Potter, 1992).

[20]Mary Louise Aswell, It’s a Woman’s World, a Collection of Stories from Harper’s Bazaar (New York: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book, 1944), 150-165.

[21] Aswell, 160.

[22] Irvin Stock, Mary McCarthy – American Writers 72 : University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers no. 72. (Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 1968).

[23] Stwertka, 23.

[24] Stwertka, 23.

[25]Frances Kiernan. Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy (New York, 2000).

[26] Stwertka, 25.

[27]Kreyling, Michael. “The Wide Net and Other Stories,” Understanding Eudora Welty (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999).

[28] Kreyling, “The Wide Net and Other Stories”

[29] Dilek Direnc, “Eudora Welty on Writing American Quilt: Justifying Women’s Work in the American Literary Canon,” The Centennial Review vol. 40, no. 3 (Michigan State University Press, 1996), 109-116.

[30] Direnc, 111.

[31] Direnc, 112.

[32] Trilling, 25-26.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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