If you’re an American woman, there’s a good chance your vision of femininity—how women should dress, talk, and act—owes something to Cosmopolitan or Sassy or some other magazine targeting a female audience.
The women’s magazine as we know it—a lavishly illustrated celebration of consumption and beauty aimed at a popular audience—emerged in England in the 1870s. In a 1994 paper for the Journal of Design History, Christopher Breward explains how this new format grew out of shifting views of a woman’s role in society.
Breward writes that the nineteenth century brought a new populist model to women’s publishing, which had been, since the 1700s, an elite, literary affair. Better printing equipment, a falling newspaper tax, and rising literacy rates brought magazines to more households. The first popular interest British fashion magazine started up in 1806, but the 1870s and 1880s brought a new variety to the genre—graphics-heavy, with a focus on women’s position in the public world. In 1875, there were 20 such titles. By 1898, there were 30.
One magazine explained that its features on fashion and decorating had “the aim of being useful to others, who are prevented by duties or distance from visiting those houses where the best of everything is to be seen.” Breward notes that another, unstated purpose of the features was promoting advertisers’ products. Either way, he writes, the central idea was building a “feminized consumer culture.”
Breward writes that women of this era were navigating contradictions inherent in the way people understood the separate spheres of men and women. Women were portrayed as “pure angelic” wives and mothers without concern for material things, but they were also expected to communicate their families’ social positions through their clothing and appearance.
In the 1850s and 1860s, women’s magazines moralized about the need for women to embrace the role of homemaker. But by the mid-1870s, many of them were running stories that glamorized showy clothes and illustrations of beautifully dressed women in public spaces. Common scenes included women boarding a train or talking in groups at a café.
As department stores transformed fashion consumption in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the magazines increasingly showed images of women shopping. The illustrations often depicted an elegantly dressed woman choosing from a variety of hats or accessories.
Breward writes that the journals “not only encouraged the act of public buying, but engaged the reader in a form of private surrogate shopping. For the 3d. price of a journal, women bought the opportunity to peruse a fantasy world which released them from the immediate pressures of home.”
The magazines pushed their own form of male dominance—the idea that women should dress to please men—as well as the emerging notion of consumerism as a route to happiness. But they also offered a vision of freedom and independence that is still part of the appeal of today’s women’s magazines.