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Women, Fashion, and the Transatlantic Avant-Garde

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“Oh, ok, I see, you think this has nothing to do with you” taunted fashion editor Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, as she explained to her skeptical assistant that the “cerulean” sweater she had picked out, to prove she was immune to trends, was actually the calculated product of a sophisticated fashion industry she knew nothing about. Of course, Priestly was right. The fashion industry plays a strong role in shaping cultural norms and lifestyle choices.

Here at the Kluge Center, British Research Council Fellow Sophie Oliver has been using the Library’s collections to shed light on the relationship between fashion and cultural output in the 1920s, a period during which women’s roles were undergoing dramatic change. Oliver, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of London, is one of the dozens of fellows from British universities who conduct research at the Kluge Center each year through the AHRC/ESRC International Placement Scheme.

Among Oliver’s interesting discoveries is the degree to which fashion advertising and more scholarly forms of cultural production were intertwined in the period’s popular publications.

For example, consider this quote:

“It was inevitable” wrote British poet Mina Loy, “that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America, where latterly a thousand languages have been born…”

The geographical context: New York City and surrounding area in the 1920s. The cultural setting: a decade of intense activity for female writers on both sides of the Atlantic. And the publication? Here the story takes a twist. The essay titled “Modern Poetry” from which the quote is excerpted first appeared in the April 1925 edition of Charm, a glossy periodical published by Bamberger’s department store, reaching a large readership of middle and upper class women located primarily in the state of New Jersey.

Why was a Bamberger’s imprint publishing essays about poetry? Subtitled “The Magazine of New Jersey Home Interests,” Charm, it turns out, was also running cultural commentary, including pieces by Modernist authors like Loy and her friend, American novelist and fellow Paris expatriate Djuna Barnes, who often wrote under the pen-name Lydia Steptoe. Oliver has been investigating the full record of the magazine, held in the Periodicals collection of the Library of Congress.

Charm Aug 1925 cover
Front cover of Charm, 4, 1 (August 1925), designed by Julio Málaga Grenet.

Oliver, who is interested in connections between Modernist literature and women’s fashion, was surprised to find such a thorough convergence of the commercial and the literary. Upon arrival at the Library, reference librarian Thomas Mann pointed her to a collection of reminiscences compiled in honor of Louis Bamberger after his death in 1944. The publication reminded her that Bamberger, the store’s founder, had been an enthusiastic patron of the arts and humanities: he funded the Newark Museum’s permanent home and established the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This prompted Oliver to look at Charm in a different light, not only as a vehicle for commercial promotion, but as a legitimate cultural record of a company whose founder was deeply engaged with the cultural scene.

In the pages of Charm, which ran between 1924 and 1932, Oliver found a wealth of sophisticated writing by women for women. In addition to consistent features on women in politics authored by various writers during the magazine’s first year, the feminist journalist Brenda Ueland contributed articles on female psychology and women’s changing roles. “Is It Possible for a Woman to Be a Wife and Mother and Still Make a Good Living?” she asked in June 1924. Florence Gilliam, editor of modernist magazines Quill and Gargoyle, profiled “Paris Women in the Arts” (March 1925), while Barnes as Lydia Steptoe interviewed the French couturiers Jenny and Jeanne Lanvin (January and March 1925) and wrote a series of travel pieces satirizing the experiences of Americans abroad.

Page from 'A Bit of an Indiscretion'
Page from Lydia Steptoe (Djuna Barnes), ‘A Bit of an Indiscretion’, Charm, 4, 1 (August 1925), 18-19, 79 (p. 18). © The Authors League Fund and St. Bride’s Church, as joint literary executors of the Estate of Djuna Barnes. Used with permission.

Alongside pieces aiming to inform and entertain the progressive woman were extensive fashion features to guide her clothing choices. Oliver is using these primary sources to trace the dynamic of influence between the United States and Paris. From well before the twentieth century, she says, the French capital had been perceived as the fashion trend-setter. In the 1920s, as the U.S. market became dominant thanks in no small part to the regional efforts of department stores like Bamberger’s, the balance of power shifted. Oliver is interested in how similar changes may have been reflected in Charm’s literary choices.

In addition to their relevance for the history of fashion, Oliver reminds us that the art and literature of this period are significant for understanding the evolution of women’s roles in society. In the United States, the 19th Amendment granted women full voting rights in 1920. The Representation of the People Act of 1928 accomplished the same goal in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in cities like New York, London, and Paris, women writers were living in alternative communities and experimenting with avant-garde poetics, while ordinary women everywhere were negotiating new freedoms and evolving identities. Charm provides a cultural record of these dynamic years.

More information about Charm: The Magazine of New Jersey Home Interests may be found here.


Comments (2)

  1. This sounds awesome – In the US, avant-garde ‘feminism’ did not happen “in a vacuum” but was, then, in part embroiled with commercial culture. I think a parallel history of corporations (AEG, Trepat… Bamberger) and their relationship with radical avant-gardes need to be written!
    I wonder, in the particular case of ‘feminism’ and fashion, if there was any comparable phenomenon back in Europe?

  2. Thanks Bertrand, I’m glad you find this of interest. You’re right that political and literary/artistic movements of this period cannot be separated from the commercial and the popular. Lisa Tickner has written very well about the spectacle of the British suffrage campaign: how their visibility and spectacular tactics were central to their aims and achievements. On the creative side of things, Virginia Woolf wrote (and was photographed) for Vogue, while her sister the painter Vanessa Bell designed advertising posters for Shell. Just two of countless examples of modern art and mass or commercial culture as bedfellows.

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