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The first Vogue Cover, 1893. Credit: Vogue Archive

Reading Vogue, Then and Now

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This is a guest post by Samira Spatzek, a Kluge Fellow and a postdoctoral researcher and academic coordinator at the Cluster of Excellence “Temporal Communities: Doing Literature in a Global Perspective” at Free University of Berlin, Germany.

When Princeton socialite and businessman Arthur B. Turnure ventured to publish a New York social gazette at the end of the nineteenth century, he couldn’t have known that this idea would blossom into a renowned fashion magazine that still operates internationally today. With Josephine Redding as its editor (1892-1900), the first issue of American Vogue was published on December 17, 1892. From the beginning, Vogue set out to cater to upper-class readers from New York City’s most distinguished and privileged families as well as to those aspiring to the lifestyle of this elite class.

While both scholars and the general public have shown great interest in Vogue’s overall history, little attention has been paid to the magazine’s first decade. This is unfortunate not least since Vogue, like other women’s magazines and fashion periodicals published at the turn of the twentieth century, both shaped and was shaped by a rapidly changing literary market and publishing landscape. Indeed, it would become “a fertile space for the expression of social and political philosophies,” according to Noliwe Rooks, “teaching women how to envision and navigate constructs of race, gender, nation, citizenship, and identity.”

From its very inception, Vogue was a multimodal publication comprised of a variety of texts including fashion articles for both women and men, fashion spreads and illustrations, sections on etiquette, political commentary, book and theater reviews, music criticism, spreads on the latest interior design trends, and advertisements. Crucially, Vogue would also feature serialized fiction like short stories. Under Redding’s guidance, the pages of Vogue pushed changing ideals of womanhood, projecting what Stacy Sivinski characterizes  as “a playful yet potent interaction between clothing, affective sensation, and depictions of modern femininity that relied upon the kindling of desire to introduce subversive ideas about attaining agency over one’s own body.”

 

The first Vogue Cover, 1893. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

As a literary scholar with a strong interest in North American literature and cultural histories of race and gender, I was curious about the ways Vogue would fashion discursive threads of whiteness and femininity in its inaugural years. Why had scholars not commented more on Vogue’s early years and why is there such little research on the cultural work of race and gender in Vogue at the turn of the twentieth century? These questions would ultimately bring me to the John W. Kluge Center as a postdoctoral research fellow.

 

In trying to tie together questions of fashion, fiction, race, subjectivity, and gender, I set out to examine the intricate connections between fashion and fictional narrative, and I began to forage the Vogue archive for short fiction by women writers like Kate Chopin. From the preliminary research I had done in preparation for my fellowship, I had learned that Vogue published nineteen of Chopin’s original local-color fiction manuscripts. Today, Chopin is best known to us as the daring author of The Awakening (1899). In general, Chopin’s fictional works show a keen focus on the manifold experiences of women, not shying away from addressing women’s sexual passions in her short stories and novels. Like other woman writers at the time, Chopin would resort to representations of dress and clothing to address, symbolically manipulate, and partake in “fashionable discourses” of gender, class, region, and nation. This would also show in the ways Chopin navigated the nineteenth-century literary market available to her. Based on my research at the Kluge Center, I would suggest that while these categories each are an important optic (a term that I borrow from Christina Sharpe) for engaging with Chopin’s short fiction published in Vogue, they need to be critically supplemented with an analytical perspective cognizant of the discursive and epistemic practices of racialization and the explanatory power of race.

 

Against this backdrop, I sifted through both the physical and the digital Vogue archives. Eventually, I came across the works of the Boston-based photographer F. Holland Day in Vogue’s October 13, 1898 issue. Given that Redding’s bold editorial choices allowed Vogue to showcase the latest fashions in all kinds of arenas, it did not seem surprising that the magazine would prominently feature some of Day’s photographs, which attracted a good amount of attention at the time. Today, Day’s works, like Chopin’s, are well-known. They are collected and exhibited in prestigious art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago, and they have been shown internationally. At the Library of Congress, researchers are able to access 676 of his photographs through the “Day photograph collection.”

 

“The Justification,” 1898. Credit: Vogue Archive

 

Initially, I was caught somewhat off guard dealing with visual texts like Day’s photographs in this archive. But as I spent more time with Day’s images in Vogue, I realized that those visual texts can tell us a lot about the ways Vogue and its readers would navigate the interplay of race and gender in its pages. I was privileged to work together with Bela Kellogg, who was a summer intern at the Kluge Center during my 2023 fellowship term. I learned a lot from her expertise in art history and visual analysis. We spent hours looking at illustrations, photographs, advertisements, and other visual materials, and we deeply engaged with the intricate connections between the body, photography, science, and the racializing practices of the archive on a more theoretical level.

 

The October 13, 1898, issue features a total of eight of Day’s photographs. While there certainly is more than one takeaway from a thorough analysis of each individual photograph and how all of them speak to one another, I’d like to briefly think about the second photograph readers would encounter when browsing through this issue (assuming they start from the title page). The photograph in question is situated on page five. On the next page (verso), we find the editorial. The photograph is situated at the very center of the page, and it is enclosed by a drawn picture frame. The page header simply reads “Vogue” in decorative font. The photograph shows a black man, who is covered by a white cloth, his left shoulder exposed, and he wears a white head band. His head is tilted to the left of the frame (his right), and he gazes somewhat dreamily to the left (again, his right). Unlike some of the other photographs featured in this Vogue issue, the subject portrayed in it does not have a name. As suggested by the caption, the reader/viewer is led to believe that they simply are “A Nubian.”

 

Scholars of the history and theory of photography have discussed the racialized inscriptions of Day’s so-called African and Nubian photographs in different ways. The photographs can be read to idealize the black male body at a time when lynching was at its height, thus issuing a powerful political statement against the racist sexual discourse fueling such white supremacist murderous acts. However, they can also be said to rehearse racialized notions of the primitive and exoticized otherness in ways that might signify white male homosexuality and desire. As Shawn Michelle Smith suggests, “Day’s fascination with ethnic and racial ‘types’ and his penchant for ‘exotic’ dress might be understood as his attempt to signal codes of sexuality through the associations of race.”

 

Vogue spread with photo captioned “A Nubian” and advertisement for “Nubian Fast Black Linings.” Credit: Vogue Archive

 

In the case of the photograph featured in Vogue, the most pressing question for me at the time was what happens when it enters into conversation with the other visual texts collected in the same issue and whether it also resonates with others featured in previous issues. At this juncture, it is useful to recall Margaret Beetham’s famous conceptualization of periodicals as being both “open and closed.” To study periodicals is to engage with the specific form of this genre and its relationship to time; it is to study both the promise of newness and the comfort of coherence: “Every number is different,” she writes, “But it is still ‘the same’ periodical. This consistency is necessary so that the reader keeps coming back to buy.”

 

Immediately preceding Day’s photograph is a whole page filled with various advertisements for such things as women’s hosiery and hats, as well as for dressmakers more generally. At the very center, we find a combined advertisement for “Nubian Fast Black Linings” dress linings and “Nearsilk” undergarments. Both these clothing products promise the customer the highest wearing comfort, and they each feature small drawings of white Victorian women presenting those products next to the ad text. We as readers here already encounter the word “Nubian” that will operate as the caption for Day’s photograph on the next page. In the advertisement, it is combined with “fast black” and “linings.” As such, it comes to signify a product on the late nineteenth-century consumer marketplace. What interests me is that the advertisement simultaneously evokes other advertisements for “Nubian Fast Black Linings” previously featured in Vogue. I am thinking here of two full-page ads published in Vogue volume 6, number 23 (December 5, 1895) and volume 7, number 6 (February 6, 1896), respectively. In their own ways, both ads prominently draw on representations of blackness as racialized/racist stereotypes and exoticized otherness. Those representations are carried into the present of the October 13, 1898, Vogue issue and Day’s “Nubian” photograph, bringing to the photograph their racialized and racializing visual epistemology.

 

Minh-Ha T. Pham reminds us that “clothing has long been foundational to Western epistemologies of race and the maintenance of dominant social hierarchies.” Working with collections like the Vogue archive at the Library of Congress, then, allows us to pose new questions precisely about such epistemologies and hierarchies. Shedding a critical light on the complex entanglements between various fashion texts allows us to re-examine the histories of fashion and fashion journalism, clothing, race, gender, and the market–leading toward an understanding of how fashion’s cultural work in the past continues to shape present-day futures.

 

 

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