Harper’s Bazaar. Premier Magazine de Mode, MAD (Figure 1)
Beverly Held, Ph.D.
Terrance and I saw an exhibition a couple Mondays ago, at the newly refurbished galleries of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs on the American publication, Harper’s Bazaar which they celebrate as the first magazine of fashion. Do you know this magazine? Do you read it? I have usually gone to Vanity Fair for the articles and Vogue for the Annie Leibovitz fashion shoots. I think now’s the time to widen my horizons.
The exhibition was a visually enticing combination of artists’ drawings and designers’ sketches, illustrations from the earliest issues and photo shoots from later issues, layouts and experiments, swatches of fabric offering snippets of information about the creative process itself, dresses that appeared in the magazine (Figure 2, Figure 3) and interspersed throughout were video clips from films that were in some way connected to the magazine, like ‘Funny Face’ (more about that later). So, rather than being static, as an exhibition of this sort certainly could have been, the curators managed to make an exhibition about a magazine both intellectually lively and visually engaging. As the curators explained, each glass case, or vitrine is a time capsule, chronologically presented. Harper’s Bazaar has always been praised for unity between fashion and the arts, and the exhibition pays homage to that connection, celebrating the editors, photographers and artists whose work made Harpers Bazaar what it became.
Figure 2. Harper’s Bazaar photographs from 2009; 1964, 1996
Figure 3. Harper’s Bazaar Exhibition, MAD
Is this exhibition a swan song, as some suggest. Maybe, but a new editor has just been appointed. Samira Nasr, (excellent bonafides) a Canadian born daughter of a Lebanese father and Trinidadian mother. In accepting the post, she said “My lens by nature is colorful and so (we) begin a new chapter in Bazaar’s history by shining a light on all …the inspiring voices of our time… to amplify the message of equality, because Black Lives Matter.” This at the same moment Anna Wintour at Vogue was issuing an apology for the lack of diversity at the magazine she has run for the past 32 years and accepting the fault as her own. Well played Harpers.
Harper’s Bazaar (initially Bazar) was the brain child of the youngest of the publishing Harper brothers. By the time they launched Harper’s Bazaar in 1867, they were already publishing Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Magazine. It was in Harper’s Weekly that Thomas Nast’s cartoons appeared. You remember him, right ? He invented Uncle Sam, the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey. His cartoons promoted the cause of the Union and helped bring down New York’s notorious political machine, Boss Tweed. (Figure 4) And of course, Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus who made his first appearance in the January 1863 issue. So, these were guys willing to take risks, which a high brow magazine aimed at women was bound to be.
Figure 4. Boss Tweed (as Money bags looking like the Louis Philippe poire) Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly
Fletcher Harper didn’t come up with the idea for Harper’s Bazar on his own. He came across a copy of Der Bazar, from Berlin, a magazine that featured artwork and writing on a range of topics. (Figure 5) It also covered fashion and illustrated its stories with elaborate woodcuts of the clothes people were wearing in Paris, Vienna, and London. He convinced his older brothers that a magazine aimed at affluent women was as good an idea in America as it was in Germany.
Figure 5. Der Bazar
They chose for their first editor, Mary Louise Booth, (Figure 6) historian and journalist, suffragist and abolitionist. Booth’s father was an educator who believed that teaching was the only suitable career for a young lady, so when Mary decided to pursue a career in writing, she was on her own. She was one of the first women hired as a writer by the New York Times. Of course she was relegated to writing articles on education and women’s topics, but never mind, she was writing about teaching, not teaching! With her friend, Susan B. Anthony, she became active in the women’s rights movement, holding prominent positions at the Women’s Rights Convention in Saratoga, New York in 1855 and in New York City five years later.
Figure 6. Mary Louise Booth
Mary Booth was editor for 22 years, until 1889. According to her friend and ‘fella’ suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Booth performed a great service by 'showing that a woman can...hold for years a place at the head of a profession.…’ Her annual salary was $4,000 at a time when workers made less than $1000 a year. (How much a man in the same position would have earned, I will leave it to you to guess).
On the cover of its inaugural issue, in 1867 “Bazar' called itself, “A repository of fashion, pleasure, and instruction.” (Figure 7, Figure 8). Did any of you see the exhibition that was held some years ago at the Musee d’Orsay about the influence of magazine illustrations on Impressionist artists? We always think of art as going from high to popular but that exhibition showed how often art goes from popular to high, as for example, fashion illustrations of women seen fore and aft were transformed into high art by painters like Claude Monet. (Figure 9)
Figure 7. Harper’s Bazaar Exhibition, photo courtesy of SortirParis
Figure 8. Illustration from early issue of Harper’s Bazar
From the outset, Bazar's definition of fashion went far beyond clothes. Alongside reports on style…there was fiction and poetry; discussions of family and work. Writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Henry James and Thomas Hardy, all contributed to Bazar. Eventually there was a Paris correspondent and a London one, too. But no politics, except ….. Bazar was one of the first mainstream publications to endorse the women's suffrage movement. You might remember Phyllis Schlafly who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that women should stay at home. The irony of course was that she was flagrantly disobeying that dictum, abandoning her own roles of wife and mother to fly around the country speaking out against the right of other women to do so. No double standards at Harper’s Bazaar. The right to vote, Bazar wrote in the June 12, 1869, issue, was built upon 'the groundwork of truth and justice”. The magazine regularly ran articles on the importance of work and educational opportunities for women. The role of stay at home wife and mother? Not so much, indeed readers were urged to protect themselves against becoming indentured servants in their own homes.
William Randolph Hearst bought the publication in 1913, but the most exciting time for the magazine began in 1934 when Carmel Snow became the editor. (Figure 10) And that is the period that the exhibition focuses on. Here is some of what we know about Snow, she rarely slept or ate - although 3 martini lunches were her thing, she snipped the labels out of her Parisian couture to avoid paying customs. But most importantly, her genius was finding the best people for the job and bringing out the best in those people. Her first big find was art director Alexey Brodovitch, who is best known for hiring Richard Avedon, then there was Diana Vreeland, hired as fashion editor in 1936. The innovations ended only when Snow retired at 70 in 1957.
Figure 10. Photograph of Carmel Snow (seated behind her desk, wearing hat) in her office with staff.
Snow relegated advertising to the front and back of the magazine, thereby allowing women to skip over the kitchen and bathroom appliances or whatever else was in the advertisements that kept the magazine profitable. Fashion shoots were “interleaved with the words, images and portraits of renowned novelists, painters, photographers, architects, dancers and actors….The Little Black Dress was ensconced between an essay by Aldous Huxley and an interview with a curator of the Museum of Modern Art.…”
From this Gang of Four, Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon are the most well known today. Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, (Lisa Immordino Vreeland) who never actually met Vreeland, wrote and produced a documentary about her husband’s grandmother, called “The Eye Has To Travel”. As the daughter of a beautiful socialite, Vreeland called herself her mother’s ‘ugly little monster’. Rather than hide her flaws, Vreeand celebrated them. She wore her black hair short and pulled back from her face, to set off her severe profile. To set off her pale skin, she rouged her cheekbones and painted her fingernails scarlet. (Figure 11) Carmel Snow first saw Vreeland dancing at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, wearing a white lace Chanel dress, her jet-black hair adorned with matching white roses. Snow asked her to come work at the magazine and needing money to maintain the lifestyle to which she and her husband had become accustomed, she accepted. Her first venture was a column entitled, ”Why Don't You…?' Here are two examples, 'Why don't you…paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys' nursery so they won't grow up with a provincial point of view?' And 'Why don't you…wash your blond child's hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?”
Figure 11. Diana Vreeland with her signature red cheeks, red lips and red fingernails
Vreeland’s eye for talent was legendary, too. She started Lauren Bacall’s acting career when she cast her as an American Red Cross girl for Bazaar's March 1943 cover. (Figure 12) Director Howard Hawks's wife showed it to him and voila - To Have and to Have Not. Although her relationship with Richard Avedon got off to a rocky start (she kept calling him Aberdeen, he wasn’t amused), it finally got sorted and they collaborated for nearly 40 years. They found surprising locations for their shoots, like when they photographed the supermodel Dovima at an air-force missile-testing center. They scored a coup when the Kennedys sat for their portrait three weeks before John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. (Figure 13) Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Vreeland afterwards, ”I was furious today when I read Newsweek on … why we chose Harper's Bazaar, they invent a million reasons and no one says the real one — which is you.”
Figure 12. Harper’s Bazaar cover with Lauren Bacall as American Red Cross Girl, 1943
Figure 13. Photograph of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Avedon
In his eulogy, Avedon said of Vreeland, 'Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline and created a totally new profession. She invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies.” Vreeland is now best known for her time as editor in chief of Vogue and consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She left Harpers because Snow appointed her niece rather than Vreeland to succeed her (note to self: never privilege family over talent). Her success at the Met continues to resonate today with the annual spring ball, the MetGala, co-chaired since 1995 by Vogue’s Anna Wintour.
And then there was Richard Avedon. (Figure 14) Winthrop Sargent discussed Avedon in a piece written for Bazaar in 1958. Avedon, according to Sargent, redefined fashion, glamor, and femininity. With him, the model became a person, she laughed, she danced, she skated, she ran down the Champs-Elysées, she frolicked with elephants. (Figure 15) His interest was in the women who wore the fashions, not the fashions themselves. Avedon considered his models actors performing in dramas he created. In the course of acting out a particular scenario, they also managed to make the clothes they wore interesting, desirable. Avedon captured what seemed to be real emotions giving the viewer the sense that they were looking at a real scenario that had begun well before the camera shutter started clicking and would last well beyond the moment portrayed.
Figure 14. Photograph of Richard Avedon at a Harper’s Bazaar shoot
Figure 15. Iconic image of model with elephants, Richard Avedon
Technically, he is credited with having mastered the ‘blur’. Usually considered a mistake, with Avedon the blur was a choice. He developed a variety of blurs - blurred backgrounds, blurred lighting, blurred movement. The Avedon blur was complex, since it involved determining level of blurriness and the contrast between it and sharpness and of course, the perennial question, when to blur and when not to blur. It is true that Harpers (like Vogue) didn’t and still doesn’t pay their models very well, but that is not the point. They, like Avedon, enhanced their market value by appearing in those magazines.
Avedon became a household name outside the domain of fashion photography because of a musical starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire called “Funny Face,” about the love affair between a fashion photographer and his model (which you can watch at the exhibition). (Figure 16, Figure 17) The premise is that the editor of a fashion magazine is looking for the next big thing, a combination of beauty and intellect. With her photographer, she scouts out locations and decides that a book store in Greenwich Village would be perfect. And guess who works there, a beat generation Audrey Hepburn who the photographer thinks would be the perfect woman for the shoot. Hepburn has no patience for fashion until she hears that the shoot will be in Paris and that is where she longs to go, to hear a lecture by a philosopher she admires. There is a lot of back and forth as Audrey tries to hold onto her identity once she agrees to become a model. To her the modeling is a means to an end, it will pay for her to get to Paris. After another series of twists and turns, her much admired philosopher puts the moves on her and she finds true love in the arms of the photographer. So what is true, what is false ? The false world of fashion turns out to be truer than the real world of academics. Audrey should have asked me. Me and my fellow female graduate students in the humanities were harassed or worse throughout our tenure in graduate school. I don’t know anyone who didn’t see a grant or a fellowship or a part-time teaching gig given to someone who was sleeping with her married professor. (or get that grant, etc. because they were!) Audrey was shocked, I wouldn’t have been !
Figure 16. Audrey Hepburn about to be given a ‘make-over’ in Funny Face
Figure 17. Audrey Hepburn with photographer and editor of ‘Quality’ aka Harper’s Bazaar
Susan Sellers, in her 1995 essay “Harper's Bazaar, How Long Has This Been Going On? ‘Funny Face’ and the Construction of the Modernist Woman” has a nice feminist take on ‘Funny Face’. Summoned to Quality (aka Harpers) headquarters by Prescott (aka Snow), Jo (aka Hepburn) is assaulted by a bevy of stylists eager to reconstruct her fashionless facade . She escapes to Avery’s (aka Avedon) darkroom where she finds the photographer enlarging her image. In the ensuing sequence Jo is transformed from gamine to woman, from obscurity to star, from seeing to being seen. In classic Pygmalion fashion, Avery makes Jo into the woman of his dreams. And theirs is a true love. And what about Prescott/Snow. The masculinization of the character reveals the sacrifices women like Snow were forced to make for a life outside of the femininity they helped to manufacture and to which they pitched their magazine.
The exhibition ends in the 1980s, when the cover is no longer just the face of a model, but rather a celebrity, from the world of cinema or music or even politics. In the 1990s the magazine’s director was Liz Tilbiris (Figure 18, Figure 19) whose memoir left a lasting impression on me, if you can find it, read it. A friend of Princess Diana’s, she battled ovarian cancer for virtually her entire tenure at the magazine. I admired her bravery even if I didn’t read her magazine. Another English woman ran the magazine for 20 years, until this year, Glenda Bailey. The covers and photo shoots produced during her tenure were renowned for their memorable imagery, whether it was Rihanna swimming with sharks (Figure 20) or Naomi Campbell posing with an alligator. I appreciate that both Tilbiris and Bailey were not the svelte beauties that dominate the pages of the magazine they edited. Their presence as much as anything confirms Diana Vreeland’s approach to life - beauty can be self perception, just turn those lemons into lemonade.
Figure 18. Harper’s Bazaar cover, Dovima carries ‘A’ to Bazaar, Richard Avedon, 1959
Figure 19. Harper’s Bazaar cover, Linda Evangelista holds ‘A’ of Bazaar, 1992 (Liz Tilbiris, editor)
Figure 20. Harper’s Bazaar. Rihanna swimming with Sharks, 2015 (Glenda Bailey, editor)