Shame as a Visual and Textual Counter-Discourse to the 1960s’ “Liberation” in Mainstream American Fashion Magazines

Author: Alice Morin (Phillips-Universität Marburg/CREW, Sorbonne Nouvelle)

This paper is concerned with mainstream fashion magazines’ ambivalent discourses on femininity, and how they have acted (and still act, to a certain extent) to exert shame on women, womanly behaviors, and their bodies. These visual and textual discourses, in dialogue and sometimes in conflict between themselves, offer a counterpoint to their repositioning as champions of women’s liberation from the late 1960s onwards.

Fashion magazines are a subcategory of the women’s press, both genres being well-established since (at least) the late 19th century. Periodicals in general, and magazines in particular, boomed concurrently with the industrial revolution, benefitting from technological advances while expanding the reach of “the news”; the joys of consumerism were promoted in many sections of the specialized press, which very soon relied on advertising rather than on subscription to survive (Scholes 2007). Magazines directed at women, for their part, which had long been formalizing proper manners and trends, have been deemed “instructors of femininity” (Ballaster et al. 1991; Craik 1994). This is especially true for high-end, American fashion magazines (as opposed to penny magazines, aimed at the lower classes) that for economic, social and cultural reasons have showcased very normative views of what it is to be a woman. It has been the case for the title under study since their creation, in 1867 for Harper’s Bazaar and in 1892 for Vogue.

Their ties with various gatekeeping institutions, be they political or commercial in the case of large companies-advertisers (Moeran 2006), make such magazines a fit source to study shame, or, more to the point, shaming processes addressed at women and regarding some intimate aspects of their (private) lives such as models of body types, behaviors and/or sexuality. It is particularly enlightening look at the said magazines from the late 1960s and early 1970s, in a context of upheavals aiming at redefining, amongst other things, representations of femininity, and at liberating women from stigmas associated with certain aspects of womanhood, in the midst of mobilizations and initiatives (Braunstein & Doyle 2002) stirred up by various militant groups that have been called—in a simplifying way—“second wave feminism” (Mendes 2011).

In the expression “Women’s Lib[eration]” used to refer to the more radical phase of feminism at the time, the very idea of “liberation” called for a broadening of the range of models proposed and promoted in mainstream magazines, a broadening that would go hand in hand with a decrease in “shaming practices,” and demeaning feelings provoked in women through comparison (Crane 1999). Such a call was rooted in the rejection of feminine images widely disseminated in the 1950s, when representations of femininity were limited to a hegemonic model, the overlooking of which would result in great social shame. Only a certain type of body could find its way into the magazines’ pages, while its poses (poised, elegant and distant), attitude (graceful, in good taste but constrained) and manner of behaving (detailed at length in many articles) perpetuated a version of womanhood—complying and unthreatening—that was thus socially controlled. The very fact that no other model was made visible, throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, made differing from those representations something shameful, that is, outside of the realm of the acceptable (Sassoon 2015); even though one should note that the supposed lack of agency of the (female) readership has been rebutted by many studies in recent years (Hermes 1995; Ritchie et al. 2016).

The 1960s indeed saw a redesign in women’s representations. This explains why past and present discourses on 1960s imagery credit it with “innovation”, “novelty,” and “change.” The promotion of a new ideal of femininity—a young working woman, independent in spirit and in lifestyle, called “the Single Girl”—appeared as a game changer both in terms of visual and textual discourses on the part of magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue that pictured her abundantly. Yet, it is worth noting that critics have debunked the alleged progressiveness of such a figure, represented with, as a main goal, unabashed consumption (Radner 2000; Shinkle 2011). Furthermore, on a larger scale, in the wake of mass consumerism and the rise of ready-to-wear, and while social and gendered distinction through clothing appeared tobealleviated, magazines worked to re-establish their authority by provoking a desire for the consumption of fashion (rather than an obligation of social representation) (Ewen & Ewen 1992). This shift in an important one; however, it does not dispute the role of mainstream magazines as enactors of what is acceptable (or, in this new 1960s version, of what is desirable), and of what is shameful, that is to say anything falling outside that sphere.

These processes are nowhere as visible than in the discourses concerned with women’s bodies, their romantic behavior and their sexualities—all aspects that necessitate control in order to, amongst other things, conform to the patriotic, soft-power imbued model of the American Way of Life, which both Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue actively promoted. Restraining acceptable feminine models in terms of life trajectories, attendance to one’s appearance, sexual conduct, etc. was of prime importance in this socio-political context, marked by the Cold War. This explains why, even in an epoch of profound, undeniable “change” and “novelty,” magazines (apparently almost inadvertently) maintained a durably normative discourse on the “proper” femininity, under the guise of sympathy and even support for (“non-radical”) women’s claim (Mendes 2011; Dow 2014).

It is notable that, starting in the late 1960s, fashion magazines’ take on women’s-related issues differed from their previous positioning. In fact, both titles were forced to adapt their discourse to a changing cultural sensibility (Marwick 1998), for reasons that had mostly to do with business as they were trying to attract younger, urban demographics in a bid for democratization. One must recall, however, that these magazines’ system of production relied on a very strict hierarchy, a vertical chain of decision within which top executive (i.e., upper-class businessmen) had the final say on editorial content. The homogeneous composition of editorial teams (in terms of class, education, race, etc.) further contributes to explain the resistance to social change demonstrated in the magazines’ pages they produced, which lasted over a long period of time and still resonates today.

Yet such resistance did have to come in disguise, lest they failed to attract a growingly informed readership. Executives and editors alike were attentive to the contemporary context of “liberation” formed at the conjuncture of social movements and countercultural currents, advocating for gender equality, and freedom in their sexuality, behaviors, life choices and even clothes… Such a context permeated magazines’ productions, to some extent (Warren 1976; Kirca-Shroeder 1999). The ambiguity of such an adoption is written up in the memoirs of Grace Mirabella, former Vogue editor-in-chief, in these words:

It wasn’t easy to bring an old-world magazine into step with the times. More often than not, Vogue moved out of the past in fits and starts. An Avedon photo fantasy sat at Johnson and Burgee’s new Fort Worth Water Garden that ended with Tony Spinelli giving René Russo a slap that sent her flying (in her white John Anthony jumpsuit) brought letters from readers who wondered just how pro-woman the new Vogue really was. It was true that in the early years we took one step back for every two steps forward as far as feminism was concerned. Vogue was very slow to embrace the more far-reaching implications of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution—I was too—and for years we sent mixed messages about feminism.

Mirabella 1995: 161-162

This fundamental ambiguity was indeed readable in magazines’ content, both textual and photographic—the latter arguably having far more impact than the former in the crystallization of their messages. It is interesting to observe that, where articles and other various texts are concerned, both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar gave voice to a great diversity of points of views. They offered a forum to diverging opinions in op-eds or interviews, inviting feminists and conservatives alike to engage with their (rather large) readerships issue after issue. Vogue even hired journalist Jane O’Reilly, a co-founder of the feminist magazine Ms., to have her own column in the late 1970s. But the “Beauty” and “Health” monthly sections tell a different story: they emphasized grooming, dieting, self-betterment and even surgery on occasion, prompting up “womanly duties” in an assertive, and, more importantly, repetitive way throughout these regular rendez-vous with their readers. By doing so, they dismiss the mere idea that a woman might not be interested in caring for her body in the way they unfolded in their “recipes.” Promoting consistently a hygienist view of the female body, they implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) put to shame women whose views of beauty differed from the norm they were thus instilling. This resonates well with their numerous articles on family and married life, which, during the period, did not even once acknowledge, far less advocate, dissension from the heterosexual couple and the nuclear family.

The imbalance of discourses at play in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar is further demonstrated in their visuals, that is in the photographic series that represent their main platform of expression. In those dedicated pages placed at the center of the magazine, splashed lavishly on several double pages in every issue, the mises-en-scène never strayed very far away from one single feminine model: one that was White, young, thin and (again implicitly) upper-class. Once more, the invisibilization of different bodies proved to be a “structuring absence” (Stokes 2001) that made them undesirable—and that acted as a shaming force aimed at the large majority of women who did not fit this model, women who were invited to embrace consumerism as a way to “repair” such inadequacy (through the buying of products and garments). This appears in line with the Beauty pages mentioned earlier, which set a tone according to which non-compliance was perceived as a form of un-cleanliness, and a stain. Furthermore, the occasional inclusion, in these magazines, of a controlled diversity—depicting, on limited occasions, a Black model, an older woman or a strange, uncanny beauty (Pfeiffer 2014), that was always quite the event—worked towards an appearance of increased diversity. Yet these haunting occurrences proved to be supplemental (Cheddie 2002), and demonstrated how only unthreatening, tamed divergences could exist in mainstream magazines’ representations. The “innovations” and “changes” they advocated could only manifest on the surface.

The cohabitation of miscellaneous content in the pages of magazines is indeed an essential, defining characteristic of the illustrated press (Kaminski & Ruchatz 2017). Titles such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar’s answer to growing social and cultural pressure was to present readers with a great variety of the same, an apparent diversity which still pertained to a unique, narrow feminine norm, thus violently excluding alternative views of femininity, sexuality and bodies whose silencing amounted to reprobation.

The analysis of the apparent acceptance of women’s liberation, which should have resulted in a “de-shaming” discourse, especially where bodies, conduct and sexuality were concerned, served instead to demonstrate how consubstantial the establishing and maintaining of a norm in femininity is to women’s, and fashion magazines. It is then no wonder that in lieu of rethinking their textual and visual discourses beyond the surface, they followed their own agenda in order to (re-)establish their authority. In the process, they readily embraced, participated in and even foreshadowed the neo-liberal, individualistic, hedonist and hyper-consumerist undercurrents that would irrigate the following decades—a period that has brought about its fair share of social and cultural shame and shaming, the study of which could make for a fascinating follow-up to the current paper, in the context of the “Shame” research project.

Primary Sources

Harper’s Bazaar. New York: Hearst Corporation, since 1867. Issues from 1960 to 1972.

Vogue. New York: Condé Nast, since 1892. Issues from 1960 to 1972.

Mirabella, Grace. In and Out of Vogue. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

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Cite this blog post
webmaster (2021, March 24). Shame as a Visual and Textual Counter-Discourse to the 1960s’ “Liberation” in Mainstream American Fashion Magazines. Shame Network. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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