Fashion Magazines – 1904, 1916, 1922

June 13, 2018

This past week I’ve been a) mainlining Grace S. Richmond books I’ve already read and b) burying myself in early 20th century fashion magazines via Google Books. I thought some of you guys might enjoy the results of b).

My Twitter threads with lots of clipped illustrations, quotes, and a smidgen of commentary:

Take a look and tell me which dresses you’re picturing on which fictional characters.



  1. I gave up on properly picturing clothing on people after reading one of the set-in-a-canyon What Katy Did sequels, when the sisters are expressed by the text as wearing comfortable and simple but flattering clothing that is easy to wash and also easy to move in, and then the illustrations are… well, I would not consider those dresses to be *any* of the positive adjectives described. I mean, it is possible that the illustrator just didn’t read the book, but it’s also unfortunately possible that “easy to wash and easy to move in” is simply relative, like “short dress” can mean “still can’t see even the toes, but is not trailing on the floor” and at that point, I mostly quit any pretense of trying to be historically accurate about what I was envisioning, because I am not up to the task of imagining someone breezing lightly and refreshingly through a room while tightly corseted, wearing 20 pounds of fabric and a ton of boning and with a substantial portion of an aviary pinned to her head.

    That blue dress in the lower left of this set of illustrations intrigues me as a dress, but then I started trying to figure out the model’s anatomy (partly because of the “high backs and low necks” comment about the designer, but surely that can’t be her chest facing mostly-forward? or is that a relatively-high back?) and… I give up. Any ideas as to which way her shoulders and hips are facing? And why does she have a bird perching on her finger?

    Also, the 1904 posture (and waist size) looks incredibly painful to me.

    (also, I have never heard of a “shirtwaist suit”, but according to Wikipedia, shirtwaists were also different before the mid 20th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waist_(clothing) – in most fiction I’ve read, shirtwaist indicates something that does not match the skirt it’s worn with [so, navy blue skirt and white/pastel shirtwaist is common] and is generally considered less dressy than a blouse [although “lingerie shirtwaists” are something I, and apparently various office managers of the time period, have been baffled by]. Also I suspect that “less dressy” is very relative to the fashions of the period, such that shirtwaists of one decade might be more frilly than blouses of a different decade, and probably also varies extensively by class and geography, like all these things…)

    • My equivalent of your What Katy Did experience was reading about Patty Fairfield wearing a “little dresden silk” and picturing something 1930s-ish — and then finding out years later what dresses looked like in 1906. But I guess I’ve cultivated an appreciation for those styles now, and I like to be able to picture what the author intended when I read old books. Still, you’re right, nothing’s going to make me imagine anything involving a corset as light or comfortable. The most startling thing I read in these magazines was a bit on the 1904 Harper’s Bazar about how swimming corsets have very little boning and are never tight. Swimming corsets! Like….no.

      The people in Erté’s ilustrations always seem to bend in ways that human bodies shouldn’t. One of my coworkers and I were looking at exactly that picture and we were almost convinced that you’re looking at her back — until we saw which way her feet were pointing.

      • Ha, yes, that “little Dresden silk” would not be what one would envision. I love the Little Grey House housework uniform, and the clothing that Hildegarde’s mother sends her to the farm with, but I wish I knew what they were actually envisioning…

        I would really love to know whether, during the time illustrated, actual fashionable women were walking around with their chest forward and their posteriors sticking out with wasp-waisted corsets – it seems like it’d be really hard to avoid simply tipping over, let alone things like back pain and problems with digestion/organ stricture. In the Emma McChesney books, there are notes about how the fashionable styles of walking change with the styles of skirts (and other factors), but that particular position looks like it’d be hard to keep up without external support, and young women were not supposed to be carrying canes, as far as I’m aware.

        In theory, if corsets fit properly and have enough flex to them, they’re not necessarily heavy/restrictive for a not-especially-gymnastic life (sitting, walking, arranging flowers, doing embroidery, sitting in a carriage; probably not scrubbing floors or doing laundry), perhaps somewhat in the way that shoes aren’t necessarily heavy/restrictive (but usually are, and likewise, the farther they veer from the natural shape, the worse they are). But swimming in particular is an activity that corsets would just not work well with – too much torso twisting in most swimming for anything structured, really! Although honestly I don’t know how much most of these were “swimming” and how much most of them were “hanging out by the beach and occasionally paddling in the water” – some of the outfits seem like they’d act like a sheet anchor if one tried to actually swim from point A to point B.

        I’m wondering, now, with the blue Erté dress, whether actually they just had some cheap piece-rate illustrator scribble in shoes after the rest of the illustrations were done? With the way her thumb seems to be attached, I think it’s most likely she has shoulders facing away from the camera, but it’s hard to see whether the line is “the thumb is on the other side of this hand” or the line is “there is a fold between the thumb and hand but it is on this side” – and that would make all the difference. Also, if the chest is being depicted, this is a surprisingly not-breast-covering outfit (although, again, impossibilities of physiognomy like breast placement did not seem to deter these illustrators, or she might be wearing a flesh-toned binder to achieve the fashionable flat-chested look?).

  2. I didn’t know fashion magazines were available via Google Books. Pretty cool

    • There aren’t as many as I’d like–the 1922 volume is the only Vogue available–but what’s there is super fun.

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