Marie Claire & Evaluating Our Research Decisions

On Wednesday evening, I bought a lipstick.  While I was paying, the sales assistant offered me a copy of the October 2013 British edition of Marie Claire.  ‘We’re giving them away with every purchase’, she explained.  ‘It’s their twenty-fifth birthday issue’.  As she found a bigger bag for the hefty 434-page tome, I told her about my latest project, which will analyse British women’s magazines launched between 1955 and 2000.  I am now happily able to reclassify (at least in my own mind) the price of the lipstick as a research expense!

For the new magazines project, which is still in the very early stages, I am planning to look at particular issues of each title under consideration: launch, the initial months, first anniversary and significant milestones after that.  The twenty-fifth anniversary edition would be a good example to compare with earlier issues of the same magazine, examining similarities and differences around levels of advertising, editorial emphasis, cover headlines and so on.  Looking at Marie Claire, for instance, ‘Hot new fashion buys / The cult bag, chic boots & must-have coats’ from this month’s cover could have appeared on the front in October 1988 too.  Other current headlines probably would not have featured, as in ‘Campus kinky / Inside the S&M clubs of America’s Ivy League’, whilst cover girl Lena Dunham – billed as ‘The coolest girl on the planet’ and ‘Women who’ve changed our world’ – was just a toddler back then (Dunham is an actor and film-maker, born in 1986.  Embarrassingly I’ve just had to Google her to find this information out.  Surely I’m not the only academic who tells students not to trust Wikipedia despite using it myself?!).

Even though simply glancing at this one cover has highlighted some of the themes and issues that I am exploring in the provisionally titled New Women, New Magazines, I do not have Marie Claire on my list of publications to sample.  Having a copy in my possession, a copy that I will probably keep because it is useful, has forced me to consider why I haven’t chosen it and what criteria I have used to make my initial selection.  This scrutinizing has not been easy, although I believe it has made for good professional practice.  How often do we stop and consciously examine the research decisions that we have made or the boundaries we have created for our projects?  So much of what we do develops organically, often expanding on earlier work or emerging off the back of casual conversations that spark insight or building on a source that has serendipitously fallen into hands.  I also think that the best work, the projects that we are most passionate about and most engaged with, comes from this organic process.  Yet I’ve realized that taking some time to evaluate my parameters and sampling decisions, subjecting them to the kinds of rigour that an outsider such as a reviewer might, is helpful and ultimately beneficial to the project.  It is also something that might require me to overcome one of my biggest issues, which is asking for help; being able to talk my ideas over with a trusted colleague may be more fruitful than angsting alone at my desk.

This evaluation is far from complete but I have come up with some answers as to why I have not selected Marie Claire, at least to begin with.  There are lots of good reasons why it should make the list.  The mid to late 1980s saw a ‘European invasion’ of the UK women’s magazine market, with the launch of numerous British editions of best-selling continental titles.  Marie Claire was an important part of this trend.  It also pioneered a new blend of content, including a greater degree of reporting on so-called ‘serious’ issues alongside standard women’s magazine fare.  Yet this integral part of Marie Claire’s brand identity is what I think has stopped me from including it.  A magazine junkie all my life, I’ve read it in the dentist’s waiting room but have never bought it because I’ve long found the discussion of topics such as female genital mutilation juxtaposed with glossy high end fashion advertising and articles like ‘Rev up your relationship in a week’ jarring.  I admire the editorship for their efforts to break the model but feel the combination of subject areas does not do any of the individual elements justice.  As a reader (even a casual one), I feel flippant for skipping past the cutting-edge features, especially because they frequently concentrate on issues close to my feminist heart, but often what one wants from a magazine is a bit of light relief and a moment’s escapism.  Striking a balance between informative and entertaining is a tough call.

So that is my reason.  Put simply: I have never really liked Marie Claire.  This does not feel very professional.  Maybe I need to be more objective in choosing and draw a clearer line between myself as magazine researcher and myself as magazine reader.  More to think about, and more to explore in my evaluation!      

‘Dress Up’ at the Ashmolean

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to be a speaker at ‘Dress Up’ at the Ashmolean Museum.  Part of their LiveFriday series and held in conjunction with Oxford Fashion Week, the event saw the museum come alive for an evening with catwalk shows, stalls and talks all about the concept of dressing up.  My talk was called ‘Democracy and Dancing: Dressing-up in the twentieth century’ and I explored the inextricable links between music, dancing and fashion between the 1920s and the present day, with a particular focus on working-class youth.  It was a bit of a whirlwind, covering Blackpool’s ballrooms to Cliff Richard to two-tone and ska, and I certainly raised more questions than answers, but it is an interesting area of research that I’d certainly like to develop further, perhaps as a future teaching module.

To complement my talk, I had an ‘information station’ entitled ‘Advice and Aspiration: dressing up with women’s magazines’, on which I put out  women’s magazines from the 1930s to the 1970s to browse through.  As well as trying to answer any specific questions that people had, including advising on possible avenues for donating an old patchwork quilt and explaining why there are so many similar ‘copy-cat’ titles in the periodicals market, this also provided an opportunity to chat more generally about women’s magazines.  These conversations turned out to be some of the most rewarding and illuminating of my career to date!  Whilst I generally find that people are intrigued when I explain that I research women’s magazines in the mid to late twentieth century, it seems that actually having such publications physically present helped to prompt engagement and pushed the discussion beyond the ‘Oo that’s interesting.  Is it really a job?’ level.  Although the range of titles displayed was not comprehensive, I did try to show a variety, from mass market weeklies such as Woman to high-end, high fashion glossies such as Harper’s Bazaar.  Out of them all, the real star of the show turned out to be Woman’s Weekly, also known as ‘the little pink and blue one’ or ‘best for knitting’.  More visitors to the stall picked up this one and talked about their memories of it than probably all of the other magazines put together.  ‘I remember this one!’, they’d enthuse, before sharing stories about their gran or their mum or a friend at college who read it (cont’d)

The magazines on display at my 'information station'Discussing magazines - image not at all posed!

Their comments confirmed widespread scholarly perceptions of Woman’s Weekly: that the patterns were one of its main attractions and that it was/is read mainly by older women.  At the same time, the reactions – and the sheer number them – took me by surprise.  Woman’s Weekly is typical of the magazines that it is too easy for us as researchers to dismiss, malign or generally just neglect.  The legacy of second wave feminism’s disdain for ‘feminine’ popular culture dies hard and Woman’s Weekly and its ilk can seem just a tad too dull, too mainstream, too ordinary, to warrant serious analysis.  Yet the conversations I had at ‘Dress Up’ reminded me how important it is to look at such sources, not in spite of but because of their quotidian qualities.  Millions of women read Woman’s Weekly and continue to do so, its popularity attested to when it celebrated its centenary in late 2011.  Publishers have recognised readers’ loyalty to such titles.  As scholars, we need to do likewise and give more consideration to what it was about these magazines that kept women buying them week after week, month after month, year after year.  The memories I heard made it clear that they occupied an important, if ephemeral, place in women’s lives, but as yet they do not hold a correspondingly significant position in the literature.