For some the night is always darker…Soothing words from fiction

‘For some the night is always darker –
for them the skies of dawn are bluer too.’

I came across this quotation, scribbled
on the back of a business card, when sorting through some paperwork at the
weekend.  I first read it many moons ago
whilst researching for my PhD.  It is
from a short story called ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Gabriel Dundas, which appeared
in Woman magazine on 26th
January 1963.  I have only a vague
recollection of the plot.  According to
my notes, it is set on a farm.  Kay is
the younger sister and is back from college for the summer.  All her friends are doing a drama course, live
in a warehouse and talk about the fringe festival at Edinburgh.  Kay wears make-up and high heels when
visiting the farm assistant, a young man who has been to college and is looking
for his own farm.  She realizes that she
loves him.

Pretty standard women’s magazine
fiction.  I didn’t end up writing about
this story in particular, but could have done a nice little summary of what its
themes and motifs meant in the context of the time.  However historical analysis wouldn’t have
communicated what struck me about this story when I stumbled upon it in the archive.
What made the story stand out – what made
me write the opening line on a business card and tuck it away in my personal
possessions – is what Kay’s father tells her later on in proceedings.  He says, ‘The sky is bluer for you, and the
dark blacker. You live harder and you love harder…. But you’ve got to learn,
Kay, to whistle in the dark.’

‘The sky is bluer for you, and the dark
blacker. You live harder and you love harder…. But you’ve got to learn, Kay, to
whistle in the dark.’

At the time of the story’s publication,
Woman was the best-selling magazine
in the UK, with a circulation of over three million copies per week (that doesn’t
begin to cover the secondary audience – all the daughters, sisters, husbands,
friends etc. that would look at a single copy).
How many of those millions of readers also read those words from Kay’s
father?  Did they touch any of them in
the way that they did me?  Do they speak
to you at all?

The words may be as clichéd and
formulaic as the rest of the story, but something about them resonated deeply with
me during what was a difficult time in my life.
I’d long felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with me: that
I felt things (good and bad) more strongly than other people; I struggled to
live with highs and lows; everything was too much – I was too much.  To suddenly find acknowledgement that other
people (even if fictional) were like that was a balm to my soul.  I was not alone!  Others too felt the extra intensity, the
bluer and the blacker.  What relief!  

Years later, I still use Kay’s father’s
words as a framework for understanding how I perceive the world.  I’ve learnt to accept that for me (but not
necessarily others in my life) the sky is bluer and the dark blacker.  I live harder and love harder, with both the
joys and pains that this brings.  And I’m
slowly learning to whistle in the dark.

Tell me, what lines from fiction have
guided you?  What’s spoken to your
soul?  Have any quotations become
mantra-like in your mind?  Alas the comment
function here still isn’t working but posted below are ways to join the
conversation on social media.

I hope the sky is bluer for you today.

Get in touch by commenting below or via
social media: there’s Instagram,
Twitter,
Pinterest
or the A Life Of One’s
Own Facebook page
.
And of course you can also email me (rae@alifeofonesown.co.uk).  

The Girl in the Grey Flannel Dress

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I’m currently reading Ali Haggett’s Desperate Housewives, Neuroses and the Domestic Environment, 1945-1970 (Pickering and Chatto, 2012) for the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.  Without wishing to pre-empt my review, it’s a great book full of fascinating examples.  Haggett’s discussion of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (p.21) particularly caught my eye.  She astutely observes that this book (1955) and subsequent film (1956) were part of a broader trend of critiquing suburbia and the mass market conformity of the post-war decades.  I had never heard of the film but it piqued my interest because it echoed the title of a pattern featured in Woman in 1960: ‘The girl in the grey flannel dress’ (19 March 1960, p. 13).  It is not clear whether the pattern name was a deliberate reference to the earlier film, but it is unlikely that the staff writers were not aware of it.  It is tantalizing to imagine what their thoughts were: were they trying to evoke the film and if so, why?  Did they share its socio-cultural standpoint?  Were they adding a gendered dimension to its critique?  Or did they just think it was a good pun?  As is so often the case with researching periodicals, we cannot possibly know.  There is no way to find out the thinking behind the hundreds of small decisions that went into producing each issue of a magazine, yet we researchers may spend hours (nay, weeks and months!) grappling with a single sentence, trying to figure out what lies behind the words themselves.  Coming up with some kind of answer to all my questions would probably take more time than it would to actually make the grey flannel dress itself.  Maybe I should give it a go.

 

Beauty isn’t all a matter of looking glamorous…

‘”Beauty isn’t all a matter of looking glamorous”: attitudes to glamour and beauty in 1950s women’s magazines’ is the title of my piece which won the 2012 Clare Evans Prize.  In it, I discuss the complicated and contradictory attitudes to glamour expressed in Home and Country (the magazine of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes) and Woman’s Outlook (the Women’s Co-operative Guild’s publication), with comparisons to Woman.  I also attempt to show how concepts such as glamour can be used to explore broader socio-cultural themes of the period, such as fears about perceived Americanization.  The article has now been published in Women’s History Review; it is available here (if you can’t get hold of a copy via your institution then let me know and I can send you an e-print).  

And I have to add a little yay!  It’s in print!  Hooray!

 

Images of Christmas past

This evening I am running a two hour session on women’s magazines for my local council’s adult education service.  I can’t remember at what point I thought that developing a whole new talk to deliver to a whole new type of audience in the last week before Christmas was a good idea but despite end-of-the-year fatigue, I am looking forward to it.  Most of all, I’m relishing the opportunity to discuss women’s magazines in a really “big” way with no limits on topic or time period, something I’ve never been able to do before (this was a big factor in accepting the offer).  However, because of this vastness, I’ve wrangled a lot about how to structure the session so that it doesn’t just degenerate into “Here is everything I know about women’s magazines”.  I’ve gone with focusing on the different factors that shape such publications (publishers, editors, advertising etc), trying to mix group work, analysis and anecdotes.  I had originally planned to use Prezi for the first time but decided this was too much of a risk (especially as I don’t think I’ll have internet access).  In the end I haven’t even used PowerPoint as I don’t want to overwhelm the audience with visuals.  Instead, the publicity posters requested attendees bring a magazine along with them so people have a focus to look at and a concrete example to consider as we move through the session.    

I am also taking a pile of old magazines in case anyone doesn’t bring one of their own.  From this pile, I’ve picked out a few to hold up and talk about at certain points, including the first issue of Clique, my latest obsession.  When sorting through what to take, I came across some old Christmas issues of women’s magazines from the 1950s.  Leafing through them, I was struck that whilst we tend to bemoan the season’s commercialism and hyped up idealism as if they were a recent phenomenon (think John Lewis’ picture perfect advertisements), actually these trends have a much longer history.  I mean, who doesn’t glam up like this 1954 Woman cover for their office party?!  

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And never mind the Boots catalogue or the perennial “What to buy the woman in your life” lists that populate Sunday supplements throughout C21st Decembers, this 1954 advertisement for Harvey Nichols in The Queen‘s “Christmas number” certainly peddles some  cosmetic gift sets (there’s a fair bit of bling on display too, presumably also available within the store).

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These images of Christmas past, taken from a year when the last vestiges of rationing had only just been lifted in Britain, bought to mind an even older comment from George Orwell about the festive season: “Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages”.  Retailers and the media pushing their Christmas agenda onto an unwitting public?  Was it ever thus?

Merry Christmas to you all.

 

Stella joins Clique’s clique

A copy of yesterday’s Stella The Sunday Telegraph‘s women’s supplement, has just crossed my lunch table and I almost choked when I clocked ‘From the Editor’.  ‘Welcome to the first ever interactive issue of Stella‘, it reads, going on to say ‘It is as easy as 1-2-3 to access our exciting extra content with your smartphone or tablet…get scanning!’.  The following pages contain symbols that when scanned reveal videos as well as the ability to buy some of the goods shown, as readers can with Clique, the new ‘clickable’ fashion and beauty magazine that I wrote the other week.  Of course this timing may be a coincidence, but I wonder if the Stella production team decided to run this ‘special interactive issue’ in response to the new launch.  Not that Clique is likely to become a rival to Stella in terms of audience or even advertising revenue, but even so the latest title on the block does seem to be pioneering in a direction that other publications with similar content are already following to some degree or another.  Is Stella attempting to ride the crest of this new wave too?  It looks that way, although it is notable that the high end brands are on board. The advertisements for Lancome and Valentina fragrances, for example, occupying the premium pages near the front of this Stella issue, are not scannable.  In fact, a quick scan (pardon the the pun!) through the issue reveals that the only advert from which the reader scan buy directly is for Amazon and the latest series of The Paradise on DVD.  Other advertisements encourage shopping via their website or app, but are not actually clickable themselves.  This may be because there wasn’t time in the production of Stella to get interactive advertisements (lending weight to the idea that the whole special issue is,directly or indirectly, a response to Clique‘s launch).  However, for clickable content to have a sustainable future that outlasts the immediate novelty value, advertisers from across the spectrum will need to be in on the act to support (ie subsidize) the inevitable rise in production costs and expenses that interactive editorial content will bring.  If the Debenhams beauty advertisement on the facing page doesn’t move to being clickable, for instance, then I don’t believe that ‘Scan page to shop and to watch make-up video’ option will last longer than the occasional special issue.

Will women click for Clique?

Right now at a bar in London, a new women’s magazine is being launched.  Alas, I am not at the party but I do have a copy of Clique’s first issue in front of me. A quick scroll down the @Cliquemaguk Twitter feed provides a clear indication of the magazine’s focus and content: good luck messages and comments about the launch party have been tweeted by brands ranging from Accessorize to Radley, New Look to Lulu Guiness.  The close, indeed inextricable, relationship between advertisers and those producing editorial content is writ large in the new title’s feed as well as its pages.  This is no surprise; the role of advertising in financing women’s magazines is well known.  What Clique is doing, however, takes this intertwining to the next level.  Claiming to be ‘The World’s First Totally Clickable / Shoppable / Watchable Fashion & Beauty Magazine’, it is designed to be an interactive experience.  Engagement with the magazine, and also its adverisers, via the Clique app is not just encouraged but expected; that is entire purpose of the new product. 

Indeed the word ‘product’ to describe Clique seems just as apt as terms such as magazine, publication, title.  Likewise, the woman with the magazine in her hands is perhaps better described as the consumer rather than the reader.  Despite some standard women’s magazine features, such as a cookery page, there is very little to read; the emphasis is firmly on visual content.  Furthermore, the magazine repeatedly and consistently positions the reader as a consumer.  Using the Clique app, the reader-consumer can ‘unlock hidden content’ on every page, indicated by a range of eight symbols.  This is where the interactive element comes in, allowing the reader-consumer to share details of items with friends, watch videos of fashion shoots or get styling tips.  Crucially, however, the reader-consumer can also ‘buy straight from the page’, ‘get a discount’, ‘pre-order now’ and ‘get a free sample’ – innovations clearly intended to attract advertisers and an audience alike.  It’s a marketing dream: magazines have long enticed women to purchase the goods that they feature but this has the added ‘impulse buy’ advantage.  The reader-consumer doesn’t have time to lose enthusiasm or begin to think rationally about her decision as she would if she had to go out to the shop, or even look an item up online (I should know.  I almost found myself the owner of a £185 pair of gloves).  As the new title’s name suggests, spending is just a click (or three) away.  Of course this also has an important advantage for Optima Communication Ltd, the publishers.  By using the app as an entry point to online retailer, the role of the Clique in publicising the item is acknowledged in a way that allows the editorial team to prove their effectiveness in marketing goods to the magazine’s audience. 

Of course, that effectiveness has yet to be proved.  At a time when well-established magazines are struggling to maintain readerships and some titles, such as More, have disappeared from newsagent shelves, it seems more difficult than ever for new ventures to make a go of it.  Having said that, tales of decline and difficulty are reoccuring motifs within the history of women’s magazines and every decade has seen its share of successes and failures.  The technological innovations within Clique may give it an advantage over the digital versions of the industry’s current mainstays.  Moreover, that there’s no cover price may allow it to compete with other recent successes, such as Stylist, although my first impression is that Clique is avoiding direct rivalry by seemingly targeting a slightly less affluent and less metropolitan audience, as well as being delivered monthly via the post rather than given away by street vendors and shops; interestingly, though, French Connection – who have been an erstwhile supporter of Stylist – tweeted Clique to toast ‘a print revolution’. 

A ‘print revolution’ is underway.  Last month saw the launch of Feminist Times, an attempt to create a mix of online and print content that is ad-free and PR-free, funded instead by paying members.  As a model, this is the opposite extreme to the approach used by Clique’s producers. Yet the appearance recently of what are effectively merchandise catalogues presented as ‘proper’ magazines, from discount retailers (SportsDirect.com) to purveyors of high end designer goods (net-a-porter.com), suggests that Optima Communications have tapped into a concurrent emerging trend.  Some may find this distasteful, but it is arguable preferable to the rather more deceptive situation where the advertisers have a huge influence over magazine content but nobody publicly admits it.  Perhaps consumers in the C21st are savvy enough to see through the smoke-and-mirrors.  Maybe this isn’t a revolution at all, but the final chapter in the evolution of the relationship between advertising and women’s magazines that took hold in the post-war period.  Indeed to the cultural commentators who derided ‘the little woman’ and her magazines in the 1950s and 60s, the further blurring of divisions between advertising and editorial content as seen in Clique would have seemed like some kind of dystopian nighmare of the future.  And it has come true.  They might have been surprised, though, that this development does not mean the end to the women’s magazine formula as they knew it.  On the contrary, alongside its innovations, Clique continues with many of the tried-and-tested formulaes found in women’s magazines throughout the last century.  For instance, the introduction to the ‘Christmas Shop in Style’ travel piece states ‘we’re more about shops than the slopes’, a classic example of women’s magazine discourse using the inclusive ‘we’ to join the editorial team and the consumer readers together (and also encouraging a focus on consumerism to the exclusion of other activities, in this skiing).  The title itself takes this sense of a shared club even further.  I will watch with interest how many women reader-consumers want to join this Clique.

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!