Book Review: Modernism and Modernity in British Women’s Magazines

1 June 2021

Jennifer Cameron, University of Hertfordshire

Alice Wood, Modernism and Modernity in British Women’s Magazines (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020)

This book is an original study of the connections between British print culture and the modernist movement during the interwar years. Wood, a senior lecturer in English at De Montfort University, chooses to focus on four British women’s periodicals of the time, namely Vogue, Eve / Eve: The Lady’s Pictorial, Good Housekeeping, and Harper’s Bazaar. With this book, her second monograph, Wood continues her previously published research into interwar women’s magazines and literary culture.

The book is divided into four distinct chapters: ‘Mediating Modernity’, ‘Modernism in Fashion’, ‘Dissident Voices and Feminist Experiment’, and ‘Modernist Reputations’. The first of these, ‘Mediating Modernity’, introduces the reader to the scope of this study and the chosen sample of women’s magazines. It continues with a close reading of the magazines through a critical analysis of a random sample. Wood’s attention lies with ‘their routine content, material features, and their diverse approaches to defining and negotiating the modern’ (26), and the chapter reviews these through a modernist lens.

Chapter 2 continues to explore the influence of modernism on the content, layout, and presentation of the magazines. It describes the ways in which the four magazines embraced modernism and how they kept their readership abreast of new experimental art, literature, dance, music, and theatre. In fact, Wood describes how the ‘difficulty, strangeness and exclusivity’ (73) of modernism were exactly what these magazines used to attract their readers to their sophisticated and high-class pages. Within this chapter there are fascinating insights into the connections between the modernist art movement and the visual presentation of the magazines. Fashion illustration in Vogue, Eve and Harper’s Bazaar during the 1920s reflected contemporary experimental art with its use of line, contrast, and geometric style. Then, in the 1930s, the move from artwork to photography confirmed the magazines’ modernity. Additionally, this chapter considers in what way ‘modernism was promoted as a fashionable accessory for the aspirational readers of 1920s British Vogue’ and how magazines such as Vogue made ‘highbrow’ modernism more accessible to their mainly middle-class female readers (67–68). 

The book then turns in Chapter 3 to consider the contributions that modernist writers, mainly women, made to these fashion magazines. In particular, there is a focus on contributions that displayed feminist viewpoints or were written with a dissident voice. The chapter examines several articles published in Good Housekeeping, with titles such as ‘Wives, Mothers and Homes: Can a married woman have a career outside her home?’ and ‘How to Become an MP’ (109). These challenged gender roles and domestic values and were echoed by short stories published in the same magazines, written by well-known modernists such as Radclyffe Hall, Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West. By doing this, the magazines placed modernism in dialogue with key non-conformist voices and feminist politics of the day. 

Finally, Chapter 4 discusses ‘Modernist Reputations’ and determines how fashion magazines of the 1920s and 1930s influenced and helped to create the reputation of modernist writers. It does this whilst affirming the elitist, highbrow, serious, and intellectual reputation of not only modernist works but their authors too. Wood focuses her study on two key individuals and their groups: Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and Gertrude Stein and the Parisian avant-garde. Wood describes how by writing for Vogue, Virginia Woolf ‘increased her visibility and net worth as a writer’ (148) and cultivated her and the Bloomsbury set’s celebrity. Stein’s reputation as an ‘experimental highbrow at the heart of the Parisian avant-garde’ (169) was affirmed by Harper’s Bazaar both parodying and printing her work in their pages throughout the 1930s.

The strength of this text lies in Wood’s clarity of writing and lively engagement with her material and reader from the start. This makes for a very enjoyable read, and at under 200 pages for the main body of the text, it is a fairly quick read too. Although it is a relatively short study, there are many interesting discussions. For example, the analysis of Dorothy Todd’s editorship of British Vogue demonstrates how Todd developed close ties to the Bloomsbury group and steered the magazine to increase its arts and cultural content (86).

The book concludes that all the reviewed magazines embraced modernism. However, this coverage peaked at different points in the 1920s depending on the magazine. By actively engaging with modernism, which was regarded as difficult and exclusive, fashion magazines made modernism fashionable and positioned their readers as part of modernism’s elite and exclusive audience. Modernism and Modernity in British Women’s Magazines is a text that would be of great interest to modernist scholars working in fashion, media, and print culture, and to historians interested in women’s print culture and fashion at the start of the twentieth century. 

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