Patterns and Plates

The Steel-Engraving Lady ideal discussed at length in Fresh Lipstick—as well as elsewhere in the feminist literature—is named for the fashion plates (the steel engraving pictures) that appeared in the early fashion press. These magazines, of which Godey’s Ladies Book was the best known and longest-lasting, pictured women in the latest fashions.

To the modern eye, of course, the women look too stiff, formal, and precious, but even in the discourse of the times, the Steel-Engraving Lady was an ideal with specific (and very high) standards of behavior.

As I have explained extensively in the book, this ideal was originally a class-based concept and was meaningful only to a specific cultural subgroup. However, as the modern market democracy took hold, the desire for upward mobility and respectability among a wide group of commonfolk, including both natives and immigrants, the aesthetic formerly held by the aristocracy formed the basis for creditable appearance and behavior. Thus, aided by illustrations in the growing women’s press, the facial expressions of the elite were painstakingly mimicked and the slumping postures associated with lower class status were avoided.

When paper patterns were invented, magazines were used to show and sell them. These periodicals continued to offer advice of all sorts—on table manners and correct speech, as well as fashionable dress and acceptable grooming—to commonfolk attempting to acquire the look and manner of the “better sort.” This advertisement from one of the early pattern books, Butterick, clearly shows the upper class aspirations that were believed to motivate the readers.

Appeals to sexual attraction are simply absent from these magazines—such “animal desires” were anathema to the genteel aesthetic so many Americans were struggling to attain.

For most American women, even the “simple” black silk dress so often worn by Yankee Protestant aristocrats (like the founding feminist group) was an item of aspiration. Ads like the one here put a proper perspective on the difference class, geography, and ethnicity made in giving women access even to “sensible dress.”

Though aristocrats continued to be the fashion leaders (at least in these magazines) through the early decades of the twentieth century, they did not appear in the ads at all and began to appear in the articles (in Vogue and Bazaar) only around the turn of the 20th century. Instead, the women pictured in the ads were invariably actresses, as in Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s famous campaign for Recamier Cream.

Thus, even though actresses had a dubious social status until at least 1920, they had already built a solid base to be leaders in the area of appearance, simply by being willing to appear in the advertisements for a variety of products.

Another symptom of class that can be observed in the early fashion press is the practice of forcing uniforms on servants. Advertisements, aimed at “the lady of the house,” pushed simple, colorless clothing, with obvious markings as to rank and role, to be purchased as the required garments for domestic employment.

We can imagine that the women required to wear these clothes may have felt that such requirements pushed back the clock on class relations—and that the efforts of “dress reformers” were merely an attempt to push simple dress (once required of commoners by law) even during their private time.