How fashion magazines spoke in the 1930s

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What could be more fabulously frivolous than a fashion magazine? Very little, it turns out. This has also been the case in the past – and the splashing language of fashion rags prompted Dorothy Hughes of the University of Nebraska to take a closer look at the overblown dialect of magazines like Vogue and Diary of the house for ladies in 1935.

“The language of the fashion cloth has succeeded in giving an ordinary subject the pose of an esoteric cult,” observed Hughes. An analysis of the language used by fashion writers revealed that the fashion scribes of the thirties had plenty of linguistic tricks up their neatly cropped sleeves.

Hughes followed the many grammatical sins of fashion writers, from appending “-ish” and “-y” with abandon to the creation of their own words. Among the charming (so dated) examples she found in her review of series from eight different fashion magazines were words and phrases like Vionnetish, scarf, touchuppers, and brigand-came-riding. Fashion editors felt free to create, edit and co-opt language, inventing new colors and modifying verbs and nouns as they saw fit. From poetic tricks like alliteration (“sporty smooth”) to rare phrases such as referring to styles that were in vogue “full twelve months ago”, Hughes has found ample evidence of the creativity of fashion designers.

Despite an obvious delight in the literary derring-do that turned a woman’s leg into a “floor-scornful car” and a blue dress into a color like a “cathedral,” Hughes’ overall assessment of the writers fashion ‘skills was scathing. She called the writing style of fashion magazines “childishly simple,” comparing the work of a fashion writer to that of a skilled tailor who draped ephemeral layers over familiar foundations to render. old content new.

“The spirit of the fashion sheet shows little change,” Hughes wrote, taking a slightly bored and confused stance on the verbal tics and tricks of fashion editors. When it came to criticizing the expressive style of women, Hughes was not alone – her commentary can be considered one of a long series of articles that control the way women speak and write. As Ben Crair points out for New York magazine, critics have long denied the deep meanings of women’s language, even as media like the Internet are becoming places of gendered writing. Was Hughes part of the genre police? Maybe, but the very way she dwelled on the exaggerated language of yesterday’s fashion magazines reveals that their hyperbole and sentiment was as charming as it was chic.

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By: Dorothy Hughes

American Speech, vol. 10, n ° 3 (October 1935), pp. 191-194

Duke University Press

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