Isabella was 26 years old in 1867, when a new women’s magazine called Harper’s Bazar was launched in America.
Harper’s Bazar was different from other women’s magazines—like Godey’s Lady’s Book—because it was published weekly, rather than monthly. Its content was exclusively directed toward women. Each issue featured stories, decorating advice, recipes, instruction on home economics, needlework patterns, and, of course, fashion plates.
The fashion plates detailed the latest clothing trends from Paris and New York. By the late 1890s, most issues of the magazine featured hand-colored engravings of gowns, coats, bonnets, shoes, and just about every other article of clothing a lady could imagine.
The magazine had a great influence over women in all walks of life. Isabella wrote about that influence in her novel Divers Women, when she described Kitty, who worked as a clerk in a dry-goods store and devoted almost all of her salary to recreating the fashions she saw in magazines:
Miss Kitty Brown was a tall slender girl with a very small waist, and a pale, rather pretty face. She was gotten up in the style of the last fashion plate. She wore trails and high heels, and bows, and frizzes, and puffs, and jewelry, and a stylish little hat with a long plume. She had a sky-blue silk dress with ruffles, and pleatings, and ribbons innumerable, and a white Swiss muslin and a pink muslin that floated about her like soft clouds.
In creating Kitty Brown, and other female characters, Isabella often conveyed the message that ladies who dressed as Kitty did were uneducated, lacking in taste, and prone to take fashion to extremes.
Isabella objected to seeing women dressed in an “accumulation of silk, and lace, and flounce, and ruffle, and fold, and double plaits, and single plaits, and box plaits, and double box plaits, and fringe, and gimp, and ribbons, and bows.” That’s how she described the trends that were fashionable when she wrote her novel, The King’s Daughter.
Later in the same book, she sympathized with the many layers of fabric and trim the fashion magazines required “one poor little suffering body to carry around with her.”
She even wrote a brief article for The Pansy magazine about women’s slavery to fashion—an article she flavored it with just a touch of shade:
Our Fashion Plate
Fashion, you know, is a queer thing. It keeps changing and changing without regard to taste, or even to sense, one would think; and as we are fond of getting fashions from abroad, I present you with the picture of two ladies in full court dress. They are from Bombay, which is certainly a large and important enough place for us to give attention to their style of dress.
You will notice that they have taken special pains with their embroidery and jewelry. I doubt whether we could match the bracelets in this country, in size, at least. But what about the feet! How should you like a fashion that would banish all the pretty kid boots, and scarlet, and navy-blue, and brilliant plaid stockings, and oblige us to dress just in our “skin and toes” as a certain little miss put it? Oh, well, there is really no telling what we may come to. I have so much faith in our dear American people that I believe they would follow like martyrs in the bare-footed line, if the next orders from Paris should direct it. Yes, and the little girls would lay aside their kid boots and lovely stockings with a sigh indeed, but they would do it.
As to the bracelets, judging from the size which some ladies and even a few little misses wear now, I am not sure but we could put these large ones on without a sigh; that is, if they cost enough money. Meantime, however, I am rather glad that we don’t live in Bombay. Aren’t you?
What do you think of Isabella’s opinions about fashion?
Do you think that women (and men) pay too much attention to fashion styles and trends?
You can read more about Isabella’s novels mentioned in this post by clicking on the covers below: