At the Bazaar
September 26, 2011 | by Ali Pechman
It’s easy to overlook that Vogue, seemingly eponymous with the word fashion, debuted after Harper’s Bazaar, America’s first fashion magazine. Steeped longer in the Victorianism that defined the nineteenth century, Bazaar set about cataloguing the changes that an era of colonialism and industrialization brought to women’s dress. The original weekly (titled Harper’s Bazar) saw its first printing in November of 1867, as a slim, sixteen-page newsprint volume featuring drawings and articles on every aspect of fashion. The news item “Colors” reads more like an issue of political importance. (“Bismarck, or gold-brown, is the prevailing shade, and reappears in some guise almost every where. The new shades of green are its only formidable rivals. The deep green known as ‘Invisible,’ now called ‘Mermaid,’ is in great favor.”) An early cover from an 1868 issue shows hand-drawn hairstyles alongside paper-doll-like figures, nodding at French sophistication with hairdo trends like the “diadem of curls” and the “fleur de lis coiffure of braids.”
“Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style” at the International Center of Photography catalogues the transformations that technology of a different sort wrought on women’s bodies. The collection of more than thirty images—vivid color photographs from the past decade under editor Glenda Bailey—features work by famed fashion photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Terry Richardson, and Peter Lindbergh, as well as art-world luminaries like Nan Goldin and Chuck Close.
The century’s technology manifests itself twofold, on both sides of the camera. In one reference to the decade’s new machinery, a bright-lipped young model’s face is pulled back like plastic. Perhaps less obviously, in one editorial Chloë Sevigny plays a troubled celebrity, showing the voyeuristic quality the camera (especially the digital camera) brought to magazines. One tabloid-like photograph actually shows Sevigny solemnly reading a tabloid article about herself.
Some of the photographs are nearly as cartoonish and abstract as their 144-year-old predecessors. In one, red lips float against a night sky; in another, Stephanie Seymour is rendered in Warholian bubble-gum hues. A pretty blonde’s slender back looks just as anonymous as the long-necked, hand-drawn women who posed in their mantelets at Bazaar’s inception.
The original mission statement of the magazine reads
A Bazaar, in Oriental parlance, is not a vulgar marketplace for the sale of fish, flesh and fowl, but a vast repository for all the rare and costly things of earth–silk, velvets, cashmeres, spices, perfumes, and glittering gems; in a word, whatever can comfort the heart and delight the eye is found heaped up there in bewildering profusion. Such a repository we wish Harper’s Bazar to be.
The exhibition makes a case for Bazaar’s place in the magazine world as a home for the fantasy and romanticism of an earlier era. (Perhaps this explains why the median age of the Bazaar reader towers almost a decade above those of Vogue and Elle.) Echoes of Bazaar’s days as a breaking fashion news source resonate in Marc Jacob’s hour-by-hour fashion diary; its past as “the vast repository” for the rare and costly is no more apparent than in a leather-clad Naomi Campbell riding a crocodile. One leaves wondering what whimsical names a nineteenth-century editor might have bestowed on the black, snarly hairstyles of a Tim Burton–inspired shoot or on Lady Gaga’s cotton-candy colored blowout. The “fleur de lis coiffure of braids” may look ridiculous to us now, but in a few months (or moments) it will probably be on Lady Gaga’s head. The word fashion may derive from the root for invent, but after nearly a century and a half of the magazine, its silhouette hasn’t changed much.
Ali Pechman is a writer living in Chicago.