Modernism for the Masses: the Exterior Mode, Vogue, and the Construction of Feminine Identity

ESSAY by Kerith Asma


A Vogue’s-Eye View

The opening line to the “Vogue’s Eye View of the Mode” feature in the  February 15, 1927 issue of Vogue declares that “Chic is, in a manner of speaking, a form of architecture,” revealing an important aspect of Vogue’s point of view.[1] Vogue not only sees the latest fashions, it also spies the chicest fashions. Vogue readers, therefore, are meant to adopt the latest mode according to Vogue’s comprehensive, but still exclusively fashionable, perspective. The idea that “Chic is…a form of architecture,” is a succinct summary of how fashion works in 1920s and 30s Vogue. The ideal appearance is ultimately an act of construction, an act of building the body through dress, which renders the chic woman visibly fashionable to the society represented by and in the pages of Vogue. The February 1927 “Vogue’s Eye View of the Mode” goes on to proclaim that “the most outstanding quality of the present mode is its effect of sleekness, of compactness.” The fashions it hails mirror the sleekness of the modern world, a world in which ornament is extraneous and a smooth, clean, machine-like form is the ideal. “The key-word to all chic is simplicity,” and in its simplicity, every woman ought to be able to achieve it, regardless of income or circumstances.[2]

In the world of Vogue, chicness itself, then, as much as the clothes that engender it, is a kind of modern “costume,” something like an aura or identity, that must be carefully built so that all of its constituent elements contribute to the total effect.  The “Vogue’s Eye View” seizes upon each formal detail that contributes to the latest manifestation of chicness, and invests them with their own transformative powers. Line, for example, “has a new meaning in the mode…it traces chic across innumerable models…[and] adds great interest to the effect of simplicity.”[3]

Figure 1 – “Vogue’s Eye View: Chic.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 51-51.

Figure 1 – “Vogue’s Eye View: Chic.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 51-51.

The graphic that introduces “Vogue’s Eye View: Chic” emphasizes the critical view point from which chicness is appraised. The image is clearly evocative of the ways in which fashion is something to be viewed and judged—the eye at the center projects its discernment—as well as something that invites viewing. It is unclear, though, exactly who or what is doing the viewing here. The importance of viewing and being viewed here (the eye seems to be looking simultaneously at the different panels, but both the eye and the panels are also viewed by the reader) is vital to the way Vogue emphasizes the creation of identity: fashion—the correct, chic fashion—is the means by which women can achieve a costume which reflects and determines an interior self. Fashion, as portrayed in Vogue, is a functional construction that enables the fashionable woman to display her self and provides a foundation for her role in society.

Two particular modernist aesthetics are significantly relevant to Vogue’s emphasis on sleekness, chic, and appearance: Jessica Burstein’s account of cold modernism and Judith Brown’s description of glamour each provide a means for understanding Vogue’s focus on exterior appearance and identity to the neglect of an interior self. Brown’s depiction of glamour as modern­—sleek surface rendered beautiful, deadly, and sublime—and Burstein’s delineation of a modernist aesthetic which emphasizes exteriority, the body, and spatiality as content seem like they ought to be more compatible than they are in actuality. Both deal primarily with the exteriors and surfaces of Modernism, both emphasize coldness, and both focus on similar (and occasionally overlapping) texts in order to discuss the diminished (or entirely removed) role of the self. However, Brown’s modernist aesthetic removes considerations of subjectivity, and her aesthetics of glamour is premised on a hypothetical lack of the self, on negation. Burstein’s aesthetic of cold modernism, by contrast, is premised on sheer emptiness (not lack, because there simply is no self, not even a suggestion of a self, only surfaces).[4] Where Burstein describes “a world in which the self is simply not part of the aesthetic register,”[5] Brown posits a desire for lack of subjectivity, rather than an already-completed lack. For Brown, “the pleasure of the negative has therefore to do with the movement between reality and illusion, attraction and repulsion, and the desire for a subjective nothing, a self freed of human need, the extreme of impersonality.”[6]

In other words, Burstein takes a similar modernist aesthetic to Brown’s and pushes it even farther, until the human is barely present (if present at all, it is only formally as in Hans Bellmer’s disjointed, prosthetic dolls):

What precisely cold modernism explains, however, is not the question of what it is to be human, but what it is simply or merely to be; the status of the human has no especial purchase, and thus the human form is on par with seemingly dissimilar entities in the world: clothing, cars, and curtains, for example.[7]

Whereas Burstein assumes sheer exteriors, surface without any kind of self or subject behind or beneath them, Brown argues that “Glamour inheres in neither object nor subject, but is produced, most intangibly, in the space between them, in their interrelation.”[8]

Rather than taking fashion to be a manifestation of an affective, interior self, Vogue emphasizes modern exterior surfaces as the means by which one constructs identity and defines subjectivity. That is, where Brown argues that glamour occurs in the relationship between the subject and its appearance, and where Burstein describes exteriors without any form of the self, Vogue delineates a form of the self that inheres entirely in surface, in external accoutrements, and in interiors made superficial. As an object of mass culture, Vogue is supposed to be sentimental, and diametrically opposed to any modernist aesthetic; however, Vogue parallels cold modernism and glamour, using this modernist aesthetic of exterior appearance to create a version of the self that is purely surface.

The intersections between Vogue and a cold modernist aesthetic disclose the ways in which Vogue enables its reader to create a version of the self premised not on sentimental interiority, but on the surfaces created through dress and beauty products. In contrast to “a sentimental account of the social world as an affective space where people ought to be legitimated because they have feelings,”[9] Vogue presents an account of social spaces which revolves entirely around dress and other exterior surfaces. Beauty in Vogue is predicated on the interplay between interiors—whether mental, bodily, or spatial—and exterior appearance.

Because Vogue emphasizes this fashionable aesthetic in public spaces, it is possible to view Vogue as an example of an intimate public that is alternate to sentimentality. According to Lauren Berlant’s conception of a feminine public space—which depends on shared affective expectations—an intimate public is constituted by a consumer market “claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires,” and which enable “the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however mediated.”[10]  That is, shared consumer desire acts as a seemingly intimate connection between people even in what is essentially an impersonal public space. Furthermore, an intimate public reflects the “desire of a complex person to rework the details of her history to become a vague or simpler version of herself;” an intimate public provides a way for individuals to cohesively render their subjectivity accessible to others.[11] By presenting a means of constructing a cohesive, chic self through dress, Vogue provides an alternative example of an intimate public constituted around surfaces and exteriors, rather than through an affective response. Moreover, through this intimate public and the modernist aspects of Vogue more generally, the fashions in Vogue provide women with a potential to construct an identity which is premised on a purely formal interiority, focused on exteriors rather than on a sentimental, affective interior state.


Aesthetically Fashioned: Cold Modernism, Vogue, and the Construction of the Self

Vogue has consistently been an influential fashion powerhouse since shortly after its first issue was published in 1892.[12] The advent of mass-produced ready-to-wear fashions in the late nineteenth century furnished a space for magazines detailing the moment-to-moment trends of fashion, and it would be hard to dispute that “Vogue is the preeminent fashion publication in America” throughout its publication history.[13] Although there are occasional nods to a male perspective, Vogue focuses its attention on clothing the female body, preparing its reader to move through the public sphere as a woman, and tracking the latest changes in women’s fashions. Coming as it does out of a tradition of women’s magazines that all “largely followed similar formulas, with editorial content that emphasized the traditional roles of women as wives and mothers,” and which only slowly shifted toward a greater emphasis on fashion, Vogue differentiates itself from more conventional (at the time) representations of femininity by focusing exclusively on fashion. Vogue emphasizes surface and exteriority rather than an interior sentimental version of the feminine.[14] Most of each issue is composed of advertisements and what articles there are focus on contemporary trends in fashion or describe how to navigate fashionable social situations. Through its depictions of the female form, and its privileging of exteriority over an interior self, Vogue constructs a modernism for the female masses. By appropriating a modernist aesthetic Vogue, as an object of mass culture, creates a space in which feminine identity is necessarily constituted by the dictates of high fashion.[15]

The idea of a feminine, fashionable identity created through a modernist aesthetic seems counterintuitive, in that “the traditional mass culture/modernism dichotomy has been gendered…as female/male.”[16] Modernism, with its advocacy for high art and contempt for mass culture, generally aligns itself with, and as, the masculine; consequently, the feminine, particularly what is cast as distinctly feminine sentimentality, becomes the object of modernist disdain.[17] At its extreme, modernism, in what Jessica Burstein calls “cold modernism,” completely disavows  any elements of the self, including any kind of sentiment or emotion.  Although modernism generally acknowledges a change or even a death of the self, “the premise of cold modernism is that there is a world in which the mind does not exist, let alone matter—or it does matter, but in the physical sense.”[18] Furthermore, “cold modernism valorizes exteriority…the body is taken as the start and the finish of all explanation;”[19] the interiority of the self is subsumed by the exterior. The emphasis is on form as content: “cold modernism does not distinguish between form and content…[it is] all outside, and surface all the way down.”[20]

Modernism places emphasis on newness and originality.  Mass culture, defined by repetition and reproduction, is its natural antagonist. Vogue inhabits this distinction between mass culture and Modernism, and the gendered assumptions intrinsic to these two supposedly separate spheres are reflected onto Vogue. Because Vogue is aligned with mass culture, it is also implicitly yoked to the feminine, to what Naomi Schor describes in Reading in Detail as Western culture’s ongoing emphasis on the detail and particularism, which, as an aesthetic, is seen as detrimental to the more masculine arts capable of grasping an ideal or generality. [21] Because this thesis emphasizes the modernist aesthetic in Vogue, it will assume, however cursorily, the perspective on gender (read: femininity) and mass culture that modernism most generally espouses; that is, this thesis will read Vogue, qua mass culture, as feminine; this is because, at least structurally, it does not evoke a modernist novel or artwork. Like modernist works, Vogue is intended for a specific kind of reader. Unlike modernist novels and artworks, however, which frequently emphasize an esoteric, often difficult to comprehend form, Vogue is designed with feminine, everyday reader in mind. For example, the magazine  includes recommendations for adapting avant garde fashions within the constraints of a budget, advice on how to navigate social situations, and basic information on schools. Vogue offers its readers an explicit account of how to live based on its fashion texts.

Even if one accepts a clear divide between modernist high art and mass culture, the embodiment of both is evident, simultaneously, in the pages of Vogue, where mass culture—in the form of a mass produced and distributed fashion magazine—adopts modernist ideals of originality, uniqueness, exteriority over interiority, and form over content. To a certain extent, fashion magazines (in general) are reflective of this conjunction of mass culture and high art; fashion itself espouses modernist elements, such as the perpetual “quest for originality.”[22] Yet Vogue offers a particularly salient example, in the 1920s and 1930s, of this intersection, with its emptiness of literal content—composed as it is mostly of advertisements—and its portrayal of the female body as a form, as opposed to an individual woman, that invites different readers’ identification. Because Vogue prescribes a way for its reader to live through fashion, the reader is expected to identify with these abstract, stylized depictions of the female form, and to appropriate its aesthetic elements, rather than to simply appreciate or admire them. Issues from this period portray “an aesthetics and discourse of glamour…[which] centers largely on the negation of any idea of an essential human self or body, and an embrace of the streamlined, the mechanical, the orchestrated, stylized, conspicuously presentational subject.”[23]

Stylization—what Anne Hollander describes as “human looks reduced and abstracted into patterns”[24]—is an important characteristic for all of Vogue’s covers from the 1920s and early-to-mid 30s.[25] In contrast to Vanity Fair, another important fashion magazine of the era (whose covers tended to be more abstract and depict a wider range of subjects), Vogue’s covers emphasized the elements of fashion distilled onto a figural, unrealistic female face or body, or onto “the ideal simplified shape of a sleek body.”[26] Harper’s Bazaar, the third major fashion magazine of the era, is notably similar to Vogue in its cover designs by Erte, whose Art Deco works during the 1920s and 1930s reflect a similar abstraction of female form. However, Erte’s covers focus entirely on the cover as a design of its own, to the total exclusion of a recognizable female figure. Rather than portraying an ideal, albeit simplified female body, Erte presents two perfectly circular, disembodied heads in a characteristic example of an Erte cover from 1927 (Figure 2), which shows the overall trend of illustrating the female figure rendered entirely as a design element, while at the same time providing a contrast to the more fashion-focused covers of Vogue.

Figure 2 - "Cover." Harper's Bazaar. 60, no. 6 (June 1927).

Figure 2 – “Cover.” Harper’s Bazaar. 60, no. 6 (June 1927).

In contrast to Erte’s cover, in which a head floats above another, both covered in a print (although whether it is meant to be a design element or a fashion bonnet is unclear), the stylization of Vogue covers is not simply limited to an Art Deco aesthetic, nor do the fantastical elements in Vogue covers seem to be working in the same hyper-abstracted way. That is, the figures on Vogue covers are clearly women, even as they are abstractly stylized. Take for example the following two covers,  in Figures 3 and 4: each though different in theme, uses the same illustration techniques to present a female figure whose features are indistinct. The covers from February 15, 1927 and July 1, 1933 are actually somewhat unusual for Vogue covers from this period, in that they present fantastical scenarios—near flight in a circus setting in the former, and underwater in the latter—which do not necessarily present the current mode in fashion. What the covers do present is a depiction of a female figure whose appearance simultaneously matches that of the other covers but also takes on a particular “identity.”


Figure 3 - "Cover: Vogue." Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): C1.

Figure 3 – “Cover: Vogue.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): C1.

This potential identification is neatly embodied on Vogue’s cover from February 15, 1927, in which a woman is depicted riding a zebra-unicorn suspended in mid-air, leaping from a grassy ledge. Immediately there is potential for the woman to either fly or fall with her mystical steed, in same way that by wearing the latest spring fashions, she may achieve success in constructing a cohesive—albeit constantly mutable—identity or she may fail to achieve “chicness.” However, what exactly constitutes that identity on the cover is somewhat unclear. Clad in a long coat, top hat and veil the figure seems to recall early 1900s trends more than it espouses a contemporary flapper sleekness (although the woman’s body does adhere to the straight, long lines of the 1920s). At the same time, this historicism-in-dress[27] is muddled by the fantastical elements of the figure’s dress and surroundings, such as the stars that stream from the figure’s veil or the ringmaster-esque coat with its tails and wide cuffs. If a version of the self is being constructed here, it is a version that is abstract and fantastical, rather than one that can be actualized.

If womanliness is a mask and a kind of masquerade, then the costume here is confused, a jumble of elements past and present, fantastical and real.  Even the rendering of the figure’s face and body lends toward abstraction: rather than a depiction of an individual woman,[28] the female form here is just that, a form composed of sweeping lines that sweep, upwards and toward the right of the image. Unlike other covers, the positioning of the body here seems possible; it is unlikely, though, that readers would immediately identify with this figure, despite its more accessible physicality.

The surface features—historical elements, the fantastical, the body’s positioning, and the use of line—of the Vogue cover, ultimately create a vague, departicularized figure, allowing for reader identification with a general aesthetic, rather than a particular figure. What is important here, and for Vogue covers more generally, is that these formal characteristics are the substance of the cover. That is, all of these exterior features constitute the content of the cover; any identification the reader has with it is through the form of the body, the historical reference, or within the typification of the figure, rather than with a kind of affect or sentiment contained in these elements. Vogue covers do not depict any kind of interior state, but rather focus explicitly on exteriors.

Fashion, according to this 1927 issue of Vogue, is an art dedicated to “complicated lines leading to simplicity.” This theme of a fashion spread in the February 15th issue demonstrates the sublimation of the clothing’s construction—the already formal content of its fabric, cut, color, ornament, and closures—into an overall effect of sleekness.[29] The idea that “the several silhouettes for spring are based on the single, difficult principle of simplicity achieved through elaboration” is reflective of an overall emphasis on form, and on the appearance achieved by constructing the body through clothing. This aesthetic was taken up in the form of Nada, a brand of dress in the 1920s. The dresses sold by Nada emphasized a sleek straight line, almost identical in appearance, rendering the female body geometrical rather than curvaceous. Nada dresses emptied the body of traditional female form; “just as previously corsets could reshape the body, now the dress itself, steeled as it was with pure line, would recontour” the female figure.[30]

Perhaps even more iconic of the sleek modern line is Chanel’s Little Black Dress, which reappeared in many issues of Vogue in the 1920s. This “modernist ‘nothing of a dress,’ as Chanel would call it,’” as well as her iconic Chanel No. 5 perfume, reflects a cold modernist aesthetic “devoid of content [and] replete with surface”[31] Similarly, Chanel’s No. 5 offers a perfect example of the artificiality, syntheticness, and glamour of a modernist aesthetic. The content of a perfume—normally the natural or recognizable scents it evokes—becomes irrelevant for Chanel’s No. 5 because its scent is synthetic, not representative of any natural or identifiable thing; instead, “a woman’s fragrance, [Chanel] believed, should reflect the multiple dimensions of women’s modern day lives…[in] a scent that was multiply layered, paradoxical, and, she said, ‘composed.’”[32] Perfume is something worn on the exterior of the body as an analog to the natural scent of that body; in the case of Chanel No. 5, the body must smell (as though naturally) like the modern, the synthetic, the sleek, or the vaguely technological. As such, the natural body is made into something that must seem naturally artificial, inherently modern and synthetic. Chanel No. 5, as an instantiation of a cold modernist aesthetic—as well as glamour, in “the distance it takes one away from the human, its coldness and abstraction registering a new aesthetic dimension”[33]—seems to be at odds with its ostensible potential for individuality. Its very reproducibility made it possible for a large number of Vogue readers to wear the same scent, even though wearing that scent ostensibly marked one’s status as modern and new.

Figure 4 - "Fashion: As Paris Dances." Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 63.

Figure 4 – “Fashion: As Paris Dances.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 63.

The importance of modern reproducibility is enfolded in the idea that “chic is a form of architecture” in which the self is constructed using the same sleek, reproducible fashions.[34] Vogue’s emphasis on the new and the modern and the chic reflects Burstein’s aesthetic of cold modernism as well as, to a certain extent Brown’s idea of glamour. Chicness, like glamour and cold modernism, is defined by negation. Vogue depicts all the things chic is not: chic is not necessarily beauty, nor is it economically based, nor is it glamour, nor is it style. Chic is an aura,one that can be built through the right effects, as the “Vogue’s Eye-View” attempts to demonstrate. At the same time, what exactly those effects are is difficult to pin down: in the same issue from February 15, 1927, an article titled “As Paris Dances” offers “Portrait Sketches of Chic Parisiennes” with images of “striking women” (Figure 4).[35] The nearest thing to a description of chic that the article offers is “smart,” and “slender;” which is to say, you know chic when you see it. And, in Figure 4, what is chic evokes both cold modernism and glamour. The figures, while identifiably human, are stylized into impossibly thin, curved lines, emphasizing their aesthetic quality rather than any sense of their individuality, despite being identified as  “Madame Roger Hart, at the left, and Madame A. Oppenheim.”[36] Chicness is aloof—the women are positioned looking away from the reader—and emptied of everything but the coldly modernist design effect. Glamor, likewise, “is cold, indifferent, and deathly; it relies on abstraction, on the thing translated into idea and therefore the loss of the thing itself, curling away from earthly concerns as if in a whiff of smoke.”[37]

Although Vogue is interested in the aesthetics of abstraction, its overall project is not to entirely remove subjectivity from its images. Rather, in the aesthetic project of Vogue, the interior subject is not dead, missing or irrelevant, but has been made into, and out of, surfaces and exteriors. Identity is constructed with clothing, with beauty products, and with accoutrements. Vogue, while incorporating a modernist aesthetic that treats the self as entirely removed, at the same time works to extrude the interior self onto, and into, exterior surfaces and forms.


Wearing the Inside on the Outside: Fabricating a Public Self

The Vogue of the 1930s is characterized by familiar elements. Vogue Patterns, a stylized cover, partially finished drawings to show the latest fashions, and a slew of articles on living in social spaces are hallmarks of Vogue’s format during both the 20s and the 30s. At the same time, issues like the one from July 1, 1933 mark certain shifts from the 1920s. The use of inanimate mannequins, an increase in fashion photography, and the inclusion of more articles describing daily life as the intersection between public interaction and fashion’s objects become increasingly common in the issues from the 1930s. Although, at this point, Vogue is still primarily filled with advertisements, the 1930s yield a higher article-to-advertisement ratio than previous decades.

figure 5a

Figure 5 – “Cover: Vogue.” Vogue 82, no. 1 (Jul 01, 1933): C1.

The advertisements and articles from Vogue July 1, 1933 emphasize the external embodiment of fashion as a means, if not the only means, for women to relate to public spaces of society. But, for an issue that focuses as intensely as it does on the ways fashion relates to public space, the cover depicts an unexpectedly private scene. It portrays a nude woman sitting alone on a seashell in an undersea landscape; gone is the woman wearing the latest fashions and framed by backdrops of skyscrapers and nightclubs. The cover does maintain the figurative stylization of the other covers; the woman depicted could not possibly be a real woman. The angles of her body and the pointedness of her hands and feet are unachievable by the real female figure, and her face is rendered through the use of hyper-symmetrical lines and oversized features. What is most notable about the cover, however, is not its fantastical setting nor its stylization, but the fact that the nude figure wears a necklace and a full face of make-up, with thick eyeliner, penciled eyebrows, and bright red lips. The emphasis of the issue is, after all, the “Beauty Number.” Lipstick and jewelry are required in order for the woman to be beautiful, even if that woman is the pseudo-classical nude. That is, the woman is only fashionable once she has been made-up through the artificial coloring of the lipstick.

Moreover, the figure itself embodies a sleek, modern aesthetic. Rather than portraying a classical nude, the cover depicts a tubular body that mimics the shape of contemporary clothes. Anne Hollander describes the phenomenon of clothes determining the shape of the body beneath—even when that body is no longer wearing those clothes—as follows: “’natural’ nudity is affected by two kinds of ideal nudity–the one created by clothes directly and the one created by nude art, which also depends on fashions of dress. Clothes, even when omitted, cannot be escaped.”[38] In order to be fashionable and chic, the female figure must not only wear the right lipstick and jewelry, but the body itself must also conform to the chic, modern aesthetic imposed upon it

So, then, if, as Burstein suggests, cold modernism is about simply being and not about what it means to be human,[39] how does Vogue, by appropriating a cold modernist aesthetic, enable its readers to take part in a uniquely feminine (and human) identity? It seems unlikely that readers could readily identify with an aesthetic which privileges surface, exteriority, and ignores the interior self entirely. But Vogue, even in its adherence to a cold modernist aesthetic, was immensely popular, and considered the preeminent fashion magazine during the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus the question arises: if this cold aesthetic is about having no notion of selfhood then how does Vogue provide a means of constructing a self? Although it is possible to argue that the answer has something to do with a balance that Vogue offers between high fashion—where much of the coldness resides—and the “popular” elements of the magazine, like advertisements for domestic products, patterns to replicate high fashions on a low budget, and social pages providing information about schools, marriages, and travel, ultimately Vogue emphasizes the construction of a self through exteriority in both high and low, avant-garde and popular elements. Contrary to what one might think, the advertisements themselves are not the easily distinguishable as “popular” or mass, nor as separate from the overall aesthetic of Vogue, as the advertisements partake in the same aesthetic as the magazine’s articles. Nor does Vogue offer sentimentality in the same ways as other women’s magazines might, though it might appear to do so at first: though there is an article called “Pick-Me-Ups” on fighting off depression, the article is predicated on making external changes, like buying new stockings, taking a bath, or putting on beauty products.[40] Thus the interior state is determined though and as exterior things. “Interiority” is actually a function of exterior forms.

The idea that the exterior forms of clothing determine one’s identity is not a new one: in the Renaissance for example, “it was investiture, the putting on of clothes, that quite literally constituted a person…investiture was…the means by which a person was given a form, a shape, a social function, a ‘depth.’”[41] Although in the early 20th century clothes do not have the same power to constitute social position and power (Vogue frequently points out that chicness—that is, the higher status—is a facet of style and effort rather than economic means), clothes are nonetheless important for determining one’s identity, both individually and in society. The editors of Vogue in the 1920s and 30s would likely agree that “clothing is a worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body,” although they would likely also argue that it is a world of aesthetic features. [42] What is important in tracking the way that clothes have been used to constitute both the body and the person over time is that, as far back as the Renaissance, clothes have not been understood to reflect the body (or a person’s interior identity, for that matter), but rather as creative of the body and the interior self: “a person comes into being through the ‘second body’—the mask, the clothes—that they put on.”[43] Thus we come to the idea that identity—even interior identity—can be changed, determined as it is by clothing, which particularly in the fashion world of Vogue, changes almost incessantly. In cold modernism, says Burstein, “identity itself is prosthetic, infinitely iterable and extensive.”[44] Identity, in cold modern vogue, exists in the changeableness of exteriors, and in a certain putting-on of femininity that excludes notions of interiority.

Kerith Asma (MAPH’13) grew up in Michigan, which is happily close to Chicago, her current home. She currently works as a MAPH mentor and writing teacher. She is academically and personally interested in fashion, female identity, and depictions of the body.


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[1] “Vogue’s Eye View of the Mode.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 51.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 23.

[5] Jessica Burstein, Cold Modernism (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 3.

[6] Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions, 35.

[7] Burstein, Cold Modernism, 13.

[8] Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions, 9.

[9] Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008), 2.

[10] Ibid, 4-5.

[11] Ibid, 7.

[12] Daniel Delis Hill, As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), 6.

[13] Ibid, x.

[14] Ibid, 2.

[15] That is, I examine fashion as the facets of dress, beauty products, and other external accoutrements in Vogue which are supposed to constitute chicness. The particular details available within fashion enable the reader to create a kind of individuality, even as the reader partakes in a more general, typified aesthetic.

[16] Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986), 49.

[17] In art and particularly in literature, Modernists express a desire to be separate from mass culture, which is often seen as “low,” popular, and driven by tradition. In actuality, Modernism is greatly influenced by different elements and degrees of popular culture. Fashion itself is more often considered the realm of mass consumption, albeit at this time still somewhat limited by location and class standing, than as high art, and yet fashion permeates the works of prominent modernists: Virginia Woolf, for example, writing for Vogue UK, centered an entire story on a dress and its impropriety for the current fashions.

[18] Burstein, Cold Modernism, 2.

[19] Ibid, 13.

[20] Ibid, 12.

[21] Vogue is also explicitly aligned with the feminine because it deals almost exclusively with the female body, with women’s fashions, and with female figures in society. Early in its history, Vogue creates a separate magazine to account for male fashions, ensuring that it remains focused almost entirely on feminine identity, albeit an identity constructed through dress rather than dictated solely by biological sex or by occupation.

[22] George Rocheberg, “Can the Arts Survive Modernism? (A Discussion of the Characteristics, History, and Legacy of Modernism),” Critical Inquiry (11.2,1984),  6.

[23] Michael Newbury, “Celebrity and Glamour: Modernism for the Masses,” American Literary History (23.1, 2011), 3.

[24] Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), 336.

[25] Until the mid-1930s, when photographic covers began to take precedence, all Vogue covers were illustrated. The covers generally depicted female figures, emphasized simplified lines and colors, and incorporated elements of contemporary art movements such as Art Deco.

[26] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 338.

[27] Returns to historical trends have only become more prominent in the 1920s, as Vogue and other fashion magazines had at this point a few decades of writing tracking fashion trends to which one could refer. However, the reappropriation of earlier fashion trends remains more an act of costuming than current conceptions of the recycling of previous decades’ trends, such as the 2010s’ revisiting of 90s midriff-baring tops.

[28] Vogue covers have shifted over time from depicting the type to portraying either a well-known fashion model or celebrity. Although these typified illustrations were sometimes based on models, the illustrations themselves work toward a consistent kind of stylization which makes the form and features of the figure more abstract than unique.

[29] “Paris Prophesies Complicated Lines Leading to Simplicity,” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 53.

[30] Burstein, Cold Modernism, 149.

[31] Ibid, 149,150.

[32] Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions, 20.

[33] Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions, 22-3.

[34] “Vogue’s Eye View of the Mode.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 51.

[35] “As Paris Dances.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 64.

[36] “As Paris Dances.” Vogue 69, no. 4 (Feb 15, 1927): 64.

[37] Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions, 5.

[38] Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 87.

[39] Burstein, Cold Modernism, 13.

[40] “Features: Pick-Me-Ups.” Vogue 82, no. 1 (Jul 01, 1933): 47-47, 69.

[41] Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2.

[42] Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, 3.

[43] Ibid, 277.

[44] Burstein, Cold Modernism, 88.

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