Getting ‘Between The Covers’ at The Women’s Library

Getting ‘Between The Covers’ at The Women’s Library

Like many a modern woman, I have a rather odd love-hate relationship with women’s magazines. Most of the time, I try to stay away from more aggravating publications, whose articles on ‘bagging a man’ or losing weight can make me spit with rage. However, I won’t deny that there is nothing like a glossy page, a colourful spread and a light-hearted article to provide a bit of escapism. I do treasure the times that I find a really great, thought provoking article, and many times this is my excuse for picking up certain titles. However, after reading said articles I can often be found cooing over the shoes in the style sections. I know it’s wrong, but sometimes it just feels so right.

Where better to examine my most unusual relationship, then, than at ‘Between the Covers: Women’s Magazines & their Readers‘. This exhibition, at The Women’s Library, charts the evolution of women’s magazines from the 17th century to the present day and, in doing so, has plenty of wonderful examples on show. Whilst each mag on display is safely housed behind glass, those itching to get their hands on the real deal will be pleased to know that, since the exhibition is made up of from The Women’s Library’s enormous archive of women’s magazines, there’s plenty of similar stuff to read upstairs in the actual library.

Detail of the front cover of Peg’s Paper from 1926. The illustration alludes to a story within the issue entitled ‘Could She Trust Him?’

It’s amazingly eye opening to look back at the very beginnings of women’s magazines. The first women’s periodical, The Ladies’ Mercury (from 1693) is on display here and, with it’s reader’s Problem Page, doesn’t look a world away from our modern-day reading material. Around this time, it was an upper class readership that consumed magazine material – material that came in the form of books, which were published with large intervals between ‘issues’. For example, The Ladies Diary (the one exhibited is from 1728) was an annual which combined information on perfumes, pastry and courtship, together with brain-teasing mathematical puzzles, in an attempt to reflect ‘what all women ought to be – innocent, modest, instructive and agreeable’.

Detail of the front cover of Woman Today from September 1947. The only article highlighted is one on the ‘Cost of Living’, to be found on page 8 within.

Alongside these early magazine examples a poster from 1915 is displayed, advertising The English Woman – ‘A monthly review dealing with the interests of women’. Detailing what could be found in that issue, the poster reads; Articles on the Women’s Movement at Home and Abroad, Women’s Work in Professions and Trades, Parliamentary Bills affecting Women and Children, Sociological Questions and their Influence on the Status of Women etc. With such meaty content on offer, I had to wonder when magazines began to lose interest in politics and deemed the ‘interests of women’ to be mere frivolities instead.

Detail of the front cover of Boyfriend from 1965. The illustration alludes to a story within entitled ‘Love In The Launderette’

One of the things I loved about the exhibition was the ‘Hall of Fame’ of female magazine editors from past and present. Katharine Whitehorn, Louise Chunn, Linda Kelsey, Claire Rayner, Ashanti Omkar and Sue O’Sullivan are all there, in all their hugely blown-up photographed glory. The photographs are accompanied by a set of audio interviews by Judith Palmer, which give visitors the opportunity to hear insiders’ views of magazine production. I’m not sure where else you might find such a wall of great women, and it was certainly refreshing to see these influential creatives being given the respect and admiration they deserve.

I also really enjoyed geeking out over the glass case that contained some particularly famous issues and iconic covers; Vogue Italia’s infamous Black Issue, for instance, and the first ever issue of the now best selling Glamour magazine. There is also the issue of Marie Claire where then editor Liz Jones made the bold move of releasing two different covers, one picturing the surgically enhanced Pamela Anderson and one with naturally curvy Sophie Dahl. The idea was to use this as a way of surveying reader’s preferences over female representation, the result being that 65% of readers chose to purchase the magazine with Dahl. Whilst readers seemed to love the cover experiment, within the industry the whole thing was met by disapproval and Jones left Marie Claire soon after. Jone’s successor, Marie O’Riordan, was the first editor to put a man on the cover of Marie Claire. That David Beckham issue from May 2002 is here too, of course.

The second issue of Spare Rib from July 1972. On the cover it demonstrates it’s content; ‘The Days Women Rocked The World’ and ‘Does The Government care about Pensioners?’ It also boasts an 8 page news section.

I have to say that I was also especially pleased to note the inclusion of zines in this exhibition. ‘Varla’s Passed Out Again’ and ‘Who’s That Bitch?’ looked great sitting next to old copies of Cosmo! Likewise, seeing Subtext in there alongside Spare Rib made me very hopeful for the future of feminist publishing.

‘True Confessions’, a specially commissioned film by Annis Joslin, was another high point for me. The film collected vox-pops from contemporary magazine readers, many echoing my own love-hate relationship with women’s glossies!

The way ‘Between The Covers’ is split up is a nice departure from other, more dry exhibitions. Rather than going for the tried and tested chronological ordering system, exhibits come under the headings of  ‘Love & Relationships’, ‘Fashion & Beauty’, ‘House & Home’ and ‘The Wider World’. This fresh approach brings together publications from different periods in an exciting overview of shifting trends. The whole exhibition is nicely designed, with colourful displays and creative typography which all adds to the sense that ‘Between The Covers’ has been made with love.

The exhibit’s helpful timeline. Strange to think that The F Word and Glamour Magazine were launched in the same year!

‘Between The Covers’ identifies itself as a one-stop-shop for all those who might need to understand the history of women’s magazines, fast. It’s true, but personally I wouldn’t recommend racing around the gallery since some of the best bits are of the ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ variety. This exhibition is such a mine of information that it’s worth taking time over.

For a magazine geek like myself, the exhibition at The Women’s Library is an absolute treasure trove. Since it’s opening on the 1st of November last year I have visited twice already and I’m so glad that it’s run has been extended so that I may be able to dip into it a few more times before it’s done. I suggest you get down there at least once!

‘Between The Covers’ is free to enter and runs until the 29th of August 2009.

By: Sarah Barnes, 23.03.2009 | Comments (1)
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