Visit your neighborhood newsstand and peruse the titles marketed for women, and chances are you’ll see barely-teenage celebrities du jour dressed in the latest RTW and headline after headline promoting the latest advances in science-based youth preservation. Many periodicals offer more than meets the eye, however, and the selective reader can find magazines to suit her every need. From a healthy dose of celeb-fueled escapism to meaningful essays on women of importance, the times — and the topics — have changed.
A Brief History of Women’s Magazines
For hundreds of years, women’s periodicals have served the needs of their readership while reflecting the attitudes of the times. In the 1700s, women were expected to contribute intelligently to the important social and political issues of the day, and magazines for women usually featured serious journalistic pieces as well as robust fiction content. During the next century, the topics turned to the ideals of domesticity and morality, as well as practical advice for matters concerning fashion and relationships. By the turn of 20th century, a distinguished woman of a certain age would have turned to Good Housekeeping for serious fiction, information on political activism and why “pure” food should be an essential part of your diet.
As the American Century progressed, so did its magazines, with diverse topics ranging from news and politics to fashion, science and technology, and health and nutrition. Today, some publications such as Lucky choose to focus on a niche women’s interest (shopping for women’s clothes), while others such as Vogue provide a window into fashion as well as the interests, causes and lifestyles of the impeccably modern. And New York-Greenwich-Palm Beach-Hamptons “Society” swim magazine Quest has undeniable crossover appeal for men — even if they won’t admit to quietly following the social careers of the most prominent members of this uniquely American culture.
Even over the past 30 years the faces and features have changed. Yesterday’s supermodels have been replaced with today’s most popular stars. Count the number of times you see youthful sensations such as Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift on the covers of your newsstand’s bestselling titles — chances are it will be alongside articles on how to achieve the perfect, frizz-free beachy waves, elegies to paragons of eternal style and get-to-know-me fluff pieces on the celebrities you (kind of) recognize but can’t really recall why they’re famous.
Although there is a ton of verbal hand-wringing over a supposed dumbed-down culture that celebrates youth while discounting the beautiful wisdom that only comes with experience, the fact is that readers can find content of substance nearly everywhere. Need to stay abreast of everything news but don’t have time to read? Add a subscription to The Week to your monthly regimen that includes Town & Country. Do you love celebrity culture but worry Us Weekly is chewing up your brain cells? Add Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone to your must-read list. Alternatively, take another look at Vogue, which is perhaps the title that consistently contains the highest quality long-form essays on matters of culture and style.
The fact is that there is nothing with eagerly anticipating the September Vogue or the annual Best of Beauty issue of Allure. And while magazines such as Good Housekeeping no longer pack the political punch they did, women’s magazines are still a perfect reflection of what sells in today’s consumerist culture.