The Rules of Fashion and Marriage According to a Ladymag From 1895


For all we associate them with improbable sex tips, stupidly expensive beauty product recommendations and copious Photoshop, it’s taken quite some time for the ladymag to evolve into its current incarnation. For comparison, let’s consider this Ladies Home Journal from July 1895.

I found this particular copy buried in a New Orleans antique shop. For starters, the cover proudly declares the magazine is published in the historic home of mainline sensibility, Philadelphia—not New York. There’s no photos; everything is illustrated. Features include a large spread on “The Flowers on of the Field and Meadow,” a reported piece on “The Pay of Women Musicians,” sheet music for “The American Girl Waltz” by Richard Stahl, and a full-page rant on the lack of respect that children afford their elders—”The Blot on Our American Life.” There’s also a series of summer recipes including “cold lamb in tomato sauce” and “smothered fish.” No thanks!

But you’ll probably recognize this sort of thing: Tucked into the middle of the magazine is a little listicle titled, “The Rules of a Happy Wife,” by one Mrs. Burton Kingsland. It’s the dated ancestress of every piece of relationship advice you’ve ever read in a women’s magazine: Samples include:

“No man likes his wife to be a mere echo, but there are times when he wants to be agreed with, when it seems sweet and soothing and sympathetic to feel that his judgement guides hers, and that she accepts his estimate of men and things. He will be the more ready to think with her upon other occasions.”

“Yes, dear, yes, whatever you say about that Grover Cleveland. Now, about my plans to remodel the parlor…”

“A wife should always endeavor to speak well of people if only for her husband’s sake. It is good for him to hear of noble, true-hearted people, of those whose lives are clean and honest, who are happy and who love each other, of ‘plain living and high thinking.’ It restores his faith in human nature that so often shows its ugly side in the struggle of man against man for our modern Moloch.”

False; the couple that shit-talks the neighbors together stays together.

“‘Before no slightest revelation of the Godlike does man ever stand irreverent,’ says Carlyle—least of all when he sees it in the woman of his heart and home. More men are made better by women than by the church.”

Not that that means you should feel free to skip services, because you’re supposed to be a shining example there, too:

“A man expects his wife to be better than he. No matter how little religion a man may have himself his ideal wife is always a woman with the purity of soul that only a Christian can have; and to a good man it is usually part of his religion to believe that his wife is morally higher and nobler than himself.”

He can yammer about Darwin all he wants but your ass better be in that pew come Sunday morning. Don’t get too ascetic with your clothing, though:

The same gown evening after evening perhaps, the same coiffure year in and year our, may not exactly pall upon the taste of a devoted husband, but he soon ceases to look at his wife with the same interest as theretofore.

This being 1895, they do not go so far as to recommend regular BJs.

Now that you’ve a keener sense of your duties as a wife, let’s consider your summer wardrobe. According to Isabel A. Mallon in her piece “Comfortable Dressing in Summer”: “The toilette of the summer must be stamped not only with daintiness, but the looker-on must be conscious that the wearer of it is comfortable.” Not really sure why that’s the priority; perhaps the sight of a lady shifting uncomfortable or (Heaven forbid) perspiring might inspire gentlemen to thoughts of—dare I say it?—nakedness? Wouldn’t put it past these overheated late-Victorian types.

The instructions get very specific:

“If you are inclined to suffer from the heat, or have a short throat, let the collar of your summer bodice turn over, and do not, under any circumstances, wear the full, plaited or gathered quilles of ribbon or chiffon fancied, as they will not only be uncomfortable and unbecoming, but it is possible that the chiffon ones may suffer with you and grow limp and untidy-looking.”

Mrs. Mallon recommends mohair petticoats for lighter-weight wear and a “tiny little cape that is not much more than a collar” in case of evening draughts. She also suggests stays of neither satin nor coutil (whatever that is), but stiffened gauze, and adds that, “The well-fitting stay is the one that is a pleasure to wear, and which never seems to compress one.” Right. Sure.

As a parting shot comes this lengthy philosophical discourse on the essence of cool:

“There are two women who always look perfectly cool no matter how hot the day may be—and these are a Sister of Charity and a Quakeress. Yet neither of them can be said to wear garments that are cool to the touch or light in weight. They say that the secret of being cool is being dressed according to your position in life and keeping calm. The nervous, excited woman is always warmer than anybody else, and, so, after all, it may be that the secret of perfect coolness is perfect calmness. However, I think a smooth, well-arranged coiffure, a gown suited to one’s self, one’s position, the place and the season, and belongings in harmony with the gown, do much to make a woman satisfied with herself and tend to give her the desired air of placidity. To keep cool one’s self has, undoubtedly, much to do with the looking cool, and it would seem as if to control one’s angry passions, to get the better of one’s nerves and to think about pleasant things are quite a necessary as to have cool looking and cool feeling belongings.”

There is also an entire section on summer underwear, by the same author, which opens with the insistence that, “Summer underwear should be at once healthful and comfortable. It needs to have a certain quality of lightness in weight, and yet be sufficiently warm to keep one form getting that very undesirable illness—the summer cold.” Rather than reproduce her actual instructions, I’m just going to present the illustrations:

You get the idea. Wearing any of these getups to a grocery store at high summer in 2k14 would likely make you the most modestly dressed woman for miles. In fact, everyone would probably worry you’d taken ill.

But perhaps you’re simply too accustomed to the dissolute styles of today. Perhaps, just looking at these outfits and imagining a life swathed in cotton and without air conditioning, you feel a faint coming on. Don’t worry, dear—Ladies Home Journal has a solution for you, too:

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