In my recent article for the MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities Special Issue ‘Scrutinizing Beauty’, I examined the concept of women’s elegance as it was shaped by the editor of the nineteenth-century Russian fashion journal Modnyi magazin (‘Fashion Shop’, 1862-1883). This notion was one of the key editorial concepts developed by the editor Sofia Rekhnevskaia-Mei, and it serves as an example of how she was adjusting Western ideas to address the local editorial challenges and concerns of Russian women.  

Французское слово élégance, которое у нас переводится щегольством, — хотя это и не совсем близко, — происходит от латинского eligere, что означает выбирать, избирать. Самый этот корень объясняет, лучше всего, предмет нашего разговора.

[The French word ‘elegance’, which is translated into Russian as shchegol’stvo—although it is not quite close—stems from a Latin word eligere, which means to choose, to select. This very root best of all explains the main subject of our magazine.][1]

Rekhnevskaia-Mei assimilated the Russian concept of elegance with the European one and developed an idiosyncratic notion of shchegol’stvo that became her editorial standpoint in guiding her female readers in the world of dressing. In the Russian Empire (especially in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fashion magazines), the word shchegol’stvo had dubious connotations and was often used as an ironic term for those whose aim was to impress others: ‘the stereotype of the affected young male or female socialite mad for foreign luxuries, the shchegol’ and shchegolikha’, as Catriona Kelly defines it.[2] On the contrary, Rekhnevskaia-Mei distinguished this trivialized notion associated with superficial and showy gallomania from her idea of ‘true shchegol’stvo’, which she implicitly equated to the French word ‘élégance’ with its emphasis on the solidity, simplicity, and modernity of style. I argue that this approach allowed the editor to address the needs of the varied Russian readership as well as nurturing her compatriots’ sense of belonging to a transnational imagined community of elegant women.

Modnyi magazin, 15 February 1866, front page and fashion plate

Firstly, I argue that extending the boundaries of the original concept of shchegol’stvo enabled Rekhnevskaia-Mei to target a more socially and economically diverse audience than that of preceding elitist magazines. The deliberate vagueness of the concept of elegance allowed it to serve as a universal ideal, flexible enough to be adjusted to different financial and social circumstances. This editorial approach served a double purpose. On the one hand, elegance as an ultimate target enabled women of modest means to participate in the fashion game: shchegol’stvo was presented as preferable to fashion, because it was not only desirable but also attainable for women of varied means, unlike expensive dresses and luxurious abundance. On the other hand, elegance as something that could not simply be bought but required genuine refinement allowed the editor to establish an aesthetic standard in times when ‘the traditional association between spending power and education’ was called into question.[3] In this way, Rekhnesvkaia-Mei was elaborating a rather inclusive aesthetic principle based on harmony and common sense, both equally accessible to women regardless of social standing.

Secondly, I demonstrate that elegance is a case of socio-cultural mediation through which the editor’s contribution to the transnational public sphere can be examined. Rekhnevskaia-Mei developed her concept of ‘true shchegol’stvo’ with a constant reference to the Parisian fashion authority. This not only granted credibility to her own reflections on elegance but shaped the national rhetoric on fashion in line with the European course while preserving its original Russian character. In her pursuit of an inclusive ideal for her compatriots, the Russian editor referred to elegant Parisians of different social classes and levels of income and provided her readers with different models of respectable elegance. Referring to Parisian women as experts on this matter stretched the inclusivity of the concept, which was claimed to be a universal principle relevant for women from different socio-cultural contexts. In this way, adopting the Parisian attitude affiliated Russian women with the modern and cosmopolitan group and nurtured their sense of belonging to the wider world.

Modnyi magazin, 1 February 1871, front page and fashion plate

To sum up, Rekhnevskaia-Mei was addressing local challenges and concerns of Russian women by applying the Western concept of elegance. Re-defining the Russian notion of elegance in Western terms was not a mere transmission of a ready-made European concept but the creative assimilation of the latter with the national culture: the Western connotations attributed a new meaning to the Russian concept and helped addressing local issues. In this way, Modnyi magazin served as a forum for shaping the local public sphere in line with the European one. Furthermore, this editorial strategy not only contributed to the cross-cultural diffusion of the concept of elegance but also facilitated the formation of modern types of social affiliation, bypassing both national and class-related borders. In other words, by shaping the local, Rekhnevskaia-Mei, as well as her successors in Russia and colleagues worldwide, contributed to the global.

Maria Alesina, 14/05/2018

[1] ‘Mody’ (‘Fashion’), Modnyi magazin, 15 February 1862, p. 89. The translation is my own.

[2] Catriona Kelly, Refining Russia: Advice Literature, Polite Culture, and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), p. 139.

[3] Kelly, Refining Russia, p. 157.