The Power of the Ephemeral: Fashion Magazines as a Forum for Discussing Femininities in Late Imperial Russia
Constituting the very mainstream of women’s journalism in late imperial Russia, a century-long tradition of editing fashion magazines allowed women to participate in defining the popular standards of femininity.
From the 1830s and until the revolutionary year of 1917, women edited popular Russian fashion magazines in creative and innovative ways, shaping them according to their own convictions and personal considerations, and drawing on Western European fashion journalism to add new features to the genre. In the early 1830s, the pioneers Elizaveta Safonova and Maria Koshelevskaia started publishing translated versions of French needlework magazines and gradually transformed them into women’s periodicals with a variety of sections, based on both Western-borrowed and locally produced texts. Natalia Utilova was editing her Moda (1851-1861) as the first specifically “Russian” fashion magazine, and her thoughtful approach to fashion was adopted by consecutive generations. One of the key fashion periodicals of the following decades, Modnyi magazin (1862-1883), was founded by Sofia Mei, who combined reporting on fashion with extensive coverage of literature, art, and international news. From the late 1860s until the mid-80s, both Julia Pomerantseva and Sofia Shishmareva were hired by the influential publishing house of Herman Hoppe to edit several mass-market fashion periodicals (Novyi Russkii bazar, Modnyi svet, and their subsequent versions and spin-offs). At the end of the nineteenth century, Hoppe’s widow Adel’ took over his publishing business and founded several fashion magazines (Modistka, Parizhskaia moda). In the first decades of the twentieth century, countess Aleksandra Muraviova was editing her Damskii mir (1907-1917) and filled it with original reflections on good taste in the broadest sense of the word. Competing and collaborating with one another, these women were adopting one another’s approaches and complementing them with their own visions. As a result, together they succeeded in triggering several important socio-cultural processes that ultimately went far beyond fashion itself.
By enriching fashion periodicals with a reflective component, women editors extended the seemingly narrow boundaries of the genre and turned it into “a forum for serious cultural debate”. In contrast to the few male editors, women never considered a fashion magazine as a mere business enterprise but rather as a unique opportunity to participate in the public life from which there were generally excluded. To ensure the popularity of their magazines, they were developing the original content and broadening the spectrum of the topics covered. Incorporating literature, history, tastes and mores, art, international affairs, and women’s rights, fashion periodicals gradually became a key platform for shaping opinions not only on the sartorial trends but also on wider socio-cultural developments.
Through editing fashion periodicals, women became agents in the transnational exchange of ideas. The development of the fashion press in late imperial Russia not merely followed the general Western European pattern; content was taken directly from French, German, and British periodicals. Nevertheless, unlike their male colleagues, Russian women editors developed the tradition of complementing the direct translation of original texts with their own articles and fashion reviews. This enabled them to add a “personal touch” to their periodicals. In this way, they were not only disseminating the latest European trends but also adapting them to the national context, which facilitated their internalization in Russia. For instance, editors of the first fashion magazines Moda and Modnyi magazin were not only translating and reprinting material from Les Modes Parisiennes and Le Moniteur de la Mode but also advising their readers on adapting the Parisian trends to the Russian climate, informing them on the local fashion services, depicting shopping in the Saint Petersburg department stores as a sort of public activity and following fashion as an interest of the modern woman. In all these ways, they were discussing an original Western phenomenon of consumerism in local terms and thus facilitating its adoption in Russia. When later in the nineteenth century women rights’ movements became more and more prominent in European capitals, the editors of Modnyi svet, Novyi Russkii bazar, and Damskii mir introduced special sections on this question. Moreover, soon it was complemented by original articles informing on the achievements of Russian women in this regard. Therefore, emancipation ideas were gradually introduced to the fashion magazines’ broad readership under the cover of a popular European trend.
In all, developing the genre by merging foreign trends with local specificities allowed women editors to contribute significantly to an ongoing and far-reaching socio-cultural process: the gradual transition of womanhood from domesticity to public engagement. Editors of fashion magazines were not simply reproducing the broadly accepted vision of women’s social role, but were themselves shaping the standards of female behaviour. Fashion magazines’ “commitment to modernity” and female readers’ aspiration to be fashionable both served as a cover for presenting controversial trends and reflecting on their cultural meaning: from rejecting the corset to pursuing a career. What is more, Western trend-setting authority and public interest in the lives of women abroad became instrumental in promoting in Russia the progressive agenda of the European women’s rights movement. The radical emancipation ideas of the feminist press proved easier to disseminate among women with traditional upbringings when presented with fashionable flair. Fashion editors, who themselves stemmed from diverse social backgrounds, adapted these ideas appropriately to spread them among the female readers from different social strata, from nobility and society ladies to the merchant and working women.
Maria Alesina, 13/12/2016
 Christine Ruane, “The Development of a Fashion Press in Late Imperial Russia: Moda: Zhurnal dlia svetskikh liudei.” In An Improper Profession: Women, Gender, and Journalism in Late Imperial Russia. Ed. Barbara T. Norton and Jehanne M. Gheith. Durham: Duke UP, 2001, p. 74.
 See Paula Bernat Bennett, “Subtle Subversion: Mary Louise Booth and Harper’s Bazar (1867-1889).” In Blue Pencils & Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, 1830-1910. Ed. Sharon M. Harris and Ellen Gruber Garvey, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004, pp. 225-247.