Fashion Plates

My first foray into editing was a high school underground newspaper, cryptically titled The Shibboleth. It was intended to be revolutionary, but it included fashion notes

In the third issue we published (shortly before I was summoned to the principal’s office and told to cease and desist) was a list titled “Ten Things Worthy of Being Checked Out” that, along with some head shop items, included “feather flower earrings, aviator scarves and St. Simon’s Thrift Shop” (the Episcopal Church rummage store). 

That was my junior year, 1969. Looking around at the DIY couture choices of kids today, I’d say we were pretty fashion-forward.

My publishing heroes from back then are all mostly forgotten (and dead), but some live on in the lore and reputations of their publications — magazines with names such as Avant Garde, Ramparts and Eye. Editorially, these all propounded some kind of revolution — social, spiritual or actual — but the main impact they had on most young readers was to impart a sense of style, a look and an attitude that we could shape and make our own. They preached revolution, but they also provided us with fashion tips for the protest march.

During the years I’ve lived in New Hampshire, which is half of my life, I’ve discovered many other publishing heroes, but one stands out.

Sarah Josepha Hale, daughter of a Revolutionary War captain, was born in Newport, NH, in 1788. Her husband died when she was 40, leaving her with five children to support. She took a job in a millinery shop and began to write poetry and fiction, and soon found she could earn a living as an “editress.”

Although Hale is best known as the “mother of Thanksgiving” (a title bestowed upon her for successfully lobbying President Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the holiday), her greatest contribution to American culture is the 40 years she spent editing Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Ladies’ magazines were plentiful back then, but most aspired to little more than tickling the fancies of women during their idle time.

Godey’s is credited for influencing readers to seek out the finer things of life and to continue education into motherhood. While it avoided politics, the impact was significant. Hale believed that smarter (and wiser) women would elevate the home and family and, in doing so, guide the country to higher purposes.

Along with lavish engraved plates of 19th-century fashion and useful household tips, she published literature and poetry, and, unlike other periodicals, her policy was to publish only original manuscripts by noted writers of the day, such as Longfellow, Poe and Emerson. She also promoted women authors and, during her time, produced at least three issues featuring only female writers.

Ironically, as women’s rights gained support and power, her magazine began to decline, perhaps seen as superfluous in such heady times. To remain commercial, the balance of fashion and literature gave way to more emphasis on the frivolous.

Hale resigned in 1877 and posted her final words to readers in the December issue:

“And now, having reached my ninetieth year, I must bid farewell to my countrywomen, with the hope that this work of half a century may be blessed to the furtherance of their happiness and usefulness in their Divinely-appointed sphere. New avenues for higher culture and for good works are opening before them, which fifty years ago were unknown. That they may improve these opportunities, and be faithful to their higher vocation, is my heartfelt prayer.”


Categories: Editor’s Note