A respository of fashion, pleasure, and instruction” is how Harper’s Bazar described itself on the cover of its inaugural issue, in 1867. Bazar – then spelled without the double ‘a’ – was founded by Harper & Brothers, a New York–based publishing firm run by siblings James, John, Joseph Wesley, and Fletcher Harper. At the time, the Harpers were already established book publishers. They’d also ventured into periodicals with Harper’s New Monthly and Harper’s Weekly, illustrated journals conceived to present contemporary fiction and writing on the arts, science, and politics.
It was the youngest of the Harpers, Fletcher, who came up with the idea for Bazar after stumbling upon a copy of a publication called Der Bazar, from Berlin. Like the Harpers’ journals, Der Bazar featured artwork and writing on a range of topics. But Der Bazar also covered fashion, and illustrated its stories with elaborate woodcuts of the clothes that people were wearing in places like Paris, Vienna, and London. Fletcher soon discovered that Der Bazar had agreements with other publications to syndicate its illustrations – which it provided by sending electrotype duplicates of the original woodcuts – and he became interested in pursuing a similar arrangement. The Industrial Revolution had given rise to a new leisure class in the US, which was obsessed with all things European; and there was room, Fletcher reasoned, for a publication aimed at affluent women that operated as a kind of guide on how to live – and live well – in the modern world. Fletcher presented his brothers with his plan, and after a bit of convincing, Harper’s Bazar was born.
Fletcher’s first order of business was hiring an editor. For that job, he selected Mary Louise Booth, a 36-year-old writer, journalist, and translator who was proficient in French, German, and Latin, and who had been one of the first female reporters for The New York Times. Before coming to Bazar, Mary Louise had received a letter of praise from President Lincoln for her translation of French Count Agénor de Gasparin’s The Uprising of a Great People: The United States in 1861, an antislavery tract used to drum up support for abolition. She was also active in the women’s-rights and -suffrage movements, and was even said to have tried to get funding for her own women’s-rights publication.
The first issue of Bazar appeared on November 2, 1867. An unsigned editorial entitled ‘Our Bazar’ sketched out the journal’s mission to become “a vast repository for all the rare and costly things of earth – silks, velvets, cashmeres, spices, perfumes, and glittering gems; in a word, whatever can comfort the heart and delight the eye.” But from the outset, it was clear that Bazar’s definition of fashion went far beyond clothes. Alongside brisk reports on style and well-mannered instructions on how to tie a bow and pin a bun, there were sharp pieces of fiction and poetry and musings on family, work, and social mores. Writers such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, and later, Thomas Hardy, all contributed to Bazar. Emmeline Raymond, who founded the influential French fashion publication La Mode Illustrée, served as Bazar’s Paris correspondent, and wrote a column that offered glittery glimpses of French society and style. As the US entered its Gilded Age, there was also a fascination in America with the predilections of the larger-than-life characters of Victorian England, which the novelist James Payn chronicled in his recurring ‘English Gossip’ feature; while George William Curtis wrote about culture and domestic life in a column called ‘Manners Upon the Road’ (which he signed, ‘An Old Bachelor’); and the magazine’s society maven, Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, explored the realms of etiquette and social grace.
One area that Fletcher Harper explicitly identified as beyond Bazar’s purview was politics. Bazar would be a window on the world, but pleasingly so, to appeal to a cross-section of people on different sides of the modern divide. That ethos, later characterised by Bazar editors as “the early doctrine of ‘always affirming, never denying,’ ” might have appeared to clash with Mary Louise Booth’s more progressive leanings. Mary Louise, though, seemed to understand her job. She didn’t try to willfully affront Bazar’s readers, but she did endeavour to challenge them. To be truly fashionable, Bazar intimated, was to be immersed in the culture and ideas of the moment – to be forward-thinking. Bazar was one of the first mainstream publications to endorse the women’s suffrage effort. The right to vote, Bazar wrote in the June 12, 1869, issue, was built upon “the groundwork of truth and justice” and “the awakening of the public conscience,” and regularly ran articles on the importance of work and educational opportunities for women.
Some aspects of women’s lives in the mid-19th century were easier to reconcile with Mary Louise’s more modern sensibility than others. The topic of homemaking was one with which Bazar seemed particularly conflicted. The role of lady of the house was exalted – and the more well-appointed the home, the better. Still, Bazar bristled at the notion that being a housewife might descend into a kind of indentured servitude: A piece in the August 19, 1871, issue described those whose days were consumed with tending to husbands, children, and domestic affairs as trapped in an “absolute bondage,” which Bazar likened to being in a harem.
Social ambition, materialism, and obsessions with wealth and status were at once celebrated and satirised. In 1882, Bazar ran as a serial the anonymous society novel A Transplanted Rose, which was later credited to Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood. It tells the story of a Midwestern girl named Rose Chadwick who comes to New York and, with her bullish aunt’s guidance, is transformed into a cultured woman. Along the way, Rose wrestles with an array of moral quandaries but finds redemption in the arms of a British lord, whom she marries with a trousseau by the English-born Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth. “Clothes,” Rose says to a friend while reflecting on her journey, “have a great deal to do with one’s happiness.”
Bazar also displayed an early appreciation for the theatre of fashion. A piece in the July 29, 1871, issue on Worth, who is credited with pioneering haute couture, described the scene at his atelier: “Around him were a bevy of women, some pretty, some ugly, listening to his observations with the rapt attention of the disciples of a sage. He called them up before him like schoolgirls, and after inspecting them, praised or blamed their dresses. One, a pretty young girl, found favour in his eyes, and he told her that he must dream and meditate several days over her, in order to find the inspiration to make a gown worthy of her. ‘Why do you wear those ugly gloves?’ he said to another. ‘Never let me see you in gloves of that colour again.’ She was a very grand lady, but she slipped off her gloves and put them in her pocket with a guilty look. The empress, who dealt with him, sent to tell him that if he did not abate his prices she would leave him. ‘You can not’, he replied; and, in fact, she could not, for she stood by him to the last.”
To Harper’s Bazar, this was all fashion.