This beautifully illustrated cover of The Ladies’ Home Journal from January 1897, by Alice Barber Stephens, offers a complex take on the female gaze. We see women on the right, presumable servants and members of the lower class in simpler dark dress looking on at the society women ascending the staircase. We see the society women eyeing up one another, and we see the woman in the foreground staring at the reader. The men in this illustration are insignificant viewers. This illustration is important because there are many arguments for the male gaze in art and film and women viewing other women through a male lens, and this provides an early example of the female gaze. The illustrator of the image is a woman, the magazine is created for a female audience, and the subjects of the image are primarily female.
Carolyn Kitch, who wrote the The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media, in which this image is found, says that the underlying message of the illustration is about social climbing in American society. We see the stairs that some society ladies are literally climbing to reach the top, while the servants remain at the bottom of the staircase. The idea is that women are the key players for other women in terms of who is admitted to the upper echelons of society.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I personally love the voluminous shape of the fur trimmed cloaks and the cutting gaze that is drawn upon the women in the foreground. The image as a whole provides an interesting talking point as to a woman’s perspective from different vantage points, and that of a female artist in the 1890’s sharing her views through art about society and her creation of various female gazes.
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