If you like the cable channel AMC’s clever series Mad Men, about Madison Avenue in 1960, you will love a current exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It features the work of Al Parker, a leading illustrator for Ladies’ Home Journal, Women’s Home Companion, and other women’s magazines of the period. In Parker’s oeuvre, one finds pony-tailed secretaries, dressed in their perky shirt-dresses, just the type that might work for the ad agency featured in Mad Men, as well as a look-alike of the beautiful suburban wife of the series’ protagonist.
This was an era when girls wanted to look like women and women dressed to look sophisticated and glamorous. (Nowadays women in jeans, t-shirts, and crocs tend to dress like their pre-teen sons.) A style section of the New York Times a couple of Sundays ago declared that this season’s fall clothes are “chic” and “tailored,” “at once, elegant and practical” — adjectives that could describe the crisp blouses and skirts and curvy dresses in which the “girls” in Mad Men’s typing pool look so good. Unfortunately, the New York Times fashion reporting, unlike the Times’ political reporting, is not in lockstep with some overarching ideology. This past Sunday’s fashion supplement was filled with pages of weird and ghastly clothes and accessories. One blurb, on a spread of dresses that no one normal would step out of her house in, declared “Hail the Screwball.” Hail, indeed.
But back to Al Parker and his beauties. The exhibit, lovingly curated by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, is called, “Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women’s Magazine 1940-1960.” I am quite familiar with Parker’s appealing work. When I was editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, I spent a lot of time looking at the magazine’s past issues. The 1940s and ’50s, when he produced much of his work, was the great age of magazine illustration. Each issue of a woman’s magazine such as the Journal, Good Housekeeping, or Cosmopolitan, as well as The Saturday Evening Post, was filled with short stories that were enticingly illustrated. Parker’s work was less detailed and more graphic than the paintings of the premier illustrator of the genre, Norman Rockwell.
In the women’s magazines in those days, a gutsy young woman was usually the story’s heroine. My favorite example in the exhibition is the illustration for a novel called Government Girl, about a secretary working in the Defense Department. No, she wasn’t the Secretary of Defense, but I have no doubt, in her own way, she helped the war effort and managed to catch a spy or two, at least.
Parker’s most famous work was a series of “Mother–Daughter” covers for the Ladies’ Home Journal that ran off and on for 17 years. They feature a blond, snub-nosed mom and her look-alike daughter, who also dressed alike and shown in a variety of activities: swimming, skiing, and baking cookies. Covers that appeared during World War II showed them on their own, knitting drab, olive-colored socks, fixing the car, decorating the Christmas tree. The most effective image of all, I feel, is the July 1945 cover where one sees the back of Dad in his uniform and officer’s cap. The mother and daughter are embracing him. He’s home! The war is ending! And the look on their faces is of utter joy and relief, mirroring, no doubt, the feelings of millions of the Journal’s readers. Parker continued drawing these cover illustrations for a few more years, producing his final one in 1952 near the end of the Korean War. It was the Journal’s last illustrated cover: a baby boy playing with an officer’s cap. After that, the magazine relied on a lot more coverlines and photographs of models and, as I well know, shots of celebrities who the editors thought (and hoped and prayed) would appeal to newsstand buyers.
Parker, who once said, “Prettiness prevailed, and warts and all were a no-no,” idealized the American woman and middle-class life. And even though life in reality was tough, much tougher than fiction, for most of the readers who lost themselves in slick stories and colorful illustrations, they were more likely inspired than insulted by such manipulation. In fact, women’s magazines, throughout the war and into the fifties, were far more serious than they are today. Most editors echoed the one who declared: “[An American woman] is intelligent and clearheaded…She is forever seeking new ideas; I must keep her in touch with the best.”
It is one of the great media mysteries that as women have become better educated and enjoy far more opportunities in the workplace, most of the magazine meant to appeal to them have become a whole lot dumber. And the covers, especially, are often dominated by bad-girl celebrities that the magazines, with great cynicism, use to sell copies even while trashing them. This month, for example, both Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are on the covers of different magazines. Yes, they are styled and airbrushed but, no, such cover girls are not really a pretty picture. Not like Parker’s.