This charming frieze doubles as an overview of women’s fashion from the period 1700-1900. It features nine women grouped into trios separated by a curvilinear motif of a flowering vine. On the far left, a woman in simple colonial dress stands next to a woman in mid-eighteenth-century and a woman in late-eighteenth-century garb. The next cluster shows women in 1810s, 1830s, and 1860s fashion, while the group on the right shows an elegant lady of the 1880s next to her companions from the 1890s and 1900s.
The title of the frieze “Godey” references Godey’s Lady’s Book, a pioneering Philadelphia magazine published between 1830 and 1898. Under the forty-year editorship, beginning in 1837, of Sarah Hale, it became the most successful magazine of its time developed for a female audience. In 1860, it had a circulation of 150,000, a number only rivaled by its competitor Harper’s Bazaar. Its content was diverse. Fashion plates and advice, news articles, product endorsements, and tips on household management and childrearing were published in Godey’s alongside stories written by women meant both to entertain and spread middle-class moral values. The magazine frequently encouraged the Victorian ideal of the woman as doting housewife and mother, though scholars have argued that many of its articles and stories depicted a more complex, empowered image of womanhood and advocated for a variety of goals in the women’s rights movement. Most often, Godey’s promoted a common view of the time that women could have social power, albeit in a limited amount, from their control over the household. The magazine reflected the belief that women, as guardians of domesticity, could provide stability to the middle class by exerting a moralizing influence over their families and ensuring that a dedicated work ethic, sense of modesty, and love of community were transmitted to their children.
Created long after the magazine ceased publication, this frieze draws on the sense of nostalgia and middle-class morality the name Godey’s still strong at the mid-century. Only four of the women are dressed from the period of the magazine’s run, yet its continued association with fashion illustration in general is evident. Like many wallpapers aimed at the postwar middle-class, this frieze would have provided a comforting touch to the domestic space, an evocation of tradition to counterpoint the rapid change in society occurring outside. The colonial woman on the far left, dressed so modestly compared to her high-style companions, further reflects the strong nostalgic impulse in postwar furnishings.
However, in its depiction of the constant transformations of women’s fashion, the frieze also highlights ironically the idea that change is an inherent part of culture. This frieze thus reflects the complex attitudes Postwar Americans had to their own constantly shifting world.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.
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Ratner, Lorman A., Paula T. Kaufman, and Dwight L. Teeter. “Godey’s Lady’s Book: The Guide for Middle-Class Women.” In Paradoxes of Prosperity: Wealth-Seeking Versus Christian Values in Pre-Civil War America, 63-71. Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Jstor. 24 Apr. 2018.
Sommers, Joseph Michael. “Godey’s Lady’s Book: Sarah Hale and the Construction of Sentimental Nationalism.” College Literature 37.3 (2010): 43-0_8. ProQuest. 26 Apr. 2018.