In the 1960s, young women seeking advice on boys, college, and clothing turned to Seventeen magazine. It was large format (13″ x 10.5″—too big to fit on my scanner), heavy, and glossy-covered. Two-hundred forty-two pages of the feminine mystique for the bargain price of 50 cents.
Mr. Hypnotic Peacock, a specialist in paper ephemera of this era and many others, has a stack of these estrogen-soaked time capsules in our basement. I’ve sifted through them and lost myself in anthropological wonder, looking for proof that indeed, we have come a long way, baby. Mostly, we’ve gone from looking like big little girls (or worse, objectified as “dolls”), to a never-ending preoccupation with sex. Is that progress? Heck if I know.
I’ll leave it for you to decide. I’ve brought you the best of the worst, from both May 1968 and April 2013. Youngsters, you are no doubt thankful you never had to wear bloomers to the beach; likewise, your Baby Boomer sisters are probably thankful they don’t have to wear today’s sky-high platform stilettos.
“The Big Little-Girl” Look
Here’s a couple of object lessons in girls-as-objects:
How to get a topless chick in a 1960s supermarket magazine.
“Living Doll”–Because women are objects.
Thank goodness that objectification is more subtle these days. At least some things have changed in 40-odd years, even as other things have stayed the same:
Taylor wears ‘em because she can make a fast getaway from her latest beau.
The point of this little journey down memory lane is to remind you that 1968 wasn’t that long ago. It only seems like ancient history because we have the attention spans of gnats. But you can ask your mom or grandmother about 1968 and be regaled with tales of coed shenanigans or wearing white gloves to church. This is within living memory, people. The world was different, yet in many ways familiar. Spam was nothing more than a delicious canned meat product, but fake bake tans were already in vogue:
Despite all the wonders of cosmetics and self-tanning lotions, a girl’s dream was the gift of a portable electric typewriting to take to college or a career as a flight attendant, which would render her employable forever, or at least until she got married.
Girl Psychologist? That IS crazy. Better be a stewardess instead.
Nevertheless, Seventeen generally assumed its readers were college bound, and they featured lots of articles about how to get into college, what to study in college, how to prepare for college, etc. However, knowledge of the home arts were still central to becoming a women, and college really was just to get your Mrs. degree. How do I know? Because of these ads:
Do you really want to buy your engagement ring from the people who made your class ring?
Can you read the text on this one? Here it is:
“Someday when I marry. . . I’ll have beautiful, forever things for the home we’ll share together. My dining room will glow with soft color. We’ll dine by candlelight every night and I’ll set my table with the loveliest china and crystal in all the world. By Lenox, of course.”
Those of us who grew up in the 1970s, after Sandra Dee here married Lou and they settled into a delicate, 20-year ballet of passive-aggressiveness, know darn well the Lenox stayed in the china cabinet and dinner was served on Melmac or Corell, until even that got to be too much of a strain and we just balanced a TV dinner tray on our laps while we watched Hee Haw.
But I digress.
One of the most striking discoveries on this time traveling adventure is just how obsessed women must have been over their foundation garments. The possibilities were endless:
However, when the fashions were as Mrs. Roper-ish as this, one wonders why a ballistics-grade girdle was necessary:
Okay, by now you’re wondering if there’s any continuity between generations of the magazine when it comes to content rather than ads. Yes, there is! Seventeen, both then and now, wants you to know what boys really think about you. In 1968 they ran a piece titled “What Boys Think,” which was chock full of wisdom from real-life males, such as “Don’t play dumb,” “Be spontaneous,” “Don’t smoke,” and “At a dance, please come up and speak to me.” Fair ‘nough. The 2013 equivalent article? “What Do Guys Think of UR Selfie?” (Hint: Don’t stare into the distance like an ice queen; don’t pose with a duck face; but do smile and look approachable. I’ll add another one: Keep your clothes on.)
But content isn’t what Seventeen is about, then or now. It was/is about indoctrination into consumer culture, although consumer culture has definitely changed. For one thing, it’s infinitely more geared toward celebrities now. The images in the April 2013 issue are a daisy chain of TMZ staples: Miley, Selena, Taylor, Carly Rae Jepsen, RiRi, Lea Michelle, Zooey, Janelle Monae, Jessica Simpson, Amber Heard, J.Lo, Jessica Alba, Zendaya, et al.–all are featured in ads or in the advertorial content. Fame was less important in the 1960s: A mention here or there of the Beatles, a photo of Twiggy, and they move on.
One of the oddest differences between then and now is how much faith people had in chemistry back in the 1960s. Every ad for clothing touted some new-fangled chemical contrivance: Permanent press, Dacron®, Kordel® (oddly enough developed by Kodak), Orlon®, or Celanese®. Yes, the petrochemical industry was poised to usher us into the 1970s on the gossamer wings of ancient, pulverized creatures whose transformation into textiles would ultimately render our planet uninhabitable by the time these Dacron-clothed girls would be wheeled through the doors of the old folks’ home. Dacron was Du Pont’s version of acrylic, and if you need a reminder, Du Pont’s catch-phrase of the era was “Better things for better living . . . through chemistry.” (Today, per its website, it goes with “Where Science, Innovation, and Collaboration Meet.”)
Kodel bills itself as “An Eastman Polyester Fiber.” “What a boon. . . a fiber that’s immune to mussing! That’s Kodel, so lively it won’t let wrinkles establish a beachhead.”
And yet, in the midst of this Soylent Green optimism comes this familiar gem:
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Amiright?
Cotton’s Latter-Day Saint
Believe it or not, cotton is not the only substance with staying power. You’d be surprised at the number of brands that have withstood the test of time:
An advertising legend for decades by 1968.
“French girls are born knowing it. Swedish girls learn it at their mothers’ knee. And American girls are quick studies. Wonder Bread: Helps catch boys. . . !”
What the ad doesn’t tell you is that Wonder Bread will turn those boys into lethargic, carb-sucking man-children who think it’s your job to fetch them a beer when they get home from work. Perhaps you’ll be a saint and serve it to him in your Lenox crystal stemware.
We all know sex sells these days, but in 1968—no matter what was going on in Haight-Ashbury or upstate New York—the pages of Seventeen are pretty virginal. Here’s one notable exception, juxtaposed with a similar ad from the current issue:
I don’t know about you, but I sure identify with this L’air du Temps gal more than any of the other boopsie, be-ribboned girls in these pages. She’s the only one in the whole issue with hormones (other than the kind that cause breakouts and menstral cramps).
Girl-on-girl action, something we think of as a modern conceit, maybe isn’t so new. What do you think about this pair of ads from then and now? Do you think those girls in white have lips that taste like cherry Chapstick? Do you think that once the shoot is over they’ll snuggle up like the girls in the JC Penney ad from 2013?
Oh, how the times, they were a-changin’, but not nearly fast enough. If there’s one thing you won’t find on the pages of a 1960s Seventeen magazine, it’s this:
Because, as we all know, only whites counted in America in the 1960s. Nevermind that Detroit and a few other cities were charred and smoking in the aftermath of deadly riots as the May, 1968 issue of Seventeen went to press. None of that mattered to the white girls bound for Smith, Wellesley, Radcliff, or even those condemned to secretarial school. If there’s one thing Seventeen does well, it’s toe the party line. It’s a conservative magazine: the music reviews mostly mention classical releases, there is no talk of sex outside of marriage, and a Christian girl whose boyfriend is Jewish is urged to break up with him because it just won’t work. Some of the ads might present a sanitized, shiny-haired version of the Youthquake, but the real thing—the hippies with their free love and tuning in and dropping out—is ignored as if it just might go away.
But it did not. The future would arrive eventually to the pages of Seventeen, and there would be no more garter belts (unless that was your thing) and no more girdles until they were reinvented in the 21st century as Spanx. However, the pages of Seventeen, as conservative as they were, offered up a premonition of the future. Unknowingly, of course. No one would have recognized it then, but it’s hard to miss now:
“Deep inside of a parallel universe, it’s getting harder and harder to tell what came first.”
This was going to be the end of the entry, because I have to stop somewhere (even though I’ve barely scratched the surface of even this one issue–there’s a whole doctorate on feminist studies waiting to be written), but I have to share with you this one, last weird ad. I have no comment for it, it simply is what it is:
Creature from a Tim Burton movie?