HEREAFTER the subject of women’s underwear will not be treated in the letter-press of THE LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL. The editors have reached this conclusion for the following reasons: First, the changes in this part of a woman’s wardrobe are not either sufficient or material enough to justify extended chronicle. Second, the practical art of making undergarments is understood, in whole or in part, by every woman. Third, the treatment of the subject in print calls for minutiae of detail, which is extremely and pardonably offensive to refined and sensitive women. – Edward Bok, Ladies’ Home Journal “The Gossip of the Editors” February 1898
She wasn’t going to a party but Emilia dressed every day as if she was. This morning, feeling especially in the mood to channel Penley, a peacock she met on her summer travels to the Philadelphia Zoo, Emilia had on her long, feathery skirt that ended in a flock of feathers around the bottom trim. With a wink toward the Gardens of Versailles, she paired the skirt below a short-sleeve floral blouse and again winked to the French by topping it all off in a crocheted beret, smartly side-slanted across her blonde curls. It took two hours to set the short curls in place and another one hour to comb them just right but the elegance achieved when the project was complete couldn’t be underestimated or overlooked.
Imagine her sitting not at her window seat desk that gave way to the flat-lined views of rural Illinois but instead inside a lavish, plumped-couch parlor in Paris or Milan or somewhere romantic enough to warrant such bold correspondence as this. Imagine her frowning into her teacup, pinky raised at half-mast, nodding her head to the sharp remarks of other women in the room equally as outraged by their once-beloved Ladies’ Home Journal as Emilia herself. Though it was Emilia who was tasked with leading the charge against the publication, for she was the one with the blank page stretched out before her and the marked ability to articulate enough fiery ideas to fill it.
Still in Illinois, alone but no less inflamed, Emilia dipped her pen into its inky well and began to write:
Dear Mr. Bok,
I am, for lack of a better word, a reader. Not just of your Ladies’ Home Journal, which I have faithfully devoured since Louisa was its first Editor years ago, but also of the sentences composed by Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Voltaire and other particularly gifted artisans of the written word whose prose was once deemed, for lack of yet another better word, illicit. Perhaps, in these current strokes of my pen, I would be most wise to call their words criminal, as many of these brave writers found themselves incarcerated by the very society upon which they provided their well-intentioned commentary. Today and through the knowing window pane of history, we now look at the societies that once shunned their daring words and with a gentle laugh say, “Ho hum, what a backward group of ladies and gentlemen they turned out to be!”
It is with the sincerest form of respect that I must inform you one day soon such laughter will be directed your way. If you couldn’t guess, I refer to an easily missed section of “The Gossip of the Editors” column in the Journal this February. Lest I’m mistaken, I read your name at the top of this very column and, lest I am mistaken again, attribute its contents most directly to you.
In a short but pointed aside, you write that you have decided “hereafter the subject of women’s underwear will not be treated in the letter-press of the Ladies’ Home Journal.” You then enumerate in your column three reasons for this verdict, ending with the notion that “refined and sensitive women” would find the subject of underwear “pardonably offensive.”
Beg your pardon, Mr. Bok, but the printing of such statements is in itself an unpardonable offense. With what womanly authority can you make such brash generalizations? With what unbiased editorial mind can you parade untruths as such firmly established facts?
I consider myself to be a reasonably refined and sensitive woman with a fashionable twist to my ways—you should only see the peacock skirt and flowering top I have on today!—yet the subject of underwear strikes my refined and sensible being as not an insult but an interest. Why? Because refinement and sensitivity are achieved as much by how we present ourselves on the outside as what we’ve got on underneath.
Yours in words and wears,
She put down her pen, sealed the letter with a sludge of hot wax, addressed it to Mr. Edward Bok, Editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal and forgot about the entire affair. Mostly.
Late winter softened to early spring and with each day that passed, Emilia lost whatever small amount of hope she had that her letter would find a reply. Then one day in late April, a dispatch from Mr. Bok arrived at Emilia’s door and she opened it with a wince and a sigh, expecting to read how awful and rude she was and to receive an official ban on receiving the Ladies’ Home Journal again.
In heavy-handed script the letter read:
Thank you kindly for your words, even if the words themselves weren’t too kind. When I was much younger, I used to believe that whatever drifted from the space between my ears and out my mouth must be always correct but time spent at the Journal has taught me this isn’t necessarily so. In many cases, my job becomes a matter of embracing perspectives that fall far beyond my own and with this in mind, I respectfully understand my version of self-evident truths may be very different from yours.
While I cannot say we plan to alter our undergarment policy, I do cherish your logical argument as well as the passion thrumming through every beat of it. I write to you with immediate plans to publish your carefully penned epistle in the next edition of the Journal, the first in a regular series I’ve named, for lack of better words, “Opposite the Editorial.” Let us hope that one day, thanks to you, every publication across America will contain its own version of “Opposite the Editorial” and dissent will healthfully form like little patterns in our nation’s sand, not merely underneath the surface but right there for all to see.
Yours in weary words,