Cover girls: 300 years of women's magazines

A new exhibition reveals how much times have changed...

A smiling woman in a green twinset and pearls holds up a china plate bearing a dozen homemade iced fairy cakes. No, it's not the cover of Nigella's new cookbook – it's the September 1955 cover girl of Home Chat, one of the bestselling women's magazines of the last century.

The 1950s was the golden age of women's magazine publishing, when five out of six British women said they read at least one women's magazine a week. In that decade, as long as the front cover showed a picture of a happy woman holding a pie, it could sell as many copies as it could print. It wasn't always that way and times have, of course, now moved on; a new exhibition at the Women's Library, Between the Covers: Women's Magazines and Their Readers, documents the changing face of women's magazines, their representations of femininity and social impact.

The first British women's magazine was the Ladies' Mercury, published by John Dunton, the bookseller and editor of the Athenian Mercury in 1693. It didn't last long, but in the next 200 years precursors to the modern women's magazine sprang up like daisies in a lawn.

Eighteenth and 19th-century printing technology limited the possibilities for cover illustrations and, by the mid-19th century, photographs. But because the magazines did not sell on newsstands, the publishers did not have to "sell" themselves through their front cover. Most had no pictures at all or, like a June 1891 issue of The Woman's Herald, carried a picture of a dour, spectacled, matronly figure such as the novelist Adeline Sergeant.

By the turn of the century, advances in printing meant every women's magazine could make use of colour illustration.

Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, rather than today's lone cover girl, the front page often showed pictures of two or more people – sometimes a couple ice-skating, such as on a January issue of the American Good Housekeeping (brought to the UK in 1922 by the National Magazine Company).

During the Second World War, when the world for women changed beyond recognition, magazines went from being a folly, however helpful, to being a true friend to women. The challenges facing women were hard and unknown and the government used magazines as a way of communicating with the ever-more important home front.

Men disappeared from the front covers, just as they had disappeared off to war, and the cover girl emerged; perhaps plucking her eyebrows, as on the cover of a 1945 issue of Woman, or looking spirited in an apron, carrying sheafs of corn, such as on the front of the October issue of My Home, also from 1945.

Magazines, so important during the long, dark wartime years, held their currency through the boomtime Fifties, where new affluence and the emerging popularity of consumer durables, redoubled sales of magazines telling housewives what to cook and which dishwasher to buy.

Men, having disappeared from women's magazine front covers during the war, were never to return – at least not as a significant presence – and during the Fifties not only did magazine covers stick, visually, to a tried-and-tested formula, they also started having to "sell" themselves on newsstands, by using bright colours and arresting coverlines.

In the Twenties, a magazine such as Woman and Home needed to do no more to sell itself than print the tagline "A Magazine of Delightful Suggestions". But by 1955, an issue of Home Chat boasts cover lines in swooping lettering set at jaunty angles advertising the magazine's contents, such as pull-out and keep supplements. The Fifties saw the development of a mass-market and there was a "one-size fits-all" approach. As long as a women's magazine ticked certain boxes, it would sell copies.

After the Fifties, women's magazine sales began to slide, not least because of rising television ownership.

In 1965, IPC launched Nova, which was branded "The new kind of magazine for a new kind of woman". The front cover of the first issue was mostly black and highly stylised – the cover girl was reduced to a close-up image of a heavily made-up eye and a large block of text proclaimed that Nova was a magazine that did things "the 1965 way".

By the 1970s, advances in photography and printing meant that magazine covers always used photographs rather than drawings. Cover lines, used to sell the magazine on newsstands, became bigger, brighter and bolder. A Woman's Realm from 1970 shows a photograph of a model in ski-wear and promises "An intimate portrait of Barbara Castle". Family Circle, by contrast, which was only sold in supermarkets, had such a captive audience that it could sell itself with nothing more than a bowl of salad, a tape measure and a cover line about diets on the cover. Throughout the Seventies, it consistently outsold feminist-leaning Cosmopolitan and feminist Spare Rib.

Throughout the Eighties, Nineties and up to today, the cover formula for selling magazines on a newsstand hasn't changed – although it is no guarantee that a magazine will sell. Riva, a short-lived title from the mid-Eighties, seemed to get everything right: one early issue had a picture of Jerry Hall and a list of enticing cover lines promising such features as, "The life and death of the shoulder pad" and contributions from, among others, the late Nigel Dempster.

Another Eighties title, Working Woman, perhaps lacked the necessary glamour women wanted from their magazines; one issue shows a female executive perched on the edge of a desk with enormous hair, wearing a huge, dog-tooth check jacket, clutching a large calculator. The title folded within a year from launch.

Today, women's magazines focus on the awesome selling power of a celebrity face. The top-selling women's magazines now – such as Glamour and Grazia – always have a famous face on the front cover. Certain celebrity faces shift more copies than others, for example Kate Moss will shift more copies of Vogue than, say, Natalie Portman.

But, who knows? With the resurgence of domestic bliss, thanks to the likes of Nigella Lawson, could we, one day, see pinnies and pies on the front cover of Marie Claire? Kate Moss probably does a lovely apple crumble.

The Women's Library, London E1 ( ), 1 November to 1 April