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We are what we read?

Fashion magazines have long served as a printed accompaniment to ever-renewing moods and innovation surrounding the way we dress. Indeed, publications seem to be launched, re-invented and often disappear more rapidly than the unstoppable calendar of seasonal collections.

Although you can easily adopt the cynical view that all fashion print is glossy easily discarded ephemera, which aims solely to promote consumption, there are many periodicals that provide us – the reader and viewer – with something more culturally informative and perceptive, while retaining fashion as their core subject.

These might go above and beyond in what they illustrate about our identities or the society in which we outfit ourselves. An inherently serial nature, coupled with the potential for collection and archiving, makes encountering these valuable titles an even more fascinating anthropological insight after the fact, perhaps decades later, if intact copies can be found. One such magazine was called Nova and was published in the UK on a monthly basis from March 1965 to October 1975.

Issues of Nova ran with empathic strapline: For women who think magazines don’t understand

A new kind of woman

At the time of its inception, society’s mood was undergoing a seismic shift towards the apolitical, the liberal and a divorce from all things “Establishment”. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the popularity of sexually liberated pop icons contributed to the heady desire for radical change. A medium with a long history of extolling aspirational, but predictable, fantasies of how women could hope to look and aim to behave was far from immune, particularly among Britain’s young, vocal, female readership.

The team behind Nova magazine took full advantage of this clear gap in a staid publishing landscape orientated towards women and ran with the creative licence provided by this collision of context: an invitation to reflect upon and even shape the zeitgeist, through attention to both rapidly evolving fashion and society.

Nova Cover Image, September issue, 1971

The first few issues were announced with the strapline: A new kind of magazine for a new kind of woman. This was quickly replaced by the more empathic: For women who think magazines don’t understand. Thus, while Nova presented itself within the umbrella of fashion publishing, it was no longer appropriate, or attractive, to presume that the garments someone could lust after were by any means all they wanted to digest.

Hungry female readers sought and seized upon this new source of visual and intellectual stimulation, in line with a long-overdue affirmation of their societal influence and equality by the largely male creators of culture.

This extended to perhaps the most pertinent inclusion in Nova’s “portrait” of modern femininity: an open and active discussion of sex

In NOVA: THE style bible of the 60s and 70s (Pavilion Books, 1993), David Gibbs says: “The whole magazine, both visually and editorially, was creating a running portrait, a definition of the ‘new’ woman. What would be revealed in next month’s issue? It was compulsive.”

Founded with Harry Fieldhouse as editor and Harri Peccinotti as designer and art director, Nova established a groundbreaking identity characterised by its diversity of progressive content. This included political interviews, short stories, longer-form polemic pieces (often written with a feminist leaning), and documentary photography on current social topics. Alongside this sat creative fashion photography and styling, and the continual presence of inventive typography and layout work, not only from the core visual team, but also from photographers and illustrators.

Modern femininity

While the sensibility of its editorial voice and the visual content may outwardly seem at odds – concern for the welfare state printed next to fashion shots introducing the sarong as new beachwear – it was precisely this multi-faceted approach that embraced the feeling of empowerment and awareness across all areas of British life.

This extended to perhaps the most pertinent inclusion in Nova’s “portrait” of modern femininity: an open and active discussion of sex. It was noted that if women’s fashion had always been about sex, women’s magazines had never said so. Nova did, regularly addressing it as both an independent subject and important aspect of female expression through clothing.

When Dennis Hackett assumed editorship in September 1965, his promotion of creative freedom and radicalism pushed Nova’s unique and honest voice to its peak, and sales figures flourished. Ideas that might now feel dated or are unquestioningly accepted were given a nationwide platform, and the willing deployment of controversial, provocative and even shocking content only served to entice and encourage consumers.

Clearly it was not only the latest look readers were buying into in owning an issue, but also the evidence of their active participation in and support of the liberal revolution. Headlines including They consent in private, Why do women have babies?, There’s nothing wrong with sex if it feels good and Dig your own gold, call out from various covers, united under that quintessentially pop logo – all caps, typeset in a rounded-off serif font and rendered in a changeable block colour.

Nova cover - why do women have babies

Inside any one issue, you might find a cookery piece on How to make the best of green leaves before an article titled Home truths about violence or a Playboy pin-up parody entitled Meanwhile, of course, exploitation can be fun, alongside documentary photographs of London’s multicultural provisioners. The moment and mood Nova recorded and created as that historical period progressed is printed on every page, and its key concern – the representation of an increasingly liberated, sexualised and intelligent modern woman (an aspirational image for readers, in its own idealistic way) – was grounded in a number of crucial visual devices.

The female body

There was regular use of extreme close-ups within fashion stories, erring towards an emphasis of the body, that unifying female constant, rather than the garment. A 1971 feature on the introduction of soft, seamless bras, illustrated by Celestino Valenti, severely crops the model’s body to solely highlight her anatomy between collarbone and upper thigh, rather than a conventional full-length, as a number of underwear sets are exhibited.

You could suggest that this shifts priority away from the sexualised tradition of the nude or the undressed female and instead towards the female viewer’s gaze as empowered consumer and determinant of her own identity, rather like a headless shop mannequin, which proposes anyone might imagine themselves wearing and owning the item on display. In 1972’s Good Ghastly Taste story, photographed by founding art director Peccinotti, small, subtly sexy sections of the body are elevated in their depiction of unusual styling details: the navel peeking out between waistband and jumper, a bare shoulder and the strap of a top, the outline of a breast beneath the latest cut and fabric of shirt. Liberated female physicality and sexuality was always acknowledged as a decisive factor in the individual’s choice of outfit.

Nova cover

At the opposite extreme, models’ bodies would extend just off the page, as though the magazine was unable to contain their vitality or even that they could almost be touched by, and thus relatable to, the reader. Most unusually, several fold-out, full-length images of a single model were published, which as the printing was double-sided and extended over multiple spreads, often required your buying two copies to complete assembly.

The largest, by Celestino Valenti and published in the October 1973 issue, was a nude 14ft long. Quite literally, the sensual, tangible Nova woman was larger than life and this attractive identity sustained female (and male) readers’ approval for quite some time.

Nova’s monthly offering of unrelenting, progressive adventure in all possible areas of expression was rendered in a quintessential visual language

Graphically, all content was displayed through perpetually exciting layouts, which attributed as much potential to text as image. The fun that often infused the photographic mood and the continual pursuit of inventive communication, bound the images to the playfulness of the type. Anything more formalised or rigorous in tone would have seemed a step backwards in its associations; it was a time for aesthetic as well as political reinvention.

Even the groundbreaking work produced for Harper’s Bazaar by Alexey Brodovitch, who was art director from 1938-58, was too synonymous with its comparatively traditional presentation of women as in the elegant, but conservative, 1950s Vogue mould and its naivety towards broader social realities.

Therefore, a typically boring description crediting the items a model was wearing might be cheekily tucked in next to the sensual curve of her back or a crucial word from a headline giganticised within the spread to deliver maximum punch. The strongly graphic mood seen in fashion of the time – block colours, pattern, print and bold, proportional shapes – was also mirrored in, united with and elevated by the design team’s graphic work.

Nova cover - if you want to stay alive

Thus, Nova’s monthly offering of unrelenting, progressive adventure in all possible areas of expression was rendered in a quintessential visual language. This, in turn, has been preserved within the magazine’s transporting pages.

Yet to hold a copy in my hand, I am struck by the fragility of the printed object. The quality of the paper stock is akin to any weekly supplement from a national newspaper, and a single issue shares a similar format size (approximately 34.5x26cm) and number of pages. Tragically, the demise of Nova after a ten-year print-run can largely be attributed to a reduction in format in March 1974, instigated as a result of heightened paper prices.

A second reduction in May that year restricted it to a tiny 25x20cm (fractionally larger than A5), and the title disappeared after the October edition five months later, a shadow of its formerly glorious and authoritative self. An attempt to relaunch the title in 1999, which failed within a year due to poor sales, also points to the brutal truth, expressed by Jeff Rian in his 2002 essay Close to You, that “magazines live and die with their constituencies, the social milieus and the public consciousness that brought them to life”. Often this change is completely beyond a talented team’s control.

Just like wearing a new outfit, connection with any printed voice is a desirable commodity that can be as impulsively decided as you like

But this is by no means cause for despondency. Just as Nova answered a national urge for rigorous discussion of the 1965-75 social mood and a fresh exploration of under-represented female identity, so too are titles on today’s (dare we say it) fashion shelves attempting to promote emerging concerns and perspectives.

Magazines such as The Gentlewoman or Twin immediately spring to mind as successors to Nova’s particular concerns, in the intelligent female voice they inhabit, through the contemporary portraits of “the new woman” they present, and in their engagement of wider culture and unusual areas of interest. This is but one of a multitude of possible perspectives for readers to be captivated by and support, and the majority can be easily purchased nationwide, if not over the internet.

Just like wearing a new outfit, connection with any printed voice is a desirable commodity that can be as impulsively decided as you like. But particularly considering the atmosphere of cultural uncertainty and reappraisal shared by Nova’s era and today, perhaps we are now primed for a popular emergence of more socially discursive content in print? Maybe the onus is no longer on establishing the latest portrait of women in contemporary society; what about men? What about titles that ignore the reader’s gender altogether?

Whatever proves to be significantly resounding, flourishes and survives to emerge as a voice for and record of this moment in history remains to be seen, but myriad experiences as a reader and viewer are out there to be had. Pages await turning – both in old magazines and new.

Room&Book ICA Art Book Fair takes place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London