The Pretty Girl at the Machine

Dress and Workplace Identities in British Women’s Magazines, 1919-1939

Fiona Hackney (Falmouth University)


From career columns and fashion ideas for the business girl to employment problems and the heroines of romantic fiction, the working woman was an important presence in women’s magazines during the 1920s and 1930s. The ‘pretty girl at the machine’ in Mr. Brown’s office, as one magazine described her, was the acceptable face of the new work processes and organisational structures of scientific management, with their code of rationalisation and productivity, as they were developed in the workplace and the home. Looking smart, however, could also be problematic and a cause of despair for those without the means to acquire ‘respectable’ clothing. This paper explores a range of representations of working women in popular magazines, from glamorous career professionals in the monthly Modern Woman to office girls dreaming of marriage in the tuppeny weekly Home Chat. Locating these within contemporary debates about the modern woman, the bachelor girl, older single women, and the working wife, the paper considers some of the tensions and contradictions surrounding the working woman. It argues that while the prevailing discourse of appearances confirmed the widely held assumption that female employment was a stop-gap before marriage, magazines also negotiated this for their readers at a time when increased numbers of women had to work. As such, they contributed to a feminised work culture in which dress played a significant part in imagining, materialising, and performing new workplace identities, inside and outside the home.


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