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  • Selling Culture to the “Civilized”: Bloomsbury, British Vogue, and the Marketing of National Identity

One of the most startling aspects of the 1936 essay “Bloomsbury” by British modernist Mary Butts is that the piece was originally rejected on the grounds that the Group was not widely known in England. 1 This perspective seems hardly credible today, particularly since the inception of the Group’s popularity can be traced to 1920, when the term Bloomsbury began to circulate in newspapers and take on a life of its own. While Butts makes no reference to Bloomsbury’s appearance in mass circulation periodicals during this decade, her prescient analysis of the Group speaks directly to the concerns of this essay—Bloomsbury’s complicity in its own commodification through its glitzy appearances in British Vogue. Although Butts does not intentionally set out to investigate the Group’s role as a mass-market phenomenon, her language inadvertently exposes Bloomsbury’s status as a modernist spectacle capable of posing for Vogue and resolutely tied to market concerns. The words that Butts utilizes to discuss the Group’s ideological positions—“synthetic” (“B,” 37), “papier-maché” (“B,” 36), “copies” (“B,” 37),”essential fake” (“B,” 42)—stem from her conviction that Bloomsbury scorned a belief in “the absolute” and instead embraced a relativist perspective, deifing the simulacrum: “things made of one substance pretending to be things made out of another” (“B,” 36). While Butts here reveals her own conservatism by fetishizing the alleged authenticity of the modernist product, her use of the language of artifice and her view that the Group was a “pretty wide corporation” that vigorously [End Page 29] sought to “impress itself upon the public mind” simultaneously introduce the idea of reproducibility, a concept that is central to Bloomsbury’s position vis-à-vis Vogue (“B,” 38). The Group authorized the magazine to circulate its fashionable lifestyle in the commercial marketplace by allowing its “beliefs and opinions [to] filter down . . . to the mass of the people” (“B,” 41). Although Butts condemned the Group’s modernist assumption that “you could make poetry out of anything,” it is precisely this blurring of the boundary between high and low that enabled Bloomsbury to wage a successful self-promotional campaign in Vogue (“B,” 41). The magazine capitalized on the view that “as individuals they have justified their fame” by reproducing and circulating Bloomsbury’s individual style to a mass audience, marketing the Group’s artistic products as commodities for selective consumption (“B,” 38).

Despite the lingering view of the Bloomsbury Group as signifiers of high culture’s “intellectual elite”—an association premised upon an elision of the marketplace—their splashy appearance in Vogue documents that Bloomsbury was not isolated from the mass culture of the 1920s. My observations are based upon archival research at Colindale, the British Newspaper Library, where I looked at all of the issues of Vogue between the years 1916 (when the magazine was launched in England) and 1941 (the year that Virginia Woolf died). I found that during the 1920s the magazine was a fascinating cultural hybrid, juxtaposing articles on fashion, homemaking, and cosmetics with a huge range of cultural materials that we would today classify as “high brow.” In particular, the magazine was a veritable homage to the world of Bloomsbury, publishing book and cultural reviews by, and about, a diverse range of critics and artists associated with the Group: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville West, Harold Nicolson, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, David Garnett, the Sitwells, G. E. Moore, Ottoline Morrell, E. M. Forster, Desmond Mac Carthy, Raymond Mortimer, and John Maynard Keynes. Although the magazine also ran articles by and about other modernists such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, Bloomsbury was the key vehicle through which the magazine attempted to disseminate cultural elitism to its affluent readership. This essay analyzes how Bloomsbury, in particular the male members of the Group, functioned as champions of English high culture to Vogue’s elite female audience; it also seeks to demonstrate how the dual ideologies of nationalism and imperialism intersect with the magazine’s popularization of British high culture and marginalization of women...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 29-58
Launched on MUSE
1999-04-01
Open Access
No
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