Mayfair magazine

I wasn’t sure about posting an article about Mayfair magazine. A big part of me wants to ignore this top shelf publication. On the other hand, it is a reflection of UK culture. And on balance, even though it is past its heyday, the significance of the magazine cannot be ignored.

The magazine is of greatest interest to me in the time period before it was taken over by the Paul Raymond brand in 1991. It was in these editions that carried full page and double page advertisements for alcohol, car, technology and tobacco brands from that era.

There was even a public health advert.

It was this that gave the magazine a degree of respectability. But as the 80s turned into the 90s the advertising nose dived. A typical late-70s/early-80s edition would have a dozen or so adverts. Just before the publishers sold the magazine, there were only three or four.

So, was the drop in advertising revenue due to a lack of readership? Handily, the magazine published the circulation figures on the contents page for me to easily collate. Here they are from the December edition of each year except 1984.

1972 271,042
1973 409,442
1974 462,841
1975 472,208
1976 400,981
1977 448,146
1978 419,791
1979 445,992
1980 389,889
1981 327,369
1982 340,669
1983 346,133
1984 354,898
1985 342,797
1986 345,411
1987 345,411
1988 318,053
1989 331,760
1990 295,646

For whatever reason the December 1984 copy did not print the figures, so that number is from August that year. And as you can see there is a decline in readership but not a drop that would explain the rapid exit by advertisers.

I can only speculate that there was a change in attitude towards the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s. Evidence of which is the Miss World contest and The Benny Hill Show being dropped from UK television schedules around this time too.

It is easy to forget how few media outlets there were in the UK back then. Channel 4 only launched in 1982 and Sky started broadcasting in 1989. So, the dropping of these programmes would have been a big decision.

Maybe the brands felt that they no longer wanted to be associated with this type of content.

The question I asked of the Lads Mags is the same one I ask of these magazines, have attitudes changed since these were printed?

Thirty years ago, the only way to view these type of images, you would have had to go to a newsagent and pay money for the magazine. Today they are just a free click away from the comfort of your own home.

Hair and fashion styles may have changed but the posing of the women, locations and storylines have a very similar look and feel to the pictures of today. Maybe there was more honesty in the photography from these magazines. Taken from a time before Photoshop and cosmetic surgery were common, there is certainly less Barbie doll perfection to the images. But I don’t want you going away thinking that everything is all rosy.

Some of the content is really embarrassing in how they viewed women. There are cartoons and jokes in which harassment and assault is seen as a compliment. Poking fun at women in sports, driving cars or working was an acceptable form of amusement to the editors of the magazine.

It will be no surprise to say that, just like the Lads Mags, the women featured are predominately white and young. If there is a woman of colour or an older woman there is a feeling of fetishizing that demographic. Their inclusion is an oddity rather than on an equal platform.

This video on YouTube suggests that the use of a colour chart featuring a white woman as the reference point created a bias towards that skin colour during the development of film technology.

Not being able to accurately reproduce different skin tones in the magazine would have given the editors an easy excuse to exclude. However, this is no defence for the language used in the magazines from the 70s about race that is not acceptable today. Still shocks me to read those types of words in print.

With hindsight, it is easy to spot the repetitiveness of the photo sets. Different models would pose in the same setting dressed in a similar way. There are even sets in which they shared the same clothing. The choice of pictures would be near identical in different editions of the magazine. There is almost a laziness in making each model an individual.

There is no way of me knowing for sure if the biographical text that accompanied the sets of pictures are a work of fiction. It is possible that what was written about the models is true. I have no way of checking. I also don’t know if the models were paid a fair wage for their work.

What I have found fascinating is how over time the publication has become a collectors item. At the time of writing, eBay allows Mayfair, Playboy, Playgirl, and Penthouse to be sold on their site. They have managed to retain their respectability after all these years.

Were the 1960s and 70s the age when women were starting to be depicted in this way? I would argue that these magazines gave more access to the middle class market for this type of photography. They also paved the way for the lads mags to come down from the top shelf to become more mainstream.

Unknown sitter
probably after Thomas Charles Wageman
stipple engraving, after 1800
NPG D42546 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Looking at the National Portrait Gallery online archive it struck me that this engraving from the 1800s has a certain style that is hard not to compare with some of the images in the magazine.

What is the future for these types of images? If over the last century or so you can find increasingly more material, it is difficult to imagine that the snowball will stop rolling down the hill.

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