Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine who died Monday in New York at 90, will forever be remembered for celebrating the power of cleavage.
Her Cosmo covers were an exacting science of bodacious hair, confident gaze, silky skin, and necklines that plunged low enough to titillate and entertain without causing too much offense. The Cosmo woman was neither raunchy nor vulgar. She was, in the parlance of the 1960s and 70s, liberated.
Her Cosmo kept an eye on Seventh Avenue, but it was never a fashion magazine. A model appeared on the cover of Cosmo as a kind of rite of passage from anonymous mannequin to individual. A young star who was ready to be perceived as a fully realized woman, as a sexual being, would sign up for her Cosmo cover. They didn’t wear the high-fashion frocks of the moment. They didn’t wear the kind of clothes meant to elicit an intellectual response. Instead, the image was one of pure visceral pleasure: a beautiful body, well displayed.
Brown didn’t concern herself with the shifting trends of the runway. She was more interested in the way fashion played out in popular culture, they way it could arouse, empower and provoke. In short, fashion was the conduit of a woman’s sexuality.
For Brown, the primary relationship that interested her was that between a man and a woman. The Cosmo girl courted the admiring masculine gaze. It didn’t matter if the man was straight or gay. And whether or not the self-declared feminists of her day, who were offended by her flirtatious gestures, chose to acknowledge it, most women take pleasure from and empowerment in a lingering glance.
For Brown, fashion was in service to pleasing men. And men liked cleavage.
“She liked clothes that were sexy, flirty, and tasteful. And she was obsessed with boobs,” remembers designer James Purcell, who dressed Brown in floral organza for the 1993 Academy Awards when her husband David Brown’s film, A Few Good Men, was nominated for best picture. “Clothes were to entice the man.”
The Cosmo girl’s heyday coincided with the rise of John T. Molloy’s working woman. The boardroom fashion guru advised women to, in essence, dress like a man in order to advance up the corporate ladder. And so, his advice gave rise to the dull navy suits and the floppy neckerchiefs standing in for the man’s four-in-hand.
Brown’s approach to fashion stood in stark contrast to that philosophy. It was far more audacious and ultimately, more connected to the reality of our culture. Her Cosmo girl wore clothes that reflected the complicated relationship between men and women—whether they were meeting in a ‘70s fern bar or a workplace cubicle. Sex appeal was as much a part of the interaction as the air they were breathing.
Cosmo style embraces the sort of fashion that might be referred to as man bait. (Think Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, or Cavalli.) The designers of these clothes are not fretting about comfort. They are not interested in a woman being discreet— although they are not necessarily urging her to be flamboyant. Instead, the clothes are aimed at connecting to that purest emotion: desire.
It’s not just about a man desiring a woman. But it is the acknowledgement that a woman can never fully come into her own until she sees herself as desirable, until she recognizes that she can use her sexuality to her benefit and her pleasure.
For Brown, operating in a time when a woman’s sexuality was something mysterious and unspoken—even behind closed doors—there was something freeing about being able to strut down a public street in something tight, short, and risqué.
The smiling Cosmo girl with her cleavage on display was refreshing. And then she became familiar. And then she became a cliché.
But somehow, she never became acceptable. She is a provocative image, even now. The idea of a woman flaunting her sexuality is rarely considered in the context of intelligence, independence, or even self-knowledge. A woman and her cleavage have their place and it is not alongside powerbrokers and intellectuals.
In a world that accommodates the likes of Kim Kardashian, whose personal sex appeal—and sex life—are a business commodity, cleavage is one contributor to her questionable success. On television, real housewives, basketball wives, and assorted other caricatures all strut forth baring cleavage. It is a prerequisite that these women, desperately constructing their own personal brands, come armed with at least a C cup. They are Cosmo girls hyped up on silicone, bad attitude, and greed.
The music industry has turned the Cosmo girl into the video vixen and the huntress. These archetypes are neither tasteful nor flirtatious. They are aggressive—even angry—and humorless. They come bearing whips. Brown advocated a wink.
In the world of Cosmopolitan magazine, fashion was a gift from a woman to a man. It was another element in the gamesmanship between the sexes. It teased the eyes; it acknowledged that a woman’s beauty, her sexuality, her sex appeal have an intrinsic value in our culture.
The complicated question, the debate that created the irresistible tension in Helen Gurley Brown’s magazine, was whether it was right for a woman to reap the rewards.