A Flair for the Times

Fleur Cowles and Her Legendary Mag

Every once in a while, a magazine captures the spirit of a time and place. Rolling Stone accomplished it in the late 60s and early 70s, offering coverage as political and defiant as the California countercultures it featured; Spy did it in the 80s, lampooning the excesses of New York’s social and financial elites before Black Monday ended the party. Flair, the general-interest magazine founded by socialite Fleur Cowles in February 1950, encapsulated its moment, too. Its zeitgeist was the ideas, innovations, and sense of possibility electrifying American urbanites in the years directly after WWII; Flair gave them form and put them to pictures. The result was a cultural and graphic design tour de force unlike any other then or now.

Organized like a walk through the city, where each turn could provide an unexpected surprise, Flair offered a rush of stories on art and fashion, literature, beauty, cultural trends, travel, and humor. The visual presentations were wildly creative, containing boldly colored layouts, tear-out inserts, pages of different widths and sizes, die-cut covers, and illustrations by Fleur’s circle of friends—Salvador Dali, Lucian Freud, Jean Cocteau, and Saul Steinberg, among others. With Fleur’s then-husband Gardner Cowles, the publisher of Look magazine, bankrolling the project, Flair had access and funds unmatched in publishing history. But the great experiment was short-lived: After 12 issues, Gardner cut the funding when the magazine proved too costly to maintain.

Dorothy Twining Globus, curator of “Fleur on Flair,” an exhibition about the great lady and her magazine that is on view at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery through July 26, recently shared her thoughts about Flair, its impact on the magazine industry, and why Fleur could never quit the city, even when she tried. Following are excerpts from our discussion.

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On how Flair captured the spirit of the times:
“I love [Flair’s] layers and the different ways you can look at it. It’s a tour de force of design. It’s this amazing time capsule of life in 1950, a social and cultural history of America as it was emerging from the war and becoming a nation that had something to say to the rest of the world.

“It’s also [a story] about advertising, about marketing, about consumerism and production. [For example], one of the biggest advertisers in the magazine was the beauty industry. This was when beauty products and fragrances, which previously were only for the very wealthy, were starting to be mass-marketed, and packaging was being recognized as a way to sell the stuff.”

On how Fleur learned to make Flair such a compelling read:
“Fleur had a nose for news… She was a life-style reader before the term was coined. She had a sense for things that would attract people. She also liked being controversial, I think.

“When she married Gardner Cowles, Look was a barber-shop magazine, which was something for the guys to look at when they were getting their hair cut. Fleur started telling her husband, You should do this, you should do that. You should open up Look’s readership and get women interested in it as well.

“She began by putting notes in his pockets as he went to work everyday, telling him things that could be done. Finally, he [gave in] and put her to work as the magazine’s special editor. I’m not sure how people took that. But the fact of the matter is she turned the magazine into something very different—much more of a family magazine, a human-interest magazine.

“But what [Fleur] really wanted was her own magazine. With Flair, Gardner gave her the opportunity, and she took it. She hired the best in every field, and it shows.”

On Flair’s graphic and layout innovations:
“I did this analysis of all the different tricks and gimmicks she used in the magazine…The thing is, they began to disappear as the months passed, so that the first two issues each had a postcard, a free piece of art, which after that ended. Then there were the little tissue paper inserts and they ended after four issues. Oh my God, so many different kinds of paper were bound within each issue. It got pricey and it seems inevitable that they began to cut back on the special elements. But all the covers were die-cut and that was what everyone associated with Flair.”

On Fleur’s urban ways:
Look magazine began in Minneapolis, but Fleur said, I’m not going to live in Minneapolis, let’s go to New York.

“She did travel. Paris was the subject of one issue [of Flair]; London was featured prominently in another… Spain was the focus of a third. Then she did the New York issue. So obviously New York was important.”

On mixing cultural references:
“[Fleur] also tried to show high and low of everything. There is this amazing article, an interview with Colette’s housekeeper, in the Paris issue; she sort of gets a gloss of her own, this woman, for having been in Colette’s house.

“My favorite example, though, is in the decor category. Of course Fleur is going to do the palace apartment of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, because who could resist, right? But then she [photographed] the interior of Trigger’s horse trailer. And there’s this great picture of Roy [Rogers, the TV host and Trigger’s owner] lifting a bale of hay. I can’t image that Roy often lifted a bale of hay. It might have been the only time, but it was a picture [capturing] a very popular thing. It was pushing television, which was another thing that was getting started in 1950.”

On whether Flair sold well in the suburbs:
“I think it did. Ladies of this era remember the magazine. They read it. And they saved it. It really did hit. Of course, people don’t quite remember how long it lasted because it lasted in their memories. It really did make an impression, and it also encouraged women to have opinions and attitudes.”

On Flair’s legacy:
Flair looked at the complexity of the world with such a sense of joy. It was so interesting. You never could guess what the next page was going to bring, it’s just all over the place. And that’s what Fleur wanted.

“Fleur says, ‘I don’t know why anyone never copied it.’ Well, they didn’t copy it because they weren’t Fleur Cowles, for one thing! And no one had that kind of budget… But [aside from design magazines], where you see Flair’s influence nowadays, its ideas, is in advertising.”

Dorothy Twining Globus has served as both the curator of exhibitions at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum and director of New York’s Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Among her upcoming projects are an extensive signage project for the Observatory Level of the Empire State Building and the traveling exhibit “Woven Silks of Laos: Carol Cassidy in Context,” scheduled to premiere January 2004 at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art.

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