This week saw the death of legendary Helen Gurley Brown, who passed away aged 90. Cosmopolitan’s editor from 1965 until 1997, she reinvented the magazine into the first sexually driven publication of its kind. Predating Carrie Bradshaw, she promoted the self-made female, advocating independence, style and wit. She curated feminism to be relevant for the modern woman and combined her honest discussions on sex with a chic dress code. Although she favoured mini-dresses and leopard print, she was never smutty and always glamorous. She wore bright jumpers, sequins, coloured tights and false eyelashes. She dressed in Nancy Reagan-style suits and skirts, teamed with oversized jewellery, fat pearls and brooches. She wore custom-made wigs and once wrote an article for Cosmopolitan on how to have sex whilst wearing a hairpiece. A petite 5”4, she weighed up at only a hundred pounds, which she claimed to be five above her goal weight. She followed a meticulous diet, presenting a frail appearance which belied the headstrong dynamo inside.
"Beauty can't amuse you, but brainwork – reading, writing, thinking – can"
She preached that a career would allow you to spend and save simultaneously, giving women a sense of purpose and independence, thus making them more appealing to the opposite sex. “A man likes to sleep with a brainy girl. She’s a challenge,” she would advise, while also instructing “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” She herself rose from humble beginnings (a ‘mouseburger’ as she referred to it – a drab, feeble woman of little money) to editorial powerhouse. A harsh self-critic, she believed herself to be an example of what the born-plain girl could achieve.
Although now dated, her books such as bestselling Sex & The Single Girl represented a seismic shift in female perspectives and were shocking for their generation. They reference her early secretarial career, where she explains ‘scuttling’: a ritual in the 1940s where men would chase girls around the office to steal their underwear. Her tale is credited as inspiration for Joan Holloway in Mad Men.
Her office featured cushions embroidered “Good Girls Go to Heaven/Bad Girls Go Everywhere” which would later be the name of her biography written by Jennifer Scanlon. She was racy yet practical and inspired a generation of females. “Beauty can't amuse you,” she said, “but brainwork – reading, writing, thinking – can.”
Text by Mhairi Graham