Reading colors in a women’s magazine

Paper presented at the Eighth Annual ESPRit Conference, Athens (12-13 September 2019) “Periodicals and Visual Culture

I spent my early years with my family as immigrant to the Western Germany. It was late 1960s till early 1970s, when TV was still black and white, when most of our lives was black and white as well. Except for the clothes, of course: they were colorful and bright. For Greeks living abroad there were but a few opportunities to keep in contact with home: half an hour program in Deutzsche Welle, and very few magazines.

One of them was the most colorful: Romantso. Actually, in its peak days, Romantso was selling more than 300,000 copies, with a large part being sold to diasporic and immigrant communities. Targeting a female audience, Romantso entered working-class and petite bourgeoisie homes, and was read by all family.

Its colorful covers, a source of fascination for the reader, in pace with covers from similar magazines published in Western Europe and the States (which sometimes it imitated or simply copied shamelessly), are now a collector’s pride, but also a tool for social historical research.

The Story and Covers of Romantso

The story of Romantso begun at November 17, 1934 as a hybrid between a book and a magazine. It featured complete romantic stories. The magazine was published by N. Theofanidis and Sp. Lampadaridis. Theofanidis remained its publisher until 1984, and his wife Ifigenia took over, until 1987. Then it was acquired by the powerful Lambrakis News Corporation, along with two other similar magazines: Pantheon, and Vendeta. The last issue, no 2453, was published in April 10, 1990. In this paper I will focus on the second period of the magazine, which begun in September 19, 1942.

Timeline of the main events related to the history of Romantso

The covers of Romantso, as is the case for most popular culture images that are produced in series for a long time, testify about the social and cultural history of Greece in the post-war era. An era which included a civil war, the division between ‘nationally healthy’ and ‘communists’ – with the latter being executed or exiled until late 1950s – a dictatorship (1967-1974), a ‘restoration’ of democracy which led to the longest peaceful democratic period in modern Greece. Nothing from these major events and issues entered the covers of the magazine. 

If one took the pains to look at the covers related to the two national commemoration days (the Revolution against the Ottomans in 1821, and the beginning of the World War II in 1940), will find evident the visual connotations of victory, fight, a nation in arms, but also the strong connection to supernatural or religious figures like the Virgin Mary – whose religious feast coincides with both  commemoration days, lending a sacred aura to nation itself. 

On the other hand, religious images were quite often and were provided on a circular basis: Easter, August 15th, Christmas and New Year’s Eve provided opportunities for covers with religious subjects, offering a religious aura to familial and – at least for till the late 1950s – patriarchal values. Thus, with a certain circularity, cover artwork (as well as the texts) provided a visual imagery for the basic moto of the period: “Home-country, Religion, Family”.

After mid 1960s some religious occasions were skipped with just a wish on the cover for “Happy Easter” or a “Happy New Year”, without a dedicated artwork. This became the norm for all religious occasions since the mid 1980s.

Beyond social and cultural values, mostly related with gendered social roles and norms and romance, the magazine participated in promoting (and thus, documenting) changing values and fashions: the clothing changed for women to include the trousers; headscarves were gone, sometimes substituted with hats; swimwear and then bikini became acceptable, along with naked parts of the body without becoming too bold, etc. Thus, browsing through the 2,453 covers becomes something like a visual documentary of the changes that took place not only in Greece, but also in Western culture as a whole. After all, several covers were mere reproductions with lesser modifications (sometimes only to background colors) of Italian of French magazines. Thus, Romantso became an evangelist of modernization for the petit bourgeoisie and the working classes, hiding away the cultural, political and economic exploitation of its audience.

It also provides an entrance point to the study of stardom and the star system in its early years through maturity. The first years of its life, under the German Occupation during WWII, covers featured German actresses and a few male actors, along with model images of romance. After the end of the War, shyly at first and then more often, cover images featured American, and Western European actresses. Few male actors were depicted. It was the December 27th, 1960 issue (no 930) which featured for the first time a Greek actress. So, it took 930 weeks until the Greek star system made its appearance on this women’s magazine cover. For a while, covers depicted either Greek or Western actresses, but from mid-1960s on the first became the canon. Until the end of the decade, though, very few men became covers for Romantso. This changed in 1970s, when both male actors and singers of both sexes became part of the stardom promoted in cover art. In any case, though, female persons were the vast majority on the covers till the magazine’s shut down in 1990.

The changes described above coincide roughly with the changes of the magazine’s directors: Apostolos Maganaris, author and journalist, who supported the founding of such initiatives since mid 1930s, became director of Romantso from issue 18 (14/1/43) until issue 704. During his directorship the covers depicted romantic poses between men and women, or western actresses – and a few actors. Michalis Hanousis undertook as director in 1956 (issue 705) and remained at this position until 1970 (issue 1400). He introduced the Greek star system on cover pages, with an emphasis on actresses. The third director was Kiki Segditsa, from 1970 and for 20 years, who populated covers with male and female actors and singers, as well as the participants to Greek and International beauty pageants. Despite the increase of the persons posing on the covers, the majority remained by far feminine.

The Question of Color

While interesting and informing, such an analysis is familiar in cultural studies. My research the last decade has a slightly different focus: color. The question I would like to pose has as follows: is there any way to relate cultural, social, economic, gendered values, as well as the values and lifestyles promoted through the star system, to colors used on popular images, like the ones on Romantso’s covers? Or, which are the semantic properties of color? How comes color to signify certain things, to denote or connote lifestyles, moral values, political stances?

Before proceeding into the analysis of colors, let me remind a few points:

  • Colors differ from other signs (e.g. the linguistic sign) in that they form a semi-symbolic system. This means that they don’t have a single referent (e.g. red is [or means] passion, green is hope, etc.), but several potential referents: “Blue can be the blue of the sky on a sunny day (hence ‘calm’ and ‘healthy’) or the blue of a hazy, misty, cold day (hence ‘cold’ and ‘gloomy’). Yellow can be ‘warm’ and ‘bright’ (the sun) as well as ‘sickly’ (jaundice)” (van Leeuwen, 2011: 57)
  • Color is not a single phenomenon. It has three properties. Hue is usually mistakenly considered as synonym to color. But there is also saturation (how compact the color is) and grayscale or value (how bright or dark the color is).
  • Actually, due to being the combination of three properties or parameters there are millions of possible colors. In RGB model (upon which you see my powerpoint presentation) there are close to 17 million colors. Therefore, we need a measure of similarity (or difference) in order to compare colors. Such a measure exists in industry, and in my research is combined with computer vision and computational measurement of colors.
  • Finally, when working with computational methods statistics are the key to analysis. For the statistically savvy, I just mention that I extracted five centroids for each cover based on k-means clustering and used k-means clustering to the results in order to compute up to 12 centroids for the covers of each decade.

And a note: I didn’t have all the covers, and some that were available were not well scanned (e.g. they included other objects around the cover, or were taken with angle), so my analysis holds for 740 covers, approximately one third of the complete series.

This being said, I have two visualizations to discuss. The first presents the covers themselves, divided by decade, and arranged by Hue (the x axis) and Saturation (the y axis). At the bottom of each image there is a stripe with the relevant hue, so that you may better understand what is present and what is absent in terms of color.

Hue and Saturation of the colors of the covers of Romantso magazine, by decade

A first reading reveals that at 1940, the hues must have been quite limited. In the horizontal axis there are wide empty areas. In subsequent decades these areas are partly covered, meaning that the covers feature more diversified colors, and promising a richer palette. One may, for example notice the proliferation of yellow greens in 1960s, which move towards green blues in the 1970s and violet in 1980s. One may also notice that the red in the far end becomes more populated.

These observations become clearer when we change the visualization: the palette is ideal since it reduces information overflow. I attempted to construct palettes for each decade with 12 colors – since in Greece there are 12 basic color terms (I will not explain that choice further, it’s complicated). The first two palettes though accommodate 10 or 11 colors, respectively. They are poorer, less colorful than the rest. Dark brown, brown and red hues make up the most part of the 1940s palette. Two stripes of yellow bring a kind of promise, while Green, Blue and Violet are absent. A yellowish and a bluish green appeared in 1950s, but one had to wait until the next decade for greens to become greener (to remember Tom Jones’ song Green Green Grass of Home (1967) or Pink Floyd’s nostalgic High Hopes). Actually, in 1960s greens cover more than 1/5th (20%) of the covers’ surface, and along with a yellowish green they make for over than 1/3rd. They shrink in 1970s to just over 10%, and further shrink in 1980s.

The covers’ palettes by decade

A dump and unsaturated blue appeared in 1970s covering about 1% of the covers’ surface and remains such until the magazine’s death in 1990. Violet hues made their way to the palette in 1960s and remained there to the end, but without consistency.

On the other hand, looking on the y axis of the first diagram one might guess that there is an intriguing fluctuation in saturation. Between the 1940s and 1960s colors became more saturated, and then saturation became lower again. Van Leeuwen suggests that “If color conveys emotion, then saturation is the fullness of that emotion, and the saturation scale is a scale that runs from maximum emotive intensity to maximally subdued, maximally toned-down emotion. In context this will acquire more precise meanings and values. High saturation might be positive, exuberant, adventurous – or vulgar or garish […]. Low saturation might be subtle and tender – or cold and repressed” (2011: 61). This is coupled with even the basic history of postwar cultural trends. The 1950s were a forward looking, optimistic period, while in the 1960s the baby boomers brought forth the hippies, psychedelia, youth cultures, anti-Vietnam protests, Woodstock etc. Then, emotion drew back and the crisis of the 1970s called for cold logic. While some subcultures continued the cult of emotion, mainstream culture became more intellectual.

Colors and Social Values: Following the Winds of Change

Such changes are following the winds of change blowing across Greek society, as well, and echo the change of values and mentality throughout the western hemisphere. I remind you that Romantso was an intermediary preaching such values and mentality to Greeks, promoting modernization (whatever this might mean) both in words and in visual terms.

Such an approach brings a promise rather than full answers to the questions I asked earlier. This handicap is welcome, though, since computational analysis of color from a sociological and semiotic point of view are making their very first steps. Further analyses have to be undertaken for other magazines of the postwar era. One may just go on to ask if other types of magazines, not targeting a female or family audience differ significantly, or there are similarities. And then, the horizon should open to include other visual forms of popular culture. Having just finished a book on color in Greek music album covers since 1960, let me close with a kind of comparison, as yet incomplete:

The music albums covers’ palettes 1960-2016

Contrary to Romantso, the music album covers feature prominently the non-chromatic ‘colors’ (black, greys and white). They cover more than half and sometimes they expand to about two thirds of the surface. In Romantso we found only a dark brown as a centroid perhaps collecting the few instances of black, and small amounts of grey.

  • Light and dark blues, making up for the linguistic distinction between γαλάζιο (sea-blue or blue of the sky) and μπλε, were eminent in album covers since 1967, while in Romantso they were dull and almost non-existent.
  • On the other hand, greens of several varieties were in albums covering a considerable part of the surface (though not as much as in Romantso) and diminished till extinction in the end of 1980s.

In conclusion, color is a semi-symbolic system, and as such specific colors have different signifieds, different referents, depending on the context, the genre and the syntax of the images. It offers a novel way to research the subtle connection between genre (women’s magazines in the case of Romantso) and social values, norms, power and gender, in unexpected ways. In this paper I attempted to just scratch the surface of such an analysis.