The Story of NOVA: the influential magazine that shook Britain!

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to reproduce images from the original magazine. However, to complement this article, I would strongly suggest hopping on Google images and searching ‘Nova magazine covers’ and ‘Penny Slinger collage.’ 

Nova first hit British newsstands in March 1965, with a tagline proclaiming it to be ‘a new kind of magazine for a new kind of woman.’ Indeed, Nova was so bold and new, it famously recorded a larger readership of men than women by the time it shut shop in 1975. It has been suggested that men were so concerned about the contents of this publication and its potential impact on the sexual revolution, that they were buying up copies to keep tabs on what the women of Britain were reading. 

This sleek, sophisticated fashion magazine was the brainchild of Fleet Street mover-and-shaker, Harry Fieldhouse, who had previously been editing Tatler, and had gained a reputation for dealing sensitively with gifted contributors. Resenting the interference of the managerial team in the editing process, he resigned. Others followed suit in solidarity, including Elizabeth David, the ground-breaking culinary writer who paved the way for the likes of Prue Leith and Julia Child, who would go on to be a regular contributor to Nova

The calibre of Nova's writers was deliriously impressive: Graham Green, Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag, and Jean-Paul Sartre all had their interests piqued, and contributed to the monthly volume for the ‘modern, intelligent woman’.

In content and appearance, Nova both embodied the spirit of Swinging London, and blazed the trail with its chic typography and bold, monochrome layouts which brought the striking minimal design values of new Fulham Road boutiques into the mass press. 

Nova was a pioneer, so ahead of its time that it was arguably too ahead of its time. Its aura of cultural agitation and the resulting taboo is considered, in part, to be the reason sales declined (alongside rising paper costs). The magazine never established itself, beyond its decade lifespan, to become one of the staple publications we see at shop entrances today.  Yet, its influence on publishing and on the wider cultural landscape should not be underestimated. 

The magazine was one of the first in Britain to candidly ask and explore questions around divorce, masturbation, homosexuality, transgender identities, the migrant population, the monarchy, non-traditional families, and the urgency of attention to the intersecting issues of class and race in feminism. Partly out of necessity (fashion houses were reluctant to contribute clothing for shoots) and partly out of provocation, its fashion pages would show women in men’s underwear, in military uniform, in clothes upcycled from home furnishings, and haberdashery – a bold departure from the Jackie Kennedy iconography in contemporary fashion periodicals. Nova was also the first publication to regularly feature a diverse, multicultural line-up in its fashion photoshoots. 

The cover features were announced by provocative loglines. Typical of Nova’s output is:

‘Yes, we’re living in sin. 

No, we’re not getting married.

Why? It’s out of date.’ 

    (MARCH 1967)

More playfully, one cover asks: 

‘ARE MIDDLE CLASS WOMEN MEAN?’

    (MAY 1970)

One of my personal favourites:

‘I have taken the pill,

I have hoisted 

my skirts to my thighs,

dropped them to my ankles,

rebelled at university,

abused the American Embassy,

lived with two men,

married one,

earned my keep, 

kept my identity

and frankly…

I’m lost.’

    (SEPTEMBER 1968)

Underneath, we are invited to find ourselves on page thirty-eight, while unassuming type in the bottom corner without any pretence or grandiosity promises: ‘Exclusive: God’s diaries.’

Furthermore, the magazine often probed issues in very sophisticated ways to challenge their audience. An article challenging tokenism and diversity double-standards is highlighted on one cover, with the image of black girl looking pageant-ready in a tiara and peach dress. Underneath: ‘you may think I look cute, but would you live next door to my mummy and daddy?’ (JANUARY 1966) It was this kind of direct address that Nova often employed to stir their readers. 

Similarly, there would often be countering perspectives. An issue relaying one women’s difficult and liberating journey of divorce would be followed the next month by an interview with the child of a single parent: ‘MUMMY’S DIVORCED – AND NOW I’VE HAD AN UNCLE MARK, AN UNCLE SIMON, AN UNCLE JOHN, AN UNCLE…’ (APRIL 1971).

The magazine also left its mark on culture in quite a literal sense. When I was lucky enough to speak with Penny Slinger, a feminist artist doing incredible work with collage in the late-60s and through the 70s, she remembered Nova fondly. ‘Oh yes, I collected them,’ her eyes lit up in fond remembrance, ‘I was collecting a lot of magazines at that time and Nova always had such fascinating images.’

I first discovered the magazine while chasing down any piece of written work I could by the poet, playwright, and filmmaker, Jane Arden (a woman who deserves the dedication of a whole article, nay book). What particularly struck me was just how modern and necessary the ethos of the publication felt, even as I was reading about it in 2018. Nova didn’t just broach subjects that the mass media shied away from, it sought to truly challenge, disturb, and shock, in the name of debate, even at the risk of alienating their readership. Reading the pages of this 60s/70s publication, I am left wanting for magazines willing to do the same today.