Perceptions Of Female Beauty

In The 20th Century

by Louise Wood

The 20th century has seen a huge upsurge in the importance placed by Western society on physical beauty, particularly for women. The fashion, cosmetics and plastic surgery industries have thrived on 20th century preoccupation with physical appearance. It is a preoccupation that affects women in every sphere, whether they choose to pander to it or not. This essay examines female beauty in the 20th century in terms of popular culture, in particular fashion, cinema and advertising. before exploring these areas, I intend to deal briefly with basic definitions of beauty. The main body of the essay will then be concerned with an overview of each decade's particular take in female beauty.

According to Kant, the judgement of beauty is different from cognitive or moral judgement because it is effected subjectively, that is, exclusively in reference to the person making the judgement. For a judgement to be truly “aesthetic”, rather than merely idiosyncratic, the person making the judgement must be adamant that their opinion be consensus. “A person who describes something as beautiful insists that everyone ought to give the object in question his approval and follow suit.” Plato, one of the earliest philosophers to concern himself with beauty, defined it as a “property intrinsic in objects” which could be measured in “purity, integrity, harmony and perfection.”

Definitions of beauty in the 20th century, when referring to human physical beauty, are nearly always constructed in terms of outward appearance and sexual attractiveness. Nancy Baker's definition is The Beauty Trap is more concerned with intangible personal qualities. “A truly beautiful woman makes the best of her physical assets but, more importantly, she also radiates a personal quality which is attractive.” In Beauty In History, Arthur Marwick defines a human physical beauty in more direct terms: “The beautiful are those who are immediately exciting to almost all of the opposite sex.”

For the first two decades of the 20th century, many of the attitudes towards beauty associated with the 19th century remained. In Victorian society, it was considered a woman's duty to make herself beautiful. In the early 20th century, this was coupled with the idea of “self-presentation” as enjoyable, expressive and creative. However, some of the more bizarre and painful “beauty aids” of the Victorian age continued to be marketed well into the 1920s. A particularly unpleasant example is “M.Trielty's Nose Shaper”, described as a “metal object ... held over the nose by straps buckled round the head and adjusted with screws.”

One of the main elements of this century's perception of beauty that sets it apart from the 19th century is the polarity of cosmetics. In the last century, cosmetics were frowned upon in society as the mark of a prostitute. The cosmetics industry grew from the roots of the manufacturing of theatre make-up by Helena Rubenstein and Max Factor, who adapted their products for everyday use.

From puberty onwards, young girls use cosmetics in order to look older an attract older boys. Conversely, their mothers use cosmetics in order to disguise the flaws of age and maintain a youthful appearance. That is not to say that the cosmetics boom does not have its adversaries: many feminists believe the marketing of cosmetics, along with high fashion, to be an exploitation of women by male industry moguls. Some women resent having to use cosmetics in order to compete in the workforce. But for many women, the cosmetics ritual is not a chore or a necessary evil, but an enjoyable activity in itself. It is not purely for the benefit of men that women wear cosmetics, but for themselves and each other.

The cosmetics and fashion industries are interdependent with the medium of advertising. Cynthia White points out that the turnabout in opinions on cosmetics is women's magazines in the 1920s coincided with the increase of cosmetics advertising in the same publications. Advertising is often presumed to have little cultural value, but is a powerful way in which attitudes towards women and beauty are reinforced. The 20th century fascination with celebrities is a tool expertly used in the advertising industry. If a beautiful model, or more effectively a beautiful celebrity is used in an advertisement, the qualities associated with that person are transferred onto the product.

Another major influence on this century's attitudes towards beauty was the growth of the film industry. For the first half of the century, all the major beauty icons were film actresses. It was a medium that allowed women who would have previously been overlooked to shine. For instance, the 19th century aversion to redheads was still in place as late as the 20s. It was that black-and-white medium that allowed Clara Bow to be the exception. However, stars such as Bette Davis and Katherine Turner who could not be described as “conventionally beautiful” invariably came from middle or upper class backgrounds. Beauty was an essential attribute for a working class woman to become successful in Hollywood. This period was also the beginning of the ties between the film and fashion industries, which would continue for decades to come.

Up to the 1910s, the “Gibson Girl”, invented by Charles Dana Gibson in the 1890s, was still considered to be the ideal of femininity. The Victorian ideal of “the chaste and delicate woman” continued to be embodied in the form of childlike, virginal film stars such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. A more typical 20th century contrast was provided by Theda Bara, who was perpetually cast in the role of the Vamp.

By the second decade of the century, fashion was losing its Victorian austerity, and giving way to soft, draping, Oriental-inspired fabrics. However, corsets were still worn, and the fashion for long, narrow skirts prompted the popularity of the “hobble garter”, a device worn around the calves to stop women from taking long strides and splitting their skirts.

One reason given by Fred E. H. Schroeder, quoted in Women In Popular Culture, for the continuing popularity of long skirts was the bulky menstrual cloths worn by women until the advent of disposable feminine hygiene products in the 20s.

1920s fashion placed more importance on “natural endowment” than any time in the preceding centuries. although cosmetics were worn to conceal natural flaws, their main function was to draw attention to women's natural features. Skirts became shorter than they had possibly ever been, but in contradiction to the atmosphere of freedom in fashion, feminine curves became unfashionable. Women wore “flatteners” to minimise their busts, and waistlines were lowered to hip level. The ubiquitous bobbed hairstyles of the 20s were originally cut in barber shops. When barbers failed to meet the demands of fashionable young things, beauty shops sprang up everywhere. the new technique of permanent waving was immensely popular: American women spent $250m on perms alone during the 1920s.

The icons of the 1920s were represented, again exclusively in the cinema, by the up-front sexuality of Jean Harlow, Clara Bow and Mae West, together with the “mysterious androgyny” of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The theme of androgyny was to be continually repeated throughout the century, particularly in the 60s and 80s.

The Production Code enforced on Hollywood films in the 1930s put an end to the sexual content of the films of the 20s, however tame, including a ban on miscegenation. Although sexuality was played down, the change in content meant that roles for women became more realistic, resulting in the rise of “wholesome” stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Jean Arthur. 1930s fashion favoured tall women with wide shoulders and narrow hips, a type exemplified by Greta Garbo. Hem-lines dropped and waistlines returned to their normal position, and the “erogenous zone” shifted from legs to the back, coinciding with the increasing popularity of sunbathing.

World War II brought strict controls on clothing production for the following decade. The principal 1940s look was a practical and masculine style (“the Utility Lines”) with padded shoulders and knee-length hem-lines. Shortage of materials for stockings led to the popularity of trousers for women. In the late 40s, as a reaction to wartime austerity, Christian Dior launched the “New Look”, with corseted waists, padded hips and billowing skirts, using far more fabric than most women's rations would allow. Despite its exclusive nature, Dior's look revolutionised fashion and influenced the return to overt femininity in the next decade. The cinema continued its influence throughout the war years; icons of the 40s were as diverse as Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell.

Fashion in the 50s was divided between the sophisticated Chanel/Dior end of the scale, and the newly invented teenage style. The archetypal 50s teenage girl wore tight sweaters, pointed bras and circular skirts, with tight trousers and Beatnik black becoming de rigeur for both sexes. Particularly in America, there was an emphasis on conformity and “flaw concealment” self-presentation. This was especially true for black women, who were encouraged to look as white as possible by straightening their hair and lightening their skin.

Three of the major film stars of the 50s, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Kim Novak, were blonde and extremely curvaceous, harking back to the overt sexuality of the 1920s stars. Contrast was provided by the overtly non-sexual Doris Day. The changing sexual climate meant that Marilyn Monroe was able to turn the discovery of nude photos, taken before her rise to fame, to her advantage. This would not have been possible ten years previously. In contrast to Monroe, Grace Kelly realised every little girl's dream of becoming a princess, and embodied a demure sophistication that made her a role model for socialites worldwide. It is interesting to note that the 1950s also saw the introduction of both the Barbie doll and Playboy magazine.

The 1960s was a decade of tremendous importance with regard to the late 20th century perception of beauty. The idea of beauty as a “status characteristic” on an equal footing with wealth and social position has its roots in the 60s. This is summed up by film director Michaelangelo Antonioni's description of his stars (e.g. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in Blow-up): “They are the heroes of the age, they have invented the new canons of beauty.” French and Italian film actresses replaced Hollywood stars as the chic role models, and fashion models rivalled film stars as the professional “beautiful people.” Due to the increasing focus on sexuality of the decade, young people abandoned rules of fashion which decreed modesty and concealed the imperfections of older people. The most obvious example of this is the mini-skirt, invented by Mary Quant in 1964.

The obvious artifice of the 50s gave way to a more “natural” approach to personal appearance. Nonetheless, the celebrated natural look was no less contrived than its 50s counterpart. In The Truth About Modelling, Jean Shrimpton talks about spending forty minutes applying her “natural look” make-up. Shrimpton, along with Twiggy, epitomised a new kind of beauty icon, the model-as-superstar. Twiggy was naturally thin, but most women had to struggle to achieve the same look. Cosmetic surgery became increasingly popular in the modelling industry, with removal of the back teeth and lower ribs becoming common operations.

In the late 60s and early 70s there was a marked decrease in the presence of female cinema stars. But this era also saw the beginning of rebellion against “imposed ideas of feminine beauty”. Individuality was expressed in customised clothes and the ethnic look. In the early 70s, the futurism of the 60s gave way to nostalgia. Long hair and flared trousers were compulsory for both sexes, and mini skirts were replaced by hot pants and ankle-length maxi-skirts. The popularity of platform soles in the mid-70s resulted in thousands of sprained ankles in the name of fashion, a performance that was repeated two decades later by the daughters of 70s fashion victims.

The late 70s saw the abolition of flared trousers and long hair under the influence of punk. A watered-down version of the punk aesthetic, combined with the influence of Japanese designers such as Kenzo and Miyake was to be the fashion template for the following decade. The health and fitness boom also has an enormous influence on 80s fashion, producing leotards, ra-ra skirts, leggings and tracksuits. The popularity of careerism and power-dressing in the 80s saw women adopting the dress codes of men in the workplace. The 80s equivalent to Grace Kelly was Princess Diana, who was even more demure, more sophisticated and more emulated than her 50s counterpart.

Towards the end of the 80s, the underwear-as-outerwear look popularised by Madonna, Cher and Kylie Minogue found its way into mainstream fashion, where it would remain well into the 90s. Madonna symbolised the archetypal 80s woman: undeniably sexual and feminine, yet successful and in control. Kylie, on the other hand, had to drop her girl-next-door image and transform herself into “sex-Kylie” before becoming a bona-fide icon.

The 20th century's unbreakable link between beauty and success was consolidated in the 80s. This phenomenon was illustrated in a survey published in the Journal Of Applied Social Psychology in 1983. Participants were asked to match up women of varying degrees of attractiveness with jobs that they deemed suitable. Not only did attractive people receive a more positive response, but recommendations for their salaries were higher.

Although female curves enjoyed something of a comeback in the 80s, the obsession with fitness reinforced the thin-is-beautiful mythology. This culminated in the early 90s, with the underweight “waif” look, epitomised by Kate Moss, at the height of its popularity. Arthur Marwick states in Beauty In History that “anything which ... draws attention to mortality is very definitely not beautiful.” This does not take into account the 1990s fascination with underweight models and “junkie chic”. However, there is a marked difference between the body types of women who appear in fashion magazines and those who appear in men's publication and pornography. As Kathy Myers points out in Looking On: “There is an overall tendency to market `fleshier' women to men and thinner, sometimes sexually androgynous images of women to female audiences.”

By 90s standards Marilyn Monroe, the archetypal beauty icon of the 1950s, would be considered fat. Yet the average size of women in Europe and America had risen sufficiently by the 1980s to prompt clothes manufacturers to alter their sizing systems. There seems to be a link between accepted body weight and periods of prosperity. Curvaceous women were fashionable in the 1950s, when economics were still recovering from World War II, whereas thin women became more fashionable in the more prosperous 60s.

The popularity of cosmetic surgery among ordinary people has continued to increase within the last decade. 60,000 people in Britain every year avail of plastic surgery, the most popular operations being breast reduction and augmentation, liposuction, wrinkle removal, chin reduction, cheekbone implants and lip augmentation. French performance artist Orlan has turned plastic surgery into an art form by using her face as a canvas for a portrait, using “the chin of Venus ... the brows of Mona Lisa”.

The 1990s are primarily defined by their magpie-like theft of the styles and music of other decades. However, the “retro-chic” phenomenon is not a new one. One only has to look at examples such as the 1920s revival in the 60s and the 1950s revival in the 70s to realise that popular culture has always had a penchant for nostalgia. The Victorian fascination with classical Greek and Medieval styles is an even earlier example.

A legacy of the punk era that will certainly help to define 90s beauty in the future is the widespread acceptance and popularity of body art. An edition of Channel 4's Feminism In The 90s in July 1994 featured women with tattoos and body piercings who described body art as a medium of self-expression and a facility for a feeling of control over their bodies. One woman pierced her nipples after completing breastfeeding as “a symbolic act of taking back that part of the body they had given to their child.” The transformation in the general public's opinion on body art can be likened to the widespread acceptance of cosmetics in the early part of the century.

To conclude, the predominant feature of beauty in the 20th century is not the constant change I have described above, but the constant importance of outward appearances in so many women's lives, even those who reject 20th century cultural norms. The escalating growth of the fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries is a testament to Western society's obsession with being beautiful. And because beauty is irreversibly linked with success in the Western psyche, out obsession with physical attractiveness looks set to continue into the next century and beyond.

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