beauty through the ages

The recent discussion of cultural perceptions on beauty that we had has really got me thinking about beauty and how it relates both to women and history. I’ve been paging through my own small collection of vintage magazines, looking at beauty ads and contemplating how much (and little) things have changed over the generations. Realizing too that this push towards perfecting one’s “flaws” is something that, while not new (women have been in search of things to make them “beautiful” since ancient times), has been capitalized on by manufacturers and the mass media in more recent history. Certainly the spread of media has made this more easy to market to women, which is probably why the beauty business has in part become what it is today.

While I do own quite a few beauty products of my own and enjoy my “primping” time to play with makeup, it’s an interesting to observe how things have changed and yet not. Essentially women of the 21st century are the same as their great grandmothers in the 20s; we all want to look beautiful and are willing to hand over cash in order to become beautiful thanks to the latest miracle product. Which is why I think the visual and ephemera history of women’s beauty is so fascinating: it reveals deeper layers of cultural perceptions of women, both from a societal standpoint and of the women themselves. Over the weekend I ran across two videos that I found utterly fascinating. In them is an interview with a historian who has an amazing (dare I say I’m envious?!) collection of women’s beauty ephemera dating from the 19th century forward. She makes the excellent point about the correlation between body image and women’s history when discussing these beauty products. Definitely worth a viewing if you have the time (and now I’m somewhat eager to read her book!).

I also thought I’d add a few images from my own collection to the mix as well. Isn’t it interesting how in some ways things have become a bit more subtle in the modern age? Yet they still broadcast the same message, maybe just in more “sophisticated” (by 21st century standards) ways…

ladies’ complexion perfecting face powder, 1906.

“vanishing” cream for a radiant complexion, 1912.

    

clear your complexion, 1921.

fascinating smile, 1929.

guard against “cosmetic skin”! 1937.

    

never-look-old lipstick, 1937. movie star makeup, 1944.

“enchanting hands” cream, 1947.

fan shaped powder case, 1947. (I think I’ve seen these at antique shops! so pretty!)

double protection, 1949.

tan gloriously, 1951.

Some of these may be quaint or even funny (I always get a chuckle out of the adverts promising “romance” if you use their product!), but has the underlying message really changed in the decades since? I’d love to hear your thoughts on vintage and modern beauty, if you’d care to share!

April 26, 2011 · 37 lovely thoughts
posted in vintage inspiration · tags: , ,

Lizzy April 26, 2011 at 11:46

Thanks for sharing these vidoes, and interesting images, Casey! I’ve always been really fascinated with how the perception of what’s beautiful changes so much over the years.. The perception of what’s beautiful for the era can be so different from one decade to the next. It really is interesting to see how the fashions of era emphasize was considered beautiful from the corsets and bustles to the contraptions from the 20s that flattened the bust for that perfect flapper profile. But as these adds show, the quest for beauty is always there no matter what era you live in.

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Chelsey April 26, 2011 at 12:08

I loved these videos!! I’m a bit of a history nerd(something I inherited from my father), and I love learning more about the daily lives of people of the past. Last summer I visited the World War II museum in New Orleans. They had an exhibit that was all about personal items of a solider, what they would carry with them and keep in their sacks. They also had an exhibit on the women’s part of the war, that was so interesting. As neat as that was I was really excited to see more about women from the past, because it’s not something I’ve seen that much of.
Thanks for sharing Casey!!

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 10:26

I have to say that my favorite part of the “Americans at War” exhibit at the American Museum of History in DC was the WWII section that dealt with women’s part in the war effort. I find those artifacts so interesting to look at!

♥ Casey

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Jenny @ Kerrfect! April 26, 2011 at 12:34

This is a really cool article! I have been interested in older makeup for a while because a lot of it has few of the very harsh chemicals and phthalates (spelling) that today’s make up contains. I mean if you go WAY back of course there is a lot of lead, lol but I’m going for more of a mid range thought here. LOL. I hardly ever wear makeup, but when I do I’d like to know it isn’t so horrible for me. Dior Addict 2 lipsticks are nice, they’ve changed the formula to where it is a little closer to their original 1940′s version… less wax and such I guess.

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 10:27

That’s an interesting point about the ingredients, Jenny! Do you know of any good resources that talk about cosmetic ingredients of the past? I’m kind of curious to read a bit more and see the contrast between modern and the past…

♥ Casey

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Peter April 26, 2011 at 12:40

Great video — I watched the whole thing! I think what has changed is that now it’s not enough to hide imperfections with make up– you’re expected to surgically remove them!

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 10:28

Exactly, Peter! Now it’s just gotten even more expensive (and dare I venture to say risky?), as it were, than just buying a lipstick or cream that promises a beautiful complexion. ;)

♥ Casey

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Kathy April 26, 2011 at 12:45

These two videos are fascinating. Thanks for posting them!

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Jill April 26, 2011 at 12:48

Now, this is a fantastic post. I used to teach media studies, with a heavy focus on the role of print advertising in the production and perpetuation of gender ideologies, so this is a subject I’m very passionate about. I think you’re right that some things have not changed: i.e., although ads purport to be mirrors of reality reflecting back to women who they supposedly are, they are distorted didactic mirrors that have warped/shaped our sense of who or what we should see as desireable, attractive, valuable, and what our culture has presented as “ideal” or “true” womanhood/femininity over time. The ads all seem to share the same approach that contemporary ads contain: make the target audience feel a sense of shame, lack, unhappiness, or inadequacy and then claim that the product is the only way to remove or prevent such shame and be truly happy (so happiness becomes a commodity). Inevitably, all the ads seem to define women by their physical appearance. I’m riveted by how the particular body part to be fetishised or fussed over has changed over time (having “white” facial skin in the 1900s; having soft hands during WWII), as well as by how certain continuities exist: example: women always expected to defy their age and appear youthful. Anyway, I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. You might love the works of Jean Kilbourne. Thanks to her, I can never look at ads the same way again. Final thought: one thing I noticed in my 1930s magazines: there is a HUGE obsession with products dealing with body and breathe odour. It stuck out to me as being subjects most heavily advertised about in the 1930s in particular. Wonder why that is…..

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 10:32

Great comment, Jill–thank you! :) I always enjoyed the classes in college that dealt with print advertising through the ages; it’s fascinating to dissect and discuss various trends or philosophies behind certain ads. Thanks for the recommendation about Jean Kilbourne; I’ll have to look into her writings.

Yeah, I’ve noticed that as well about 30s ads for deodorants and breath fresheners! I wonder what it was at the time? A higher level of awareness about hygiene and covering body odors? I wonder too if it had something to do with the economic state in the US (as weird of a connection as that may seem)? Something to ponder about…

♥ Casey

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Gina April 26, 2011 at 13:20

I liked the videos. I love the old packaging makeup came in. I am always amazed at how the times have changed. I personally don’t care for the tattoos and pierces everywhere. I think people are using them as “makeup” on their bodies. There really isn’t much I like about 2011 for styling/makeup. I am thankful for the pale lip thing going out of style other than that the 50′s would have been a nice time to live as far as makeup. Thanks for sharing!

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Amanda April 26, 2011 at 16:01

My personal favorites among the vintage ads are the ads for Lysol endorsing it as a douche (though, egads…my skin burns just thinking about that!).

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 10:49

I know–aren’t those amusing in a rather horrific way?! YIKES!

♥ Casey

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Kristin April 26, 2011 at 17:32

I loved the videos! I’m fascinated with the whole concept of “beauty” and how it has changed over the years. A while back I read a magazine article talking about what is considered beautiful in different parts of the world, such as small native tribes. Their view of beauty seems so extreme and unusual to us, but I think ours would seem strange to them (make-up, dyeing our hair, tanning, etc.). Anyway, it was really interesting.

And anytime I see the word “complexion” (like in an advertisement), I can’t help but think of Jane Austen’s novels and the time in P&P when Miss Bingley criticized Lizzy for looking brown and coarse (because she had been doing a lot of traveling outdoors). I think it’s so ironic that in the past, fair skin was considered beautiful and being tanned made you seem lower class. And now (at least in my local area), tanning is considered practically necessary.

~Kristin

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Lucy-Mae April 26, 2011 at 18:44

I think as far as fashions for fair or tanned complexions goes, both symbolise the same thing in each society? Pale skin used to be a sign of upper-class because you could stay inside all day, instead of having to work outside. And then tanned skin meant you had time to go on holidays and sunbathe, which was a sign of being more upper-class (money). But now everyone has fake tans haha. Maybe it’s symbolising the reduction of the class system in our society? Or maybe I am just reading too much into it? I know that when my cousin came to visit, she was adamant she was going to get tan lines, so that everyone would know her tan was real, and not from a bottle.

On the other side of the scale, when I was in Singapore, I noticed a lot of advertisements for skin bleaching products…

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 11:44

The tanning thing is really interesting to me, as someone who is naturally very fair (and goes from white to red–no in between! ;) ). Over the years I had friends try to pressure me to get a spray-on tan so I wouldn’t be so “scary pale” because it wasn’t “cool”. Getting a tan (especially in Florida!) is pretty much de rigueur for everyone, no matter what your station in life. I’m not sure what being fair skinned and personally uninterested in going the fake route means in the greater cultural context, these days, but all I know is that I have encountered some scoffing to my resistance. lol.

♥ Casey

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Anna April 26, 2011 at 17:36

I love these videos, thanks so much for sharing!

Even though it took me a long time to get into make up (and even longer before I was getting it right!) I love make up now, even if I don’t wear it every day. I favour a more vintage look and I think there’s such an elegance to it. My sister, however, favours the glam rock 70s look with big, multi hued eyes. I love that there is such freedom now for each of us to pick our own look and run with it in whichever direction we choose. I guess that’s the benefit of having so many decades of make up wearing ladies before us, plenty of variety to choose from!

Although, I have to confess, I’m an advertiser’s dream, if a lipstick promised me more “Romance” I’d totally buy it!

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 11:47

I think that is what really appeals to me with makeup too–you have so many looks you can choose from! Heck, even though 90% of the time I head more towards the “classic-vintage” makeup look (winged liner, red lips, etc.), there are days that I just prefer to try out something new and fun! Unlike dying my hair or some such, more permanent change, at least I can just wash it off if I don’t like it. hehe! ;)

♥ Casey

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the fabled needle (jen) April 26, 2011 at 18:46

so wonderful, thanks casey! i really love learning the history of things, especially beauty and fashion. one of the reasons why i had originally wanted to go into costuming was my interest in the anthropology of and social commentary found in fashion. i’m going to be watching more of ms. eldridge’s videos!

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Clare April 26, 2011 at 20:09

The ‘your loveliness is double safe!’ ad has some mighty big double entrendre going on there, doesn’t it? Especially given her cheeky little ‘come hither’ look!

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 11:48

I thought that while I was scanning it! ;) Sometimes those ads really slipped in a few “oh!” things that would have been pretty taboo to just come out and say. ;) lol.

♥ Casey

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Maren April 26, 2011 at 23:50

I loved the videos (and am completely envious of the Mary Quant beauty collection!). It was interesting to hear a bit of history about red lipstick during WWII – that the colors were given patriotic names and that it became a symbol of fighting on the home front. It’s kind of unsettling to think of how much of women’s history is wrapped up in beauty and cosmetics.

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 11:50

Did you watch any of Lisa’s “Biba” makeup videos on her channel as well? She shows some of the original Biba makeup (which dates to around the same time as Mary Quant’s height of popularity, or slightly later), and it’s amazing to see!

♥ Casey

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Carrie at In the Hammock Blog April 26, 2011 at 23:50

What a fun post!! thanks for sharing!

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Laura April 27, 2011 at 04:44

This reminds me of ‘Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion an Feminism” by Linda Scott.
An interesting book. She details the history the fashion industry from inception to present times, it’s fascinating. She also exposes fashion as not being anti-woman and anti-feminist.

Should we care about the fashion/beauty industry? Probably, but we can also know that it exists and then throw it away, we can create our own ideas about beauty. We don’t look like magazine models, right? So we actually decide what ‘beautiful’ is every day when we look in the mirror, we are!
Besides, fashion and makeup are fun. Getting ‘dolled’ up is a thrill, it is special, a good feeling, a tradition passed on to daughters, and something we share.

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Maren April 27, 2011 at 10:04

Sing it, sister! My mom taught me how to wear makeup and I want to teach my future daughters, too.

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 11:53

Thanks so much for the book recommendation! I’ll have to look into. I’ve just been gobbling up books on women’s history lately…

I agree about acknowledging the concept of beauty within culture, but then crafting our own. I think that’s where I’ve increasingly moved as I’ve gotten further into my 20s. Having dabbled in the more mainstream idea of beauty and found that it didn’t bear any resemblance to who I really was inside, I’ve opted to go in a completely different direction.

♥ Casey

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Anna Depew April 27, 2011 at 05:49

This was a really great post! i had no idea that makeup was so dependent on the currents of history. I mentioned your post in my blog today and shared some advertisements from my own collection, if you’d like to see.
http://afewthreadsloose.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-beauty.html
Thanks so much for sharing this, Casey!

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 12:01

Oh wow–those ads are so neat that you posted! :) Thanks for linking me to them!

♥ Casey

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Lyra April 27, 2011 at 09:11

Gosh, that is so interesting. I want her entire collection of makeup!

My grandmother used to say that the surest way to hurt a woman’s feelings is to tell her that she’s ugly. How true and how sad her words were.

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 12:05

So true! :( Although it’s really a keen way to market things, as companies have discovered and exploited over the decades! (Unfortunately!) It’s interesting that a lot of the “positive” body image campaigns that have popped up over the last decade have sadly had little traction in our culture. I think a lot of it has to do with being constantly bombarded (particularly as a woman) with ads that tell us “without this product you’ll be ugly/unattractive to potential dates/won’t be looking up to your full potential”. We’re more apt to buy into the negativity than trying to look at the good things. :(

♥ Casey

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Jessica April 27, 2011 at 09:43

Cant wait to watch the videos. Ages ago I did a post on the advertisements in some of my vintage magazines (mostly 1940s) What I found unbelievable was the amount of ads based around women improving their look/smell/hygiene for their husbands. All of the ads had comments like “Now I know he loves me” etc.. I couldn’t believe it, its easy enough to guess that men came up with these advertising ideas.

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Casey April 27, 2011 at 12:07

It’s interesting how many of those ads center around attracting a man or one’s husband in the past. And yet, I’ve seen a shift within beauty ads in the last decade away from the 90s “your worth it” to “how to be irresistible to a guy”. Heck, even men’s products aren’t immune to it! The bottles of shtick for Axe body wash is that the smell is so attractive to women that they won’t be able to resist you!

♥ Casey

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Carmen August 11, 2012 at 10:43

Well it certainly worked didn’t it? What I notice from these ads is that the more recent it is, the las writing there are to read! Look at today’s advertisements. At most, one sentence?

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Caroline April 27, 2011 at 12:32

Thanks for sharing these vintage ads! They’re really interesting and I love the aesthetic but also that it’s “evidence” things haven’t changed much (other than the way it’s being presented which you noted). I get a few friends who question why I’m into the vintage and pin-up style because of the history of human rights (women’s, minorities – especially visible minorities, the LGBT community, and so on). Usually they go from the feminist perspective (I have a lot of feminist friends since I am also a feminist) and they ask me if my wanting to pin curl my hair or wear make-up is being “unfeminist” of me…..I tell them I don’t think it is. It’s more that I’m a historian who’s curious about the vintage styles and I enjoy the aesthetic of vintage clothing, accoutrements, hair, make-up, ephemera, etc. I like to look good because it does help me feel good (just like taking regular showers usually helps people feel good). I like looking “put together” also because I feel like there’s a certain respect in it – like when you look polished at your sister’s wedding. You wouldn’t show up looking like a slob right? And it’s not because you’re a slave to beauty standards, it’s more likely that you love and respect your sister and her special day and want to share in it by making sure everything goes smoothly and in your sister’s mind “looks good”. I just extend this also to most of my day to day life and try to look “put together” for peole at work and school and friends.

Whew, that was a long post but an interesting topic that I mull over in my mind a lot. Thanks for the brain food Casey!

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Dakota April 27, 2011 at 20:41

How interesting: just this afternoon I was reading the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog at the library, and I was so surprised to see how many beauty, makeup, and hair products there were! So much for the au naturel look that was supposedly standard then. Their description for one face powder was really awful; it said it was “practically criminal” to go about with a poor complexion when their powder could make you look lovely. They were pretty harsh! I must confess, though, seeing how much women of the past relied on beauty tricks and tools makes me feel less guilty about my own affinity for playing with makeup and hair.
This was a great post; thanks for sharing!

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Jodi October 10, 2012 at 05:18

The white pencil: Marilyn Monroe used to put a while dot by the inner part of her eyes to accent the whites of the eye and also to outline the humps of the upper lip, according to her make-up artist.

http://the-lovely-marilyn-monroe.popsugar.com/Marilyns-Make-up-Secrets-Take-Two-197582

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