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The history of the American beauty, intriguingly traced--from the consumptive delicacy of the ""steel-engraving"" lady to the healthy sexuality of the first Miss America (1921). Drawing on memoirs, periodicals, etiquette books, and newspapers, George Washington U. historian Banner convincingly demonstrates that beauty standards have multifarious sources. In early-19th-century America, beauty became established as the female expression of the ""get-ahead"" spirit. ""How the ladies dress!"" exclaimed Charles Dickens. ""What rainbow silks and satins!"" Then, in the 1830s, women dieted to achieve the favored ethereal--or consumptive--look. ""Their frailty and translucent skin suggested a special spirituality."" But a competing standard of buxom beauty was already being championed by German immigrants, for whom heft meant prosperity, and by the British, accustomed to aristocratic girth. The voluptuous beauty, symbolizëd by Lillian Russell, held only brief sway, however, before new challenges were mounted. Feminists demanding dress reform failed to popularize the bloomer; but the ""advance of naturalness""--represented first by Lily Langtry, then by the Gibson girl--did succeed in establishing a new beauty standard. In the early 20th-century, rising commercialization and the pleasure ethic encouraged a more openly sensual beauty. Red hair, long symbolic of deviance and evil, came into vogue, and cosmetic companies were founded on the readiness of respectable women to wear lipstick and rouge. By the early Twenties all the essential beauty institutions were in place: the fashion and cosmetics industries, beauty contests, the modeling profession, and the movies. So too were the enduring themes: the conflict between feminism and fashion, the battle for fashion leadership among the social classes, the emphasis on youth, the willingness of women to identify with celebrities. Thus beauty is revealed, if not as every woman's birthright, then as every woman's history. Good scholarship that makes for splendid reading.

Pub Date: Feb. 25th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf