Diversity and Beauty

Popular imagery has not been as tunnel-visioned as is usually presumed, at least with regard to ethnicity and fashion. Though a white aristocrat is definitely the most frequent ideal pictured, even the fashion press occasionally shows other ideals. More popular images, we might expect, would be more diverse. Trade cards, for instance, a rich source only recently recognized by historians, sometimes do reflect the reality of multiculturalism in America (a reality that is not recent but has been with us for at least three hundred years).

Native Americans. One would expect, given the trajectory of history, that Native Americans would be consistently portrayed in a negative light. Instead, images of beautiful native women are probably the most frequent divergence from the presentation of European “ladies.” Here are two 19th century trade cards, one for tobacco and one for perfume, each of which present different images of such beauties. Note that the tobacco card, presumably aimed at men, has a more sexual subtext (building on the more open sexual traditions that sometimes marked Native societies), while the other seems aimed at women because the “Indian Queen” is not only demurely dressed, but labeled as an aristocrat of sorts.

These two represent an excellent example of how the “stereotypes” of particular subgroups actually had a great deal of plasticity in use. At the turn of the 20th century, the last Indian Territory, Oklahoma, became a state. The popular imagination was still entranced by the “Indian Princess” ideal: I found this little picture, dated about 1900, in a junk shop in central Illinois.

Though the style is clearly of its era (similar to Harrison Fisher, Howard Chandler Christy, and other “pretty girl” illustrators), the subject matter was as old as the American settlements. Poems, plays, and legends of the Native beauty held power for decades. Even in 1910, for instance, “Minnehaha” could be evoked as a romantic heroine in an ad for chewing gum.

Fascination with Native women and their clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles continued through the 20th century. Life magazine, for instance, featured a “new” fad for Indian style on its cover during the 1950s. As discussed in Fresh Lipstick, Native American styles were especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s, making an appearance in Vogue fashion spreads as well as national cosmetics campaigns.

Latinas. Another very early ideal is the “Spanish” beauty. Because the West and Southwest were settled by the Spanish long before the arrival of the English on the Atlantic seaboard, the idea of the beautiful Latina is arguably as old as or older than the Native Princess. And despite the struggles of the 1800s, when these two cultures finally came into direct, broadscale conflict, the beauty ideal held. A late 19th century ad promised a “Spanish System of Physical Culture” designed to produce the beauty of California women, even in the middle class pages of The Delineator.

In the twentieth century, “Spanish” beauties, like the Indian Princess, are observable in forums from the ribald (as in pinups) to the genteel (as in the March 1926 cover of the Ladies Home Journal). Since European royalty were as likely to be Spanish as they were British or French, Latin aristocrats can be seen in the pages of Vogue throughout its run—and Princesse Marie de Bourbon of Spain was one of the celebrity socialites who endorsed Ponds Creams in the campaign described in Fresh Lipstick. I remember well a campaign for a line of soaps and fragrances called “Maja,” which ran frequently in the women’s magazines during my teen years and featured fabulous images of women in red silks and black mantillas.

Chinese and Japanese. The viciousness with which the Chinese were treated in the 1800s is simply shocking today—and, of course, the treatment of Japanese Americans at the outbreak of World War II is now a national shame. But the beauty of Chinese and Japanese women (often conflated in the imagery as well as in the minds of Anglo Americans) has been a cultural constant. Nineteenth century ads promise the charm of the “Orient” to the ladies who bought silks imported from there (DB6).

Chinese themes appear often in ads of the 20th century: This one offers an Oriental cream, something that was fairly common in the magazines of the 1910s.

Another frequent advertiser of that decade was called “Jap Rose,” not a pleasant name today, but still proof that a beauty standard from Japanese women had commercial power. Another wrinkle cream, Princess Tokio, appears often in the middle class magazines of the 1920s (DB8).

Helena Rubinstein touted a “Chinese red” lipstick and rouge in 1936. One of the most popular cosmetics lines of the 1970s was Shiseido, which featured ads with stunning Japanese women in traditional makeup and colors, but modern hair and dress.

Other Asians. Other images that might be described as vaguely Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Indian, or Russian also appear, both as female imagery and as influences on style, grooming, and fashion. For instance, this pattern for a Russian cape appeared in the Delineator in 1891, as did this ad for Nirvana perfumes (DB9 and 10).

 

In spite of its usual aristocratic positioning, Butterick shows this “gypsy”-like woman in an ad (DB11).

 

A “Cleopatra Coil” advertised in about 1900 is only one of hundreds of images referring vaguely to Egypt or specifically to the famous Queen of the Nile; Palmolive Soap, a very successful toilet soap introduced in the 1920s is perhaps the most striking of these examples (DB 12).

The influence of Jewish women is most profoundly felt in the popularity of the early screen actresses, many of whom were Eastern European or Russian Jews and most of whom were lavishly splashed all over beauty advertising, especially the Lux campaign discussed in Fresh Lipstick. Early on, however, we can see the appeal of Jewish women in the person of Sarah Bernhardt, who often appeared in cosmetics and clothing ads (DB13).

 

The late sixties and early seventies show the influence of Eastern mysticism on the counterculture: Khadine, a fragrance by Yardley, had wonderful imagery of a young woman dressed in a sari and posed in front of something like the Taj Mahal; Max Factor introduced Kohl/Terra, a cosmetics group based on Middle Eastern practices and advertised by Supermodel Christina Ferraro (who was Italian—see below).

Western European Immigrants. An Italian woman and her child appear in a nineteenth century trade card, again reflecting the diversity that often marks more popular forms (DB14).

 

Several of the beauty makers of the early 20th century were prominently marked “Italian,” even as they hawked “Oriental Creams,” as above. As discussed in Fresh Lipstick, Italian women, especially movie stars like Gina Lollabrigida and Sophia Loren, were so popular in the 1950s that some thought American women were suffering self-esteem issues as a result. Three of Diana Vreeland’s most popular “discoveries” were Italian: Benedetta Barzini, who became a feminist activist in her native country, Marisa Berenson, who was the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, and Isabella Rosselini, who modeled for Lancome until she was nearly fifty.

As discussed in Fresh Lipstick, the image of Irish immigrants is dramatically two-faced. On the one hand is the fat, ape-like character of Bridget, a servant who is a constant irritant to her employer, especially in her manner of dress (DB15 and 16).

But the reality was that Irish immigrants were often pretty young females who dressed fashionably. Not surprisingly, Irish women often had success in the theater and thus are often featured in beauty ads (DB17).

Africans. As I remarked in Fresh Lipstick, the really notable absence in the images of beauty is that of black women. But, as I also suggest, the “Aunt Jemima” who does appear frequently masks a reality much like that of “Bridget”: in real life, Americans often found African women quite attractive. I suspect that slavery, as well as the blocked access to grooming and dress that enslavement entailed, are the reason for this near-total absence from popular images of beauty. African-American women, profoundly aware of the prejudices expressed in trade cards like the one here (DB18),

worked tirelessly to promote grooming and dress among their race during the 19th and early 20th century. With this in mind, the contributions of women like Madame C. J. Walker (DB19 and DB20)

 

seem much more important because of the way that they empowered the community both culturally and economically. To me, failure to fully recognize the very different beauty story of the African-American woman is the most poignant example of how feminism has underestimated the pain of unequal access to fashion and the power that a creditable appearance can bring.