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People & Events: America's Beauty Culture

The use of cosmetics in the nineteenth century posed a moral dilemma. Beauty was supposed to be a manifestation of goodness, not artifice. Still, women were familiar with a wide variety of home recipes for paints and cosmetics.

Early cosmetics were usually made from home-concocted recipes. Some used lead, mercury and arsenic, which could cause illness -- or sometimes death. Americans distinguished between "paint" and "cosmetics," though products classified with these two terms frequently accomplished the same goal: to enhance a woman's appearance. Cosmetics implied "skin-improving" substances, while paint denoted "skin-masking." As the middle class grew over the nineteenth century, and as urban life expanded, paints, especially patent compounds, were associated with social climbers and women who would trick men into marriage. The American middle and upper classes also associated the use of paint with the working classes. Using paint was understood as part of a disreputable effort to use artifice to hide one's social status.

During the early twentieth century, paints remained attached to stories of prostitutes or shop-girls trying to pass themselves off as "ladies." But slowly, women from all classes were experimenting with cosmetics and paints. Race also played a role in reactions to cosmetics. Pale skin remained the ideal throughout the nineteenth century, as part of an ethos of white supremacy and the predominant racism of the era. Still, more natural-looking skin tints started making their appearance in the early part of the twentieth century. In black communities, make-up became a political issue. Some women chose to use skin whiteners, causing debates over whether the products indicated black self-loathing or individual expression. Darker colors of face powder were introduced to the market when the black pride movements of the 1920s, such as the one led by Marcus Garvey, began making a positive impact on African Americans' self images.

In its early years, the cosmetics industry was built largely by women. Despite the fact that women had little business education or the access to credit that men had, the turn of the century saw the rise of several highly successful women entrepreneurs in the beauty business. Four of the five most successful women beauty entrepreneurs, the Canadian Florence Graham (later Elizabeth Arden), the eastern European Jew Helena Rubinstein, and two African-American women, Annie Turnbo and Sarah Breedlove (later Madame Walker), came from impoverished backgrounds. Much of their success resulted from new selling techniques adopted when mainstream avenues were closed to them. They created a more personalized sales approach, like community door-to-door selling and home-based mail order operations. These women, who made it in the male-dominated business world, succeeded in an area some thought was particularly "suited" to women -- businesses that catered to female body image. Like the Miss America Pageant, the cosmetics industry provided a place for women to succeed -- but only within the narrow parameters deemed appropriate for women.

Between 1890 and 1924 women registered 450 trademarks for cosmetics. By the 1920s, the more localized and service-oriented cosmetic industry, which was dominated by women, began to transform into a national system that put production, advertising, and distribution into the mass market. The new national cosmetic industry was run primarily by men after 1920, but it required women, who entered the world of cosmetics business as advertisers, and perhaps more importantly, beauty experts and the trusted tastemakers for ladies magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal, McCalls and Good Housekeeping. At the end of the 1920s a fundamental change had taken place. Makeup was now perceived to be part of a woman's expression of individuality. Far from being deceitful, the use of makeup now expressed femininity. In 1936 the first makeover appeared in Mademoiselle. The subject was a nurse, Barbara Phillips.

The national cosmetics industry and beauty pageants emerged around the same time, as part of a growing beauty culture. By the 1920s and 1930s, taking a cue from the Miss America Contest, beauty contests were everywhere. Beauty contests were even held in high schools, as one Fresno superintendent explained, to make students more interested in personal care; physical education teachers rated girls' skin, hair, muscle tone, and general appearance, among other criteria. At an Iowa state fair, judges measured young women against a yardstick of health and rural virtue. The winner in 1926, reported the Des Moines Register, used no powder or rouge, cared nothing for boys and dates, did not dance, and rarely went to the movies. Very different standards applied elsewhere. In a massive study on movies and conduct led by sociologist Herbert Blumer in the late 1920s and early 1930s, three-fourths of the 'delinquent girls' said they heightened their sex appeal by imitating movie stars' clothes, hair, and cosmetics.

During the 1940s makeup became part of a nationalist discourse as cosmetic advertisers made the well made-up woman the very thing men were fighting for. Women were told it was their "right" to be feminine -- even, or especially, as they engaged in their wartime jobs. The real explosion in the variety of color, goods and styles came after the war and had a profound effect. Now there was "mood" makeup, makeup marketed for teenagers, and even renewed interest in attracting men to cosmetics. Even more than ever, makeup became embedded in psychological issues of self: beauty care was a sign of mental health and accepting one's femininity. In an era when opportunities for women declined, being beautiful was a job in itself. The increasing sophistication of advertising at mid-century played to people's personal vulnerabilities and sold them on self-improvement. Advertising focused on how products would make buyers "better" people. For women, the focus was on how a product would make them more "feminine."

Perhaps one of the more freeing changes in the 1950s was the acceptance of female sexuality as something for a woman herself to enjoy. Lipsticks called "hussy" and "fire and ice" were sold to the "high class tramp." While there was little controversy over cosmetics in the 1950s and early 1960s, criticism exploded in the late 1960s. African American women inaugurated the "natural" style. The fashion and cosmetics industries, however, showed remarkable malleability, easily incorporating the new attitude, selling it as a look that could only be attained by purchasing more make-up. Cosmetics that didn't look artificial were marketed as higher quality products. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline," trumpeted one ad. When more women went back to cosmetics in the 1980s it was with the distinct idea that they would wear make-up according to their own needs and desires. The cosmetics industry itself became more "multicultural" than ever before.

Women have many reasons for using cosmetics to alter their appearance, in search of allure, youth, maturity, variety -- and the cosmetics industry has responded by diversifying its offerings. In 1999, the industry's annual profits grew to $25 billion. While some critics argue the new diversity only profits white-owned businesses wanting to cash in on "a liberal image," there seems to be a contemporary emphasis on choice. In the end, as historian Kathy Peiss has pointed out, cosmetics mean different things to different people. "The culture of beauty has never been only a regimen of self-appraisal and surveillance," she writes. "Women have used makeup to declare themselves -- to announce their adult status, sexual allure, youthful spirit, political beliefs -- and even to proclaim their right to self-definition."

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