I opened this section of my blog back in spring, with the intention of publishing some extra-curricular essays on the elements of the history of beauty that sparked particular interest in me during the research I am conducting for my thesis. However, despite my best intentions, my schedule has allowed me little time for my assessed essays, let alone any additional/non-assessed ones. Therefore, the following is an essay I recently submitted for one of my modules this term which looked at studying history through material culture. One of the best things about studying at masters level is being able to adapt coursework to suit your own personal research interests, so naturally I chose a article of vintage makeup for the focus of my study. Enjoy!
This essay takes an object-centred approach to the history of beauty, placing the material characteristics of beauty at the core of the investigation, with a case study of a Stratton Lipview (c.1950). In establishing the Stratton Lipview as a focal point from which to study the history of beauty, it attempts to reinforce the benefits of studying beauty through the medium of material culture. In existing literature, beauty is typically characterised as temporary and symbolic, despite the fact that beauty is materialised in cosmetics, and as a form of spectacle in its own right, has its own materiality. Material culture allows historians to adopt a micro-history approach to examining the history of beauty by making objects of beauty culture the focus of historical analysis. This brings a tangible dimension to historical study, opening opportunity to investigate what physical remnants of the past can say about the beauty ideals, evolutions, and practices of past societies. In turn, these objects articulate wider points regarding beauty’s role in historical studies of class, gender, consumption, production, and identity.
It is possible to conduct a material-focussed historical study of beauty and cosmetics from a number of different angles; by investigating perceptions of beauty, how materials make and dissolve beauty trends and ideals, and how beauty practice is materialised. These approaches overlap and will serve to provide a useful approach to understanding beauty’s transience and functionality, from both a material and a theoretical perspective. However rather than just focussing upon either the objects or the theoretical contexts, this study will combine them in order to examine the effects and transformations of makeup upon those who used it, the role that cosmetics had in shaping society and contemporary perceptions of beauty during the first half of the twentieth century. Material culture is key to understanding and reflecting social transitions, but establishing an agenda for studying beauty through materiality requires both theoretical and methodological study. This essay will demonstrate that an object-based history of cosmetics can reveal much regarding the changes in relationships between beauty, social status, consumerism and gender identity during the period.
This study will begin by investigating the existing historiography of the subject area in order to establish the connection between beauty and material culture. It will then provide the background context required to ‘set the scene’ for the Stratton Lipview, before evolving into a more focussed investigation of lipstick and the concept of portable beauty in the first half of the twentieth century. A case study of the object will come next; utilising methods of visual and textual analysis and using research questions commonly employed by historians of material culture in order to establish the object’s background, purpose, and meaning. The next section will build upon this by using the Lipview to investigate how and what a study of beauty and material culture can reveal about changes in consumerism, class, and gender during the period.
Two almost entirely separate fields of literature exist for the history of beauty. In one there is an assumption that beauty itself is immaterial, implying that beauty somehow exists outside the form of objects and physical methods of beauty practice. These largely theoretical works (such as Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss and The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf) discuss beauty in a speculative and hypothetical sense - as a vague concept, which like fashion, is a transient ever-changing process existing almost entirely in the abstract. Yet despite this popular academic assumption that beauty is immaterial, essentially its practice does require material things. A second facet of the historiography employs a more traditional chronological approach. Works like Richard Corson’s Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times and Arthur Marwick’s Beauty in History: Society, Politics, Personal Appearance, 1550 to Present offer broad histories of cosmetics which, although not always explicitly concerned with objects, utilise object-based research to investigate how beauty was perceived, performed, and presented by past societies and cultures.
There is much to be gained from merging these two practices together and adapting a more phenomenological approach that also makes the material central to historical study. Literature published in recent years has demonstrated a turn towards this method. Works such as Madeliene Marsh’s Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty From Victorian Times to the Present Day study the history of beauty via an investigation of artefacts - with a material approach like this the history of beauty becomes increasingly tactile and visual. In adopting this practice, it becomes possible to shift the focus onto the practicality and functionality of beauty artefacts, utilising these objects as part of a multi-sensorial study. In turn, this approach reinforces the fact that beauty was an ubiquitous element of women’s lives, representative of the ways in which they transformed and presented themselves for various means. In accepting that beauty is embodied both in the objects used everyday and as a means of communicating trends and identities, historians can unearth a wealth of information regarding the everyday lives of women during the early- and mid-twentieth century.
Historians have demonstrated that the cosmetics industry as we know it was not really established until the late 1880s, growing into something better resembling today’s mass-market, commercial beauty culture by the 1930s. Prior to this, the cosmetics industry was small-scale and locally based. Society dictated an unofficial social edict against makeup, quietly condemning the use of products to falsify ones appearance - a practice reserved for prostitutes and actresses. By the early nineteenth century however, the growing trade in cosmetics was reinforced by ‘a proliferation of magazines, advice literature, and advertising’ which served to renew existing social discourses about appearance and authenticity. Conceding that ‘artifice was allowable…if used in the service of representing a woman’s “true” identity’, such sources touted the use of lipsticks, powders, rouge, and nail enamels as acceptable means with which to enhance one’s natural beauty, or hide imperfections. Existing literature sees historians emphasise the Second World War as one of the most catalytic events in the history of the beauty industry. With emergency restrictions enforced during the war, luxury goods were produced for export only and women took on male jobs and wore masculine style uniforms. Marsh argues that this created a ‘post-war desire for pleasure and prettiness’ which in turn served to inspire the market for cosmetics. Similarly, Peter McNeil has demonstrated that the end of the war was crucial to the formation of social and sexual identity during the period, ‘redefining woman as wife and mother rather than paid worker’. This demonstrates a need for historians to attend to the transformative impact of beauty (in its most material practice) upon everyday life and connect the functional, physical properties of cosmetics with their semiotic properties.
The 1950s has often been described as ‘the golden age of lipstick’, a period in which womens' public use of cosmetics had finally gained a form of acceptance. Thanks to modern forms of production, marketing, and retail, together with increasing female spending powder and independence, the cosmetics industry’s growth had rendered lipstick and powder compacts a familiar presence in everyday life. According to Matt Houlbrook, ‘essential to the new style of appearance’. Lipstick was reimagined as ‘a symbol of devout, conventional femininity’, becoming an indispensable item to women in the 1950s. Not only did the advent of commercial beauty culture popularise the idea that makeup could be worn by anyone, but notably it converted the practice of applying makeup from a private act to a public, visible ritual. From being the preserve of prostitutes and actresses in the mid-nineteenth century, by the mid-twentieth century the concept of applying powder and lipstick in public spaces had become a cultural norm, embraced by women of every rank and status. This sudden reversal saw makeup application switch from a pleasure to an obligation, reinforcing the need for portable, compact beauty products that could be carried at all times in order to constantly maintain the ‘illusion of beauty’. Compacts gained popularity as women gained independence and pioneered the idea of beauty on the move. Metal goods firms such as Stratton (which had produced shell cases for ammunition during the war), capitalised on the trend, producing powder compacts that also incorporated cigarette holders, ashtrays, and combs. Marsh writes that the compact ‘epitomised the period’s desire for fun and frivolity’, many were decorated with diamante, flowers, and romantic scenes.
During the 1950s, Stratton was a worldwide brand, based in Birmingham but producing compacts that were sold across the globe. Originally founded in 1860 as a knitting needle manufacturer, by 1930 the company held a 50 percent share in the UK cosmetics industry, creating innovative compacts that were designed to be opened without breaking fingernails. The Lipview was one of the company’s most famous designs - a refillable, adjustable lipstick holder which folded out to become the handle for a small mirror. Whilst seemingly trivial in itself, the Lipview reveals much regarding the society and culture in which it was produced, especially in regards to the idea that beauty had become a public cultural practice. The Lipview demonstrates the changing agency of those who used it and in doing so highlights the centrality of material culture to a history of beauty. In this regard, the Lipview is evidence not just of the changing attitudes towards cosmetics during the period, but also demonstrates a renewal of cultural identity norms regarding the evolution of consumer culture, class structure and gender roles.
Triggered by growing affluence and economic stability in the years after the Second World War, the Western world saw the emergence of a mass consumer society. New materials and technologies developed during the war meant that the growth of the cosmetics industry was intertwined with a renewed emphasis on consumer culture. The industry could utilise the latest industrial techniques and scientific developments to make cosmetics as cheap and accessible as possible, whilst advertising companies developed new and innovative marketing techniques to encourage women to wear makeup and buy their products. Kate Forde describes this as an attempton behalf of cosmetic manufacturers to ‘harness the nation’s enhanced powers of production to the satisfying the nation’s new desires. Between the modern forms of industrial production, accessible retail spaces, and new marketing techniques, the beauty industry was transformed into what Matt Holbrook describes as ‘a demonic consumer culture’.
With a recommended retail price of nineteen shillings the Lipview would have been classed as a luxury item, but was by no means an unattainable purchase, even for women of a low social status. In fact, much of Stratton’s advertising during the period targeted men, calling for husbands to purchase a Stratton compact for their wives as a gift, especially at Christmas. Marketing during the period depicted makeup as an easy means by which to achieve ‘upward mobility’, capitalising on young women’s increasing spending power and desire to enhance their looks, but also as a means by which they could adopt new social and political roles previously limited to men. The growth of the cosmetic industry coincided with women’s increasing assimilation within the public sphere, as they began to participate in practices, careers, and activities formerly understood as exclusively masculine. Kate Forde has identified the trend for portable cosmetics as demonstrative of a ‘desire for intimacy in this alienating urban environment’. Mediated through commodities like the Lipview, portable cosmetics established femininity in this previously masculine space, rendering it an environment in which beautification could occur. The fact that women of every class could potentially own a Lipview speaks for the democratic, universality of beauty; objects like the Lipview allowed women to transcend their social position and gave them the social mobility to adapt to the ever evolving societal experience.
Studying the Lipview highlights not only how class was embodied within beauty practices, but also identifies a gendered study of beauty and consumption. Cosmetics have long been considered as an important means by which to express femininity, but in the twentieth century, as ‘mass-produced and mass-distributed’ commodities, they became what Kathy Peiss describes as ‘salient markers of normative female identity’. Implicit with an understanding of material culture is the process of transformation, which demonstrates how we can use material culture to study the evolution of women’s everyday negotiations with beauty. After the war, the worlds of beauty and fashion had created new definitions of femininity; the material culture of which allowed women to establish new public personas. Products like the Lipview blurred the boundaries between the established public and private spheres, commercial and domestic spaces, and between male and female - forging new definitions of the female experience in modern society. This expands historical understanding of women’s roles and agency during the period, but there is debate amongst historians about just how liberating the growth of the cosmetics industry was for women. Jessica Clark has stated that beautification equals empowerment and ‘beauty consumption was part of new processes of self-making available to women’, but Forde argues that it capitalised on the ‘pressures of social conformity’ and that it reinforced women’s ‘dependency on the approbation of men’. As a starting point from which to investigate the history of beauty however, the Lipview contributes to a vital deeper understanding of the connection between cosmetics and the development of the modern female identity.
Beauty by nature, is temporary and ephemeral, making it an interesting topic to define and research in a historical context. However despite its ephemerality, beauty is indexed in material forms; this study has revealed that objects are integral to developing an understanding of the materialities of beauty, not least in order to debunk the popular ontology that fails to engage with the materiality of beauty, but as a means by which to identify and break down the dichotomy between the two existing historiographies. Focussing upon an object like the Lipview provides a shift away from the semiotic approach to beauty history and allows historians to establish a history of beauty through the object. This in turn anchors the study in a particular moment and period, whilst simultaneously fitting into the broader chronological history of beauty. In studying the Lipview, is has become evident that female relationships to social and public realms were under renegotiation during the early-mid twentieth century and that beauty played a significant role in this process. Social differences of gender and class were also being challenged and redefined, and the Lipview demonstrates that the use of cosmetics played an integral part in this social upheaval. Ever since its formation, the beauty industry has established a need and requirement for the production of new things. This has obvious consequences for materiality and for the evolution of products that must adapt to the changing times. In future study it would be interesting to utilise material culture in order to conduct a larger investigation regarding why women wear makeup, and how various motivations (whether to comply with societal expectations, to appear attractive to men, or to assert their identity) have changed over time. With an object at the heart of this study, it would possible to understand this as a process, and to conduct an overarching investigation of women’s experiences of beauty and how it has allowed them to fashion their identities over time.
Unfortunately all footnotes were lost in the process of copying this article to my blog, but all were sourced from the following...
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