Respond to this Article November 2004

Tour of Beauty

A hundred years in the arms race to acquire newer, better weapons of cosmetic enhancement.

By Christina Larson

Since its debut last year, the cosmetic-surgery show "Extreme Makeover" has drawn runaway ratings, its many viewers at once fascinated and appalled by the needles, incisions, and bandages the mostly female participants will endure in order to climb a few notches on the beauty totem pole. This fall, ABC moved its Nielson heavyweight into televisions' kingpin slot, Thursday evenings, while wincing critics sounded an alarm that Americans' fundamental understanding of nature, beauty, and artifice has changed.

Nonsense, darling. In the pursuit of beauty, American women have variously plumped breasts with toilet-plunger-like suction devices (1890s), strapped themselves into fat-roller machines to press away the pounds (1910s), endured "electrode" shock treatment to zap away wrinkles (1920s), worn wire headsets to pull back cheek waddles (1960s), popped "youth" pills, and slathered on anti-cellulite lotions for generations. Today's ladies have no greater drive to become beautiful, and defy the effects of time, than their mothers did. But the technology has sure come a long way.

Inventing Beauty
by Teresa Riordanbr
Broadway, $17.95

In Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful, New York Times patent writer Teresa Riordan gives readers a delightful, quirky account of American cosmetic innovations, from lipstick to silicon implants, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. She avoids swerving into pro-feminist or anti-feminist polemics, and instead simply accepts that the desire to be fairest-of-them-all is an impulse as mythic and enduring as a fairytale. With a little Cinderella-magic of her own, Riordan transforms patent history into an almost titillating subject, while reminding readers that tanning creams, breast implants, and nail polishes are "not merely articles of fashion but legitimate inventions"--and serious business.

A skilled hostess, Riordan sees the "emotional landmines" she's tiptoeing around. To ease progressive minds, she suggests that lipstick, hair dye, and Wonderbras may in fact be a force for some social good--helping women born with lesser physical endowments make up for nature's neglect through a combination of cunning, creativity, and financial investment: "When successful, the artifice of beauty is a great leveler." That's true, if you're talking about evening the playing field among women. But let's not be uncivil--it's well worth setting aside ideology long enough to enjoy her splendid romp through the dusty attic of the Patent Office archives. Before the push-up bra appeared in anyone's closet, someone had to invent, patent, and perfect it. And Riordan's strictly-business eye on the beauty industry inevitably turns up ample grist for other debates.

In the century covered by her research, for instance, she found that only 1 percent of all patents were awarded to women. But in the field of "breast enhancers"--that is, cushions and contraptions that allow a lady to look bustier under her sweater than she does in the shower--nearly two thirds of the patent holders were women. Does this suggest that women, not men, have historically enforced the standards of female beauty? Or that more than a few businesswomen will take advantage of their sisters' insecurities? The question at least might bring a blush to third-wave feminists fond of placing all the blame for the objectification of women's upper half on husbands, Hustler, and Hooters.

It turns out that the patent history of human beauty products resembles that of natural selection. Once a new species emerges, variations flourish, until one version with a clear competitive advantage triumphs. In the first half of the century, women fumbled with myriad products to darken their eyelashes--patented tongs to apply cake powders, tweezers to paint on commercial creams, miniature combs to brush in tinted jellies--but once mascara wands took off in the 1950s, no woman or inventor cast a painted eye backward.

Not only does the beauty industry drive invention, but new technology can also push the limits of what is possible, and therefore potentially beautiful. Riordan recounts early 20th century patent applicants' vexing experiments with shapes, materials, and suspension systems for supporting and shaping the female chest--pointed rubber harnesses, flattening wrap-around bandage bras, and horizontal straps that buckled into garters at the waist. In 1931, a mini-manufacturing revolution took place when a new blend of elastic and cotton fibers allowed suppliers to create stretchy and washable bras, which pumped life into a dismal Depression-era undergarments industry. With better materials and a growing market, bra retailers soon developed the standardized cup-system of A, B, C, and D sizes. If you've ever puzzled over the disappearance of fashionable silhouettes of previous decades--the bunker-chested Gibson Girl of the 1910s, the boyish flapper girl of the 1920s--remember those styles peaked before the invention of bra cups for suspending each breast individually made the idea of both a bosom (singular) and a flat chest obsolete.

New technologies have also variously enabled or exaggerated existing ideals: In the 19th century, the addition of metal eyelets to the centuries-old corset enabled women to lace themselves tighter, and reduce their waistlines to dizzying (and dizzy-spell inducing) proportions. The development of local anesthesia and antibiotics in the 20th century made it possible to reupholster sagging jaw-lines with surgical face-lifts.

The book is arranged by body part, much like a department store; chapters replete with diagrams are devoted to the history of commercial enhancements for eyes, lips, hips, and other attributes. Riordan has drawers full of material to organize, and the book's presentation is highly browsable and entertaining. But there is a drawback to the decision to organize content around erogenous zones. While the eight chapters are individually well-wrought gems, the book's marvelous baubles feel strung together rather loosely. There is scant sense of an overriding historical narrative threading the pieces together. Which is a shame because Riordan does mention, albeit briefly and pages apart, the cultural undercurrents that ultimately washed ashore each of the artifacts she has so carefully collected and described--the rise of consumer culture that put luxury items within the grasp of every woman, the spread of photography and portraiture that allowed women to closely inspect (and agonize over) their own features, the influence of Hollywood screen idols in defining femininity, the ubiquity of television and magazines that ultimately both promoted beauty ideals and hawked cosmetic products from living rooms and coffee tables.

As Riordan relates, Marlene Dietrich drew a line of light powder down the center of her face to create the illusion of a straight nose. She didn't let her asymmetrical features keep her off the silver screen, but neither did her trick spare future women from contemplating rhinoplasty. Though Riordan doesn't belabor the point, her examples frequently show how cosmetic products have allowed women to score higher at the beauty game, but not to change it.

Some may criticize entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Arden--a mid-century Martha Stewart-figure whose rise from beauty-shop assistant to company founder and cosmetic titan Riordan chronicles--for marketing strict standards of beauty and domesticity in order to coerce women into buying frivolous products. Indeed, with a nod to theorist Thorstein Veblen, Riordan coins the term "conspicuous invention" to describe the cosmetic industry's proclivity for continually devising new products and fashions in order to drive sales. On the other hand, both Arden and Stewart did start their own businesses, make millions, and increase the number of women on the Fortune 500 list. Riordan's history reminds us that these domestic mavens broke ground for women in the corporate boardroom (ruthlessly at times), if not in their marketing campaigns. Perhaps they didn't change society, but they showed women how to compete within it. This book supplies fresh material for the debate over whether or not that's progress.

Riordan recounts history from an unusual angle and doesn't lace her account with all the reasons women invest more than men do in the creams, and dreams, sold on the Home Shopping Network. But she missed something important: the history of products exploiting male vanity. And what woman, of any ideological stripe, doesn't want to learn more about the male corset, creams for painting bald spots, and patented crotch-stuffers?

Christina Larson is the managing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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