The perception of feminine beauty
is governed by culture
While beauty is eminently subjective and very much “in the eye of the beholder”,
the notion of feminine beauty has greatly evolved over the centuries.
What similarities can one possibly hope to find between Botticelli’s Venus and the corseted courtesans of Versailles, between Rubens’ voluptuous nudes and the slender gentlewomen of the Middle Ages, between the pin-ups of the 1950s and the Scandinavian sylphs of the 1970s? Beauty is a concept firmly related to an era and a culture. It is variously appreciated according to a collectively accepted standard that differs widely between parts of the world such as China, the United States, Japan and Europe. A few examples?
Body art is very popular in Oceania and in Africa. Slender features, small feet and white skin are essential features in Asia. Beautiful hair and teeth are essential in the United States. An effortlessly natural look (nonetheless carefully put together) is the Holy Grail in France. Northern Europe is captivated by a healthy, athletic figure…
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
Standards of beauty have changed considerably in just over a century. Let’s take a little journey through time in western societies and ask Snow White’s famous question once again. This is what the mirror would have answered since 1900...
Romantic beauty has curly hair in long ringlets and very fair skin, the exact opposite of country girls.
Icon: Evelyn Nesbit, American chorus girl and the world’s first supermodel.
The flapper cuts her hair, shortens her skirts and smokes like a man while dancing the Charleston.
Icon: Louise Brooks, a strong character, imitated by all the fashionistas of the time.
The 1929 crash has toned things down considerably. The corset is replaced by the girdle, women discover hair dye and a tanned look becomes trendy.
Icon: Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman, one of the rare stars of silent movies to have successfully made it into the world of talking movies.
During the war, women dream of the glamor of American stars, pinning their hair up in rolls, keeping their eyebrows very thin and well-marked.
Icon: Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai and femme fatale par excellence.
In the euphoria of the post-war period, women dare to expose staggering cleavages and sophisticated hair-dos. Bodies are revealed and tend to be small-waisted with long, tanned legs.
Icon: Marilyn, the ultimate 1950s sex symbol.
The sexual revolution turns conventions upside down and women in jeans or mini-skirts become androgynous for the first time, with slender figures, short hair and little make-up.
Icon: Twiggy, the quintessential 1960s English model.
The peace & love generation with its pretty long-haired hippy-style women rubs shoulders with the ultra-tanned and athletic American bombshell.
Icons: Jane Birkin for some, Farrah Fawcett for others.
Ultra-busy superwomen discover the stress of the business world, beauty becomes synonymous with performance: a thin, tanned body, an impeccable XXL blow-dry, white teeth, a healthy look.
Icon: Elle McPherson, nicknamed “the Body”, along with the entire generation of millionaire super models.
Grunge reigns supreme. Women are expected to be even thinner, wear virtually no make-up, keep their hour tousled and generally exude a tomboy style like an everlasting teenager.
Icon: Kate Moss, the Calvin Klein era.
The quest for a slim, muscular figure demonstrates that a woman is in control of her image right down to the last detail; the rise of the fashionista.
Icon: Sarah Jessica Parker, heroine of the series Sex and the City.
Open to the world, the feminine ideal remains rooted in a young, slim, natural, positive look.
Icon: Gisele Bündchen, the Brazilian super model who has reigned supreme on catwalks for more than 20 years.
By Anne-Marie Clerc - Illustrations Richard Atlan