Author Lois Banner Looks for More Than Skin-Deep Meaning in American Beauty

updated 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 01:00AM

Ever since Eve tried on her fig leaf, women have been as unpredictable about fashion as they have been constant in their quest to be beautiful. "Fashion represents everything that is going on in an age," says Lois Banner, 44, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, "and the pursuit of beauty exists among all social classes." In American Beauty (Knopf, $20.00) Banner examines four distinct models of feminine glamour that emerged in the U.S. between 1800 and the exuberant 1920s. To document her survey, Banner spent six years poring over diaries, novels, travelers' journals, etiquette manuals and microfilmed fashion magazines. She shared her discoveries with Senior Writer Kristin McMurran:

What was the ideal of a beautiful woman in the early 1800s?

The stereotype was the fragile, submissive maiden illustrated in fashion magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book. Her face was oval or heart-shaped. Her complexion was white, with a blush of pink in her cheeks. She was demure, with very small features, and her eyes were frequently downcast. She was often posed in a curving line to emphasize her femininity.

Was there a perfect mouth?

The ideal mouth was very small and rounded. They called it the rosebud. To get the proper shape the common practice was to repeat a series of words beginning with P: peas, prunes, potatoes. In posing their subjects, 19th-century photographers did not ask women to smile or say "cheese," but rather to repeat the P words.

How did the antebellum beauty dress?

Propriety dictated that a woman's frail body required the support of a corset. The ideal waist was 18 inches, achieved through tight lacing, a practice that caused headaches and fainting spells. In the late 1820s and early 1830s skirts hung to the ankles and feet showed, while flamboyant hats and full sleeves gave women a defiant look. As the 1840s evolved, Victorians preferred a look of understated prosperity. The sloping sleeves, bonnets and modestly crinolined skirts gave an image of frailty and dependence.

What impact did the hoopskirt have?

In 1856 the hoop was made of lightweight flexible steel or whalebone in the shape of a birdcage that let skirts swing and offered a glimpse of feet and legs—an erotic feature. Women found the hoops liberating because they took the place of 12 pounds of petticoats. By the end of the 1850s women were beginning to wear what we might think of as underpants—which they had not worn before because there was a cultural prohibition against women dressing like men.

How did the Civil War change early Victorian mores?

Rigid codes of manners broke down. Prostitution and venereal disease increased. Drinking and gambling became the common respite from battle. Aphrodisiacs and birth-control devices were advertised in newspapers. Slang was used freely. Following the war there was a sudden outbreak of domestic murders and divorce scandals.

How did fashion reflect these changes?

Looser moral standards created a new interest in display, and fashion became more erotic. Women began padding their breasts and hips. Cosmetics were suddenly widely used. But there was also a move toward variety. During the war, when women were involved in volunteer activities, they wore suits. By the 1870s there were two separate fashionable women's wardrobes: undecorated clothes by day and flounced, frilly fashions for nighttime.

Were there any memorably bizarre fads during the 1800s?

There was a wonderful period in the mid-19th century when women painted their faces white with a kind of enamel made of egg whites. The leaders of society went to professional enamelers to have this thin coating painted on their faces. If it was too thick, it would crack with a smile.

What model of beauty succeeded the early Victorian stereotype?

I call her the voluptuous woman. She was big-busted, big-hipped, heavy by our standards. This fleshy model was very popular with French salon painters, whose works were collected by Yankees made rich by the Civil War. Even before the Civil War the voluptuous woman had risen as a model of beauty in lower-class immigrant cultures, which associated bulk with success. The more prosperous family could afford to eat well. The vogue was spread by doctors who argued it was unhealthy to be too thin.

Who were the British Blondes?

A burlesque troupe that arrived in New York in 1868. They would sing, dance and poke fun at contemporary culture. They peroxided their hair, when brown had been the favored color for half a century. Onstage, they dressed like men and smoked cigarettes. They also spoke with impeccable upper-class British accents, which lent an aura of respectability, so women went to see them. The British Blonde not only provoked laughter and vamped men, but she showed women a new kind of physical form and behavior—one that was free, assertive, self-reliant.

How did the voluptuous look influence fashion?

Women wore falsies and tight-laced corsets that pulled the flesh around the waist to make the bust and hips bigger. An 18-inch waist was still the ideal. Some women went so far as to have their lower ribs removed surgically. The bustle was invented to draw attention to the backside. The skirt was very tight in front, and the draping was pulled around to the back into a device made of wire and padding. A big bustle meant a big backside, a sexual connotation.

Where did this exaggeration lead?

In the 1870s the "Grecian bend" came into vogue. It was the most erotic style of the century. Women wore corsets laced as tightly as possible and shoes with the highest heels to thrust the body forward so that bosoms and buttocks would really stick out. According to one historian, the style was often so exaggerated that women could not sit upright in carriages, but had to lean forward and rest their hands on cushions on the floor.

Who replaced the voluptuous woman?

By 1894 the Gibson Girl, created by artist Charles Dana Gibson, had become a national sensation. She was tall, athletic and patrician, with thick dark hair swept upward in the pompadour style. She had a large bosom and hips, but her figure was thinner than the voluptuous woman's. Advertisers exploited her image. Clothing and dances were named after her. One question repeatedly haunted reporters: Who was the original model? But Gibson never told.

How did the Gibson Girl affect fashion?

She symbolized the movement of women into the work force, freedom of behavior and a new vogue of athletics promising healthier bodies. She wore a shirtwaist blouse and skirt, standard attire for women who sought more freedom. On the street she wore a man-tailored suit. I traced her genesis to a group of young aristocratic New York women who rebelled against strict standards of behavior that older women were trying to enforce.

Who superseded the Gibson Girl?

After the turn of the century the small, pert, flirtatious, boyish model of beauty exemplified by Mary Pickford became dominant. During the 1920s the flapper reigned. She had small breasts, a small face and bee-stung lips. She danced the athletic Charleston, not the erotic tango. Clara Bow once defined "It," the 1920s term for sex appeal, as vivacity, fearlessness and a basic indifference to men.

Why was the chorus girl so popular around the turn of the century?

She evoked visions of limousines, diamonds, furs, champagne parties and wealthy admirers. To upper-class men she seemed free and erotic. To women she was a Horatio Alger figure, a lower-class woman who had worked her way up. Before Florenz Ziegfeld introduced his Follies in 1907, the Floradora Sextette, which performed in a hit musical, was inundated nightly with bouquets containing money and jewels. Each of the women married a millionaire. There seemed to be no limit to the heights a beautiful woman could attain.

Why are women so preoccupied with beauty?

Women have been socialized into an attitude of insecurity about themselves and their position in society. They believe that they must glamorize themselves so that they will attract men and find husbands. You have that curious stage of adolescence, which existed even in the early 19th century, when young girls become fixated with their appearance and the notion that if they can make themselves beautiful, then some glorious future will open up to them.

Is there an ideal model of beauty today?

No. It is impossible now to have a really dominant look because we have so many molders of appearance. From the 1920s to the 1950s, movies really formed tastes in beauty in a profound manner. The '60s were marked by the democratization of beauty. Society began looking at black and ethnic women as beautiful. Today there seems to be a reversal to a more classic look. You see it in Brooke Shields and Cheryl Tiegs.

Which beauty would you have chosen to be?

It would have been grand to look like the Gibson Girl.

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