Retro Beauty:
The History of Beauty

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Retro Beauty by Sara Liz, your history-obsessed beauty editor
who invites you to come aboard the time machine...

Retro Beauty: 1800s-1901

Victorian Beauty: Confined, uncomfortable, frilly, and fussy fashion

Victorian gals were modest, prim and proper, or so were their seams (he he, get it?) A bare ankle was considered risqué in the Victorian world. Victorian dresses were long enough to cover your racy ankles and everything else. They were worn with a corset, as seen on Scarlet O’hara, a waste-cinching garment that was pulled so snug that it often induced fainting spells! Lacing up a corset was a long, boring, snooze-inducing ordeal. Luckily for Victorian ladies of leisure, there were often poles that ran from the ceiling to the floor of their master bedrooms so they could lean against something during this drudgery. The corsets of the day also caused many health problems. The corset was so stifling and uncomfortable that many women had to take up the charming social custom of fanning themselves with gorgeous, ornate fans to keep from passing out.

Pale faces were all the rage, as these were the days when a sun tan suggested you were a woman who had to toil outdoors, as opposed to a house-kept, unemployed, lady of leisure. Pale skin was maintained with parasols and white powder. The parasol was held with gloved hands of course!

With the exception of young girls, Victorian gals were rarely seen wearing their hair down, beyond the boudoir.

The ideal beauty of the time is best exemplified by the Gibson Girl, a character created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The Gibson Girl was a young, attractive, sophisticated but spunky society woman. She captured the imagination and became a role model of young women everywhere. Charles Dana Gibson described his Gibson Girl as, “The American Girl to all the world”. To him she represented the modern woman.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edward Manet, Edgar Degas and other impressionist artists famously depicted the Victorian beauty ideal in their classic works of art. Check out Renoir's La loge, Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, and Degas' Ballet Dancers. A Google Image Search is great for your artistic self-education when you can’t make it to a museum. Just type the artist’s name in the search engine, or visit and find the artist’s gallery.

Retro Beauty: 1901-1919

Edwardian Beauty: Sewing the seeds of fashion rebellion

The movie Titanic has some great examples of the Edwardian standards of beauty. The character Rose in the movie Titanic exemplified the aristocratic, yet liberal fashion sense of women of this era. When Rose dines with her mother (and her two suitors- Jack Dawson and Caledon Hockley), and boldly lights up a cigarette, she gets away with it, although with a reproachful look from Mother. During the Victorian era, she never would have gotten away with that in public.

The term “Edwardian” denotes the period of time when King Edward VII was the monarch of the United Kingdom. The Edwardian period was from 1901 to 1910 but some extend the period up to 1918- the end of World War I. For our purposes, we shall extend it to 1919.

The Edwardian period started out extremely optimistic with the dawn of a new century and fashion was still formal. After disillusioning events like the sinking of the R.S.S. Titanic and the inception of World War I, pessimism replaced optimism and people saw little purpose for formality in fashion. The Edwardian period was a little less stiff than the Victorian age in terms of behavior and dress, but was still a very formal time for fashion and beauty. This formality declined rapidly, with every year of World War I.

Women still wore very covering, but figure-emphasizing clothes, but clothes became more flexible during this time.

Big hats, flowers, feathers, parasols, gloves, cameo pins, long pencil skirts and long hair, pinned up were stylish. The bustle under the dress was abandoned during this era.

Only young girls wore their hair down in public.

Women were still wearing faint-inducing corsets, but the corset would eventually be abandoned during this time period.

Art Nouveau was the art trend of the time. Art Nouveau was an artistic style that emphasized “sinuous curves”, florals, plant forms, and natural colors. A common Art Nouveau motif was a young, sensual woman with long, flowing hair surrounded by nature. Art Nouveau was a rebellion against sterile realism and the mechanism of life after the Industrial Revolution. It actually started in the 1880s but was going strong through both the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Mary Pickford was a silent film actress known as “America’s Sweetheart”, “Little Mary”, and “the girl with the golden curls”. Mary was the most popular actress of the nickelodeon era (the dawn of the motion picture era). Mary’s hair was long, golden and curly and she resembled the muse behind an Art Nouveau painting. Her hair seemed to symbolize female virtue, as many of her fans gasped when she chopped it off to become a flapper. Her movie career ended soon after. This was one of the first examples of how moviegoers often resist seeing actors take on new drastically different roles than what they normally play.

Retro Beauty: 1920-1929

Flapper Girl: How you gonna' keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

The 1920s was in many ways the dawn of the public bad girl. While some may have dabbled in controversial activities behind closed doors before, the 1920s was the first era when young women clearly stood up and said, “I don’t care what you think of my behavior” in large numbers.

World War I sent men off to war in Europe and women off to the world outside home. People were shaken by the “war to end all wars”. They had seen things those before them had never seen. And since they came so close to the end, they partied like the end could come at any moment. The roaring twenties were indeed wild. The Charleston was a far cry from the ball room dancing of their parent’s generation. Just like the poular song from the era said, "Anything Goes", was the attitude.

This era is often called the original sexual revolution because of a new breed of woman. She was known as the “flapper”, an eternally youthful, eternally “partying-like-there’s-no-tomorrow-with-no-apologies” kind of gal. The kind of gal who smoked, might wear a flask in her garter, and drank before noon. She liked her jazz music loud, her martini shaken, and her hair and dress short so she wasn’t confined or encumbered. She wasn’t exactly enlightened in matters of health or social longevity. (The flapper was unfortunately setting herself up for chronic health problems, an advanced onset of the aging process, or an early demise). But to be fair, they didn't have all the health research we had today. And in the flapper's mind, what was good for the goose was good for the gander.

Before the “the roaring twenties” was a gloomy era defined by the end of World War I. The war was fresh in the minds of people who were still reeling by what they had seen. Many were disillusioned after witnessing the horrors of war. Young artistic expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald articulately captured this jaded zeitgeist in their classic literary works and were therefore collectively known as “The Lost Generation”. Soon indignant jadedness gave way to partying. Becoming witness to the fragility of life made people want to “live for the moment”. They valued good times now more than ever. But the Great Depression was looming on the horizon-numbering these good time days! For these good times they would have to pay!

Living for the moment included a fondness for vacationing and holidays. In 1920 Coco Chanel came back from an aristocratic yacht vacation sporting a sun tan and suddenly everyone romanticized her “just got back from vacation” glow. This was a far cry from the parasol-protected ashen pallor of the Gibson Girl.

Along with the extreme switch from pale faces to sun kissed complexions, came extreme changes in hair and clothing. Hair went from long, long locks which modestly hid their length by coiling into a prim, loose Gibson Girl bun, to short, androgynous, art deco bobs which enabled a flapper girl to spend less time grooming and more time carousing. Gibson Girls never let their hair down. Flappers did. Silent movie star Clara Bow was the quintessential flapper. She was known as the “It Girl”. So just what did “it” mean back in the 1920s? According to novelist Elinor Glyn, it was “that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes... entirely unselfconscious... full of self-confidence... indifferent to the effect... she is producing and uninfluenced by others." More often, "it" just meant "sex appeal".

It Girls of the 1920’s:

Clara Bow:

• The “It Girl” of the 1920s.

• Silent movie star and cultural phenomenon.

• Described as having “cupid bow lips”

• Archetypal flapper².

• Long before Lindsay Lohan, Clara Bow was the original movie actress accused of loving a good time way too much.

Josephine Baker:

• Her nicknames included "Black Pearl", "Black Venus" and "Creole Goddess".

• Ernest Hemingway called her, "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw".

• She was a dancer who performed at the famous Folies Bergere in Paris.

• She was a major player during the Harlem Renaissance which took place during this decade.

Helen Kane:

• Famous for exclaiming “Boop-oop-a-doop!”

• Model and voice behind creation of favorite 1920s lovable bad girl cartoon character Betty Boop.

• Sang “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, “I Want to Be Bad”, and “I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat”.

Annette Hanshaw:

• One of the first popular female jazz singers.

• Also did voice of Betty Boop after Helen Kane left role.

• “Combined the voice of an ingenue with the spirit of a flapper”.¹

• Sang “Fit As a Fiddle”, “Happy Days are Here Again”, and “Aw Gee, Don’t Be That Way Now!”

Retro Beauty: 1930-1939

Depression Divas: Silver Screen Sirens and Dangerous Dames

• The Great Depression was a time of economic struggle and desperation, dust bowls and gangsters (such as Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde fame, as played by Faye Dunaway- see picture, right). The United States was broke, even more broke than we are now. How broke were people then? So broke that the banks were seizing their homes, they had to stand in line for hours to around blocks to apply for jobs and many lived in makeshift neighborhoods called Hoovervilles, named after the president at the time who got all the blame for the epic stock market crash. A lot of people became superstitious and thought that hard times fell upon them because they were having a little too much fun in the roaring twenties. So needless to say, conservative clothes and values made a comeback. The movie Annie (from 1982) illustrates the fashion gap between the very rich and very poor of this era, as there really was nobody in between. People were seemingly either wearing rags or spiffy duds. I recommend viewing this movie, if you don't mind musicals, because Carol Burnette is a riot as the man-chasing orphanage caretaker who spends most of the day buzzed on bathtub gin.

The movie Annie (1982) also contains a scene which exemplifies how depression era people experienced escapism from their dreary existences by escaping to the movies.

Speaking of watching movies to escape the hard times of the depression, here's one that really attempts to help people to believe that prosperity is just around the corner...

Jean Harlow was the first tragic, blonde beauty to fascinate the public imagination. Before Marilyn there was Jean. Jean was known as the “Platinum Blonde”. She was only 26 when she died but has captivated generations of people with her old Hollywood glamour.

Betty Davis: Kim Carnes sang about her interesting eyes. Joan Crawford reportedly could not stand her. Betty Davis was unique, powerful, and an “actresses’ actress”. She was also a paragon of 1930’s movie star beauty.

Joan Crawford: Joan Crawford started as a silent movie dancer girl who looked like a flapper in the 1920s. By the thirties she was a big time box office draw. The introduction to the movie Mommie Dearest delineates her unique morning beauty ritual, as Joan was eager to keep her face as young as possible for as long as possible for silver screen career longevity.

Greta “I want to be alone” Garbo was the mysterious “now you see her now you don’t” beauty of this era. As ephemeral as her tragic movie character Camille, Greta Garbo wasn’t comfortable being in the public spotlight for long. She was considered an It Girl of the 1930s before she willfully exited the public eye. Check out the movie Camille to get an understanding for the silver screen look of the thirties: coiffed shoulder length hair, pencil-thin eyebrows, mysterious eyes, and the frequent donning of luminous, long gowns.

Retro Beauty: 1940 -1949

Glamour Gals: Big Bands and Big Hair

• • Did you think big hair started in the eighties? Not so! The most popular hairstyle of the 1940s was big, teased, curled back bangs. The most popular length was shoulder length, the ends of which would be set in rollers and brushed out.

Christina Aguilera's video for her song "Candyman" is a great way to check out the popular styles of the 1940s and the sound of big band music! In the video, she impersonates the Andrew Sisters doing a U.S.O show (a 1940s singing trio), and the video also features a cigarette girl (although to be politically correct by 21st century standards she is carrying Campari), bobby socks, and pants rolled up to mid-calf, all very popular in this era. Also, check out Christina's swing dancing for a good example of how young women dressed to go to the malt shop or to the dance.

• Movie stars like blonde Betty Grable and brunette Rita Hayworth were also popular pin-up girls during World War II and their likenesses could be found on many WWII airplanes.

• Silver screen siren Veronica Lake was known as the girl with the "peak-a-boo" hairstyle. Her blonde locks were parted on the side and one side fell over one of her eyes in loose, sexy waves.

• Forties gals loved red lipstick for going out on the town!

Retro Beauty: 1950-1959

Fifties Fashion: Sex Sirens and Sock Hop Girls:

Elizabeth Taylor: This brunette beauty dazzled with her dark hair and violet eyes. Did Elizabeth Taylor really have violet eyes? Some have said that in person they looked this way and some say they didn't. Maybe it depended on how the light hit them at that particular moment.

Betty Page: The Betty Page hairstyle has become a favorite of retro fans. The Betty Page hairstyle is brunette and long with short bangs. The long hair is in loose waves and the bangs are curled under with a medium barrel curling iron. To get loose waves use electric, gel, or steam rollers in medium and large sizes and pick out with a pick.

Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe was the most famous sex symbol of the fifties if not the twentieth century. Her platinum blonde hair, arched brows, fabulous figure and flirtatious smile were her most famous features. See our Celebrity Beauty Secrets page for more information.

Jane Russell: She was known as the “brunette Marilyn Monroe”. Her figure got her director Howard Hughes in trouble with censors. Jane Russell’s hair was medium brown, shoulder length, and curled.

•Mousketeers: Mickey Mouse had female friends that he hung out with in the 1950s besides Minnie, like Annette, Darlene, Dorene, and Karen. The Mickey Mouse Club was popular with children and teenagers in the fifties! The Mouseketeer Girls were considered fashion icons for teens.

•Poodle Skirts: This A-shaped skirt with major flare at the bottom would swing around you as you danced at the sock hop. Worn by Mouseketeers and movie stars alike, a poodle skirt was a fifties favorite fad!

•Pony Tails: The most popular hair style of the 1950s for children, teenagers, and young adults was the ponytail. Fifties girls wore them high and bouncy, with a pretty ribbon tied around the pony that matched their poodle skirts. The Big Bopper acknowledged the ponytail’s allure in his hit fifties song, “Chantilly Lace”, as he described his dream girlfriend: “Chantilly lace, and a pretty face, and a ponytail hanging down.” •Ribbons: Ribbons were a big deal in the fifties. They were used to decorate ponytails and were tied in a bow on the top of the head when the hair was worn down. Girls and women were given all types of beautiful ribbons, in pretty solid colors or in patterns, with lace or in satin, as Christmas gifts.

•Headbands: Headbands were also big in the fifties. They were worn to dress up the typical fifties shoulder length bob style. Ribbons were also used as headbands.

•Bobbie socks: These were short, ankle length socks that were often cuffed and worn with saddle shoes and with poodle skirts.

•Saddle shoes: These were black and white oxfords that were worn with bobbie socks and poodle skirts.

•Ballet slippers with little white socks: Another fifties girl trend. Ballet slippers in girly colors like pink were paired with skirts.

•As for adult women, their hair was often in a shoulder length coiffed style. They would wear dresses and skirts almost always in public. Skirts were always very full and wide. This was also the era of the "bullet shaped bra". Women still wore formal hats.

Retro Beauty: 1960-1969

Sixties Fashion: From Surfer to Mod to Hippie Girl

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• While the fifties was all about "happy days", the sixties was a turbulent era that was defined by radical changes on the cultural and political landscape. But the beginning of the sixties was very different than the later part of the decade. It was more innocent and conformist, kind of like the fifties. • In the early 60s just about every gal wanted to be a California girl, with long flowing hair, a tan and a bikini thanks to beach music from Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys.

• Beehive hairdos were big for the daring few (is this where Marge Simpson drew her inspiration from?) Actually the style was popularized by French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot , who also popularized long flowing mermaid like hair for women during this decade.

• While Brigitte Bardot was the exotic French sex symbol of the decade, Sophia Loren was the exotic Italian sex symbol of this era.

• Girl groups were very popular during this era and gals in girl group bands served as style icons.

•Coiffed short hair, flip hair dos and big hair were also big in the beginning of the decade. On the Patty Duke show, Patty, and her identical cousin Kathy have two different types of flip hairdos. Wait a minute, what the heck is an identical cousin? They looked alike but were oh so different. A hot dog made Patty lose control...I wish I was as easily amused...laugh out loud.

• The innocence of the pop culture of the early sixties seemed to die along with President Kennedy. The nation was jaded. But then the Beatles touched down on American shores and caused a cultural revolution or renaissance with their unique sound and style. They ushered in the "British Invasion" with their popularity. The Beatles wore mop-top hairdos. They were originally refered to as mods or the Fab Four. Their hair was considered very long and men began to grow their hair longer, as long hair became the symbol of the counter cultural movement and of rock musicians.

• The mid 60s was the dawn of the James Bond flick. Bond girls like Ursula Andress became popular fashion icons. False eyelashes, long back combed hair, head bands, mini skirts, high heels, tall boots, and liquid eyeliner were popular for gals that wanted to recreate the Bond girl-esque look. Nancy Sinatra was a fan of this sexy style.

• The term "hippie" was the label for the counter culturalist by some of their parent's generation. This word is rooted in the word "hip" or "cool". The popular perception of hippies, also known as "flower children", was that they loved all things natural, simple, spiritual, creative, peaceful, beautiful, far out, psychadelic, creative, loving, cool, artistic, etc... They were also accused of loving sex, drugs, and rock and roll way too much by their parent's generation. A hippie girl would normally have a no-makeup look, center parted hair, and of course a flower in her hair.

• Sixties Victories: The flower children of the sixties were known for being socially conscious, for caring about issues, and for paying attention to politics. They marched, they protested, they spread the word, and they created revolutionary art in the process. The music of the sixties is considered to be some of the best music ever written. Classic rock is considered by many to be "high art" just like classical music. Art took on new dimensions with psychedelic colors and animation. The message of the day was one of peace and love. There were movements afoot for racial equality, gender equality and for ending the war in Vietnam.

• Natural hair, long, and parted in the middle with or without bangs for women and long hair of varying lengths for men or afros were popular in the latter half of the decade because of the flower child's preference for all things natural and "rock and roll".

• Flower Child Fashion: bell bottoms, printed tunics, sundresses, beads, paisley prints, bohemian clothes, flowers in hair, sandals, psychedelic stuff.

• Concert T’s to have: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendricks, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Moody Blues, etc…

•Guys the Girls Loved: Paul Macartney (known as the "cute Beatle", actually ANY BEATLE makes this list), Davy Jones of the Monkees fame, Justin Hayward (singer of the Moody Blues- watch the old Nights in White Satin video, from 1967, on You Tube to see why the girls thought he was so cute), Jim Morrison- the Lizard King- as in lead singer of the Doors, and if you were Marcia Brady, Dezi Arnaz Jr.

• Jeans became a big part of the cultural wardrobe for both sexes during this decade.

• Sandals were big for footwear.

Retro Beauty: 1970-1979

Seventies Fashion: From Loving Nature to Loving the Nightlife

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• Natural hair was still popular in the beginning of the decade, either long and straight or worn in the Afro style. People from all races and genders sported Afros.

• Bell bottom pants were wide enough to keep most of your clogs under wraps.
Clogs were shoes without support for the back of your foot but they had gigantic heels.

• Flower prints were all the rage as all things natural and summery were hot.

• Sandals were still the footwear to have.

• Polyester was a favorite of the disco dandies and divas. And a butterfly collar never hurt anyone. Or did it?
• Sundresses were popular for taking it easy.

Dorothy Hamill was a popular figure skater in the seventies. She wore a bowl hair cut which was replicated by many women.

Farah Fawcett's feathered hair caused a stir at the local beauty parlors, in the seventies, where every one came in for their appointments armed with their pictures of Farrah's hair.

• Flowers in hair set the mood.

• Concert T’s: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Elton John, KISS, Aerosmith, etc…

• Jeans were still riding high. Many were of the bell-bottom variety.

Retro Beauty 1980-1989

Eighties Fashion: From Curling Iron bangs to Shoulder Pads, Bigger is Better!

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Brook Shields shocked the more shock-able among us by saying that nothing comes between her and her Calvins. Calvin Klein Jeans that is. It was a commercial. Brook Shield's full eyebrows became popular in the early eighties.

• Feathered hair (first popularized by Farrah) was still all the rage in the early 80s. More and more women were trying out short hairstyles in the early 80s, popularized by MTV VJ Martha Quinn, James Bond theme song singer Sheena Easton, and rock vocalist Pat Benatar. MTV, the new music television channel turned out to be the driving force behind fashion and culture in the 80s. MTV used to play music videos all day and did not have any reality shows in the 80s. No seriously, I'm not joking!

• Neon colors became popular for clothing and children and teenagers collected neon bracelets.

• Big hair was popular throughout the entire decade but especially from 1984 and on. Girls would spend an hour on their hair before school with their curling iron, hair brush and a can of Aquanet hairspray, creating high sculpted bangs and winging out the sides of their hair. For men popular styles included the mullet (nobody referred to it as a mullet back then), feathered hair, long hair, or even teased long hair, popularized by some glam metal bands. Some African American men (and women) sported what was called the high top fade. There was also a lot of bleaching and highlighting going on.

• High Top Sneakers were popular. These were sneakers that went up to your ankle. Don't forget to lace your high top sneakers with fat laces. Especially neon colored fat laces.

• Leg warmers were popular among the aerobic, mall and rollerskating crowds. The ankle and calf was apparently the key area in keeping us warm in the 80s. He he.

• Major fashion icons included Madonna for her sexy bad girl look, Cindy Lauper for her crazy fun girl look, Michael Jackson and his famous jacket and one sparkly glove and David Lee Roth, who basically inspired most of the looks of the glam metal bands with his flamboyant outfits, long hair and sunglasses.

Retro Beauty 1990-1999

Nineties Fashion: Let's Get Serious about Getting Back to Basics

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• So since the 80s were so loud, big, fun, and crazy, eventually there was a cultural and fashion backlash. With the rising popularity of the band Nirvana, loud, big and flamboyant was suddenly out and understated, subtle and serious was in. Kurt Cobain, the leader of the band wore a striped thrift store looking shirt in the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit and seemingly overnight the entire world felt silly dressing so flamboyantly or caring about designer labels on their duds. Flannel shirts, jeans, t-shirts and Doc Martens became popular for both boys and girls.

• Believe it or not advertisers and fashion designers jumped on this anti-fashion band wagon, promoting skinny and frail-looking as fashionable. This style was referred to derogatively as "heroin chic" and was something that Kurt Cobain was totally against.

• Now that bombastic, big and crazy was out, straight hair parted in the middle was in. Some people even wanted their hair to look grungy and either skipped a day of washing or added styling products like gel to make it look unkempt.

• Although Kurt Cobain and other musicians disliked the word "grunge" and the commercialization of the independent music scene, an alternative culture was born where thinking outside the box was encouraged in both music and fashion in general. Not everyone went with a natural look. Gwen Stefani from No Doubt had bleached hair and makeup and Miki Berenyi from the "shoe-gazing band" Lush had bright pink hair. Tori Amos wore her hair wavy. So to think that everybody wore a uniform of flannel shirts and jeans in the 90s is incorrect. Variety abounded.

• Let's not forget about the Girl Power. From the band that coined the term, "The Spice Girls" to Tori Amos to Lilith Fair, the nineties seemed to be a revival of feminism or at least an unbound expression of women. I am woman, hear me purr and roar! In other words, you did what you wanted.


¹ Quote from article, “Annette Hanshaw”.² Quote from article, “Clara Bow”.

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