Beauty Through History; The Changing Ideal
Article from:The Washington Post Article date:January 27, 1987 Author: Sharom Romm
WHERE IS THE FACE THAT would launch a thousand ships today? “Bette Midler,” says John Kobal, author and founder of the Kobal Collection of the History of Cinema. “Classic beauty? Of course not. But it’s her vitality, her personality that makes her funny and that makes her desirable and beautiful.”
“Linda Evans and Kathleen Turner,” says Tony Shepherd, director of talent for Aaron Spelling productions. “Their beauty comes from within.”
“Unique individuals like Rita Hayworth and Debra Winger,” adds Kobal.
“Frederika,” says Francesco Scavullo, fashion photographer, referring to the highly paid model.
“We all seem to know the look of a classically beautiful face,” says Scavullo.
Or do we?
The ancient Greeks believed perfect proportions were the key to a woman’s beautiful face. They would not have prized the quirky beauty of a modern movie star such as Meryl Streep or Sissy Spacek. The double chins on the women of Rubens would offend the lenses of present-day fashion photographers. And Victorians, who thought tiny rosebud lips were beauty’s quintessential element, would be aghast at the full, sensuous mouths admired today.
History shows that standards of beauty are constantly changing. Most everyone agrees that certain women-Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman-are truly beautiful. But what actually constitutes beauty in any given era is very complex.
“Faces go in and out of fashion,” says Diana Vreeland, special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Yet it is the link between fashion and politics that seems to determine beauty standards.
As Bruce F. Norton, political science professor at American University, says: “What is considered a beautiful face is often influenced by what is going on in society.”
The post-war optimism of the 1950s, for example, produced Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds. “Sweet enough to be edible,” quips Kobal. And then in the 1960s there was more concern with social protest and idealism than with feminine decorations. This, says Norton, created an atmosphere that could easily foster the androgynous face of Twiggy.
Today a segment of youth disenchanted with society is distinguished by the whitened faces, pastel hair and blackened eyes reminiscent of the German cabarets of the 1930s.
But the punk look is clearly a minority standard. For most people, a key feature of beauty today is the good-health look.
“What all beautiful women today have in common is an obvious look of health,” says Andrea Robinson, beauty editor of Vogue. “Even a model’s skin tone implies she leads a healthy life. This is the look today’s women try to achieve.”
As Scavullo explains of the models he photographs: “Their facial contours are perfect, they have big, intelligent eyes, and a mane of hair. They are healthy. Full of energy.”
The “healthy-is-beautiful” trend started some two decades ago, when the pale lips and heavily made-up eyes-the rebellious, Left Bank of Paris look of the 1960s-gave way to a natural, healthy image enhanced by good food, workout gyms and Jane Fonda. A Europeon Vogue cover in the early 1970s featured a model whose tanned face was still wet from a swim. Farrah Fawcett personified the glowing smile of the ’70s. And then came Jane Fonda and the fitness look.
Another important trend today is age. Over the past decade, older models, such as Trish Hooker, appear with increasing frequency in popular magazines. “We have even had three playmates over the age of 30,” says Playboy’s director of photography, Gary Cole, “and we’ve recently featured a beautiful woman over 50 who was still photogenic.”
Even gray hair is coming out of the closet. “Gray hair is acceptable and always has been,” says Vogue’s Andrea Robinson. “The gray may need enhancing so that it complements the woman’s natural skin tone, but it doesn’t need to be dyed another color.” In general, Robinson says, “there is less stigma attached to middle age these days which affects our ideas of beauty.” “Beauty,” concludes Tony Shepherd, “is no longer limited to 19-year-olds.”
This trend is not surprising in view of the fact that the baby boom generation is now hitting 40 and the fastest growing segment of the population is the elderly.
At the same time, a major part of beauty is sex appeal. High fashion photographer Scavullo states it bluntly: “Today’s beautiful faces are sexy. Like an animal’s.” And, of course sex appeal is a principal concern of Playboy, which Cole calls a “reflector rather than a setter of trends.”
“When choosing our centerfolds, we look first for a beautiful face,” he explains. “We think readers want to see a face that looks soft and flirtatious. The women in our magazine can’t have a look that is aggressive or unfriendly.”
Yet a countertrend with some models is the aloof look, a “don’t mess with me look”-stark and strong.
All this reflects the explosion of opportunities for women and the many conflicting roles women now play. The current trend toward striking and distinctive faces in models pays homage to the individuality of today’s woman. There are many different types of beautiful faces today and a greater tolerance of diversity.
“Don’t assume that standards of beauty are accidental,” says Gloria Steinem, the cofounding editor of Ms. magazine. “They reflect the power structure in our society. That’s why today ethnic looks and older women are more acceptable.”
No more Debbie Reynolds. Today it’s Bette Midler, the model Iman, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Lena Horn, Katharine Hepburn, Bianca Jagger.
“So many different looks are considered beautiful today,” says Karen nderegg, editor-in-chief of Elle. “Women don’t feel the need to conform and are comfortable with their individuality.”
But the quest for beauty is not easy. The search has helped establish a growing “how-to” beauty book publishing business with 202 books on the market today that are devoted to personal beauty. Another 1,277 beauty books are in the Library of Congress. There are at least 100 magazines on news stands that cover cosmetics, fashion and the country’s beauty culture. Aphrodite and Apollo
It all began 2,400 years ago in Greece and Rome, when the West’s standards of beauty were set.
“But the Greeks knew that there was more to a person than just a face,” says Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer, chairman of the Greek and Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Beauty was considered an excellence, like honesty or bravery. Physical beauty was important, but it had to be coupled with goodness of spirit as well.”
In a very old ode Plato tells us the three wishes of every Greek: toSee BEAUTY, Page 14 be healty, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two dieties of physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.
“The secret to beauty, by Greek standards, was in the harmonious proportions of facial features,” says American University art historian and painter Carol Ravenal “There was both a rational as well as mystical appeal. Mathematics was the key to form.”
The Greeks had devised a science of physiognomy, according to John Scarborough, professor of classics and history of medicine at th University of Wisconsin. The science was so highly developed that the Greeks ` “even read a person’s character from physical features.”
Plato saw the structure of the human body and face as a system of triads. For Greek mathematicians, the number 3 had special significance. The perfect face was divided into three sections: from hairline to eyes, from eyes to upper lip, and from upper lip to chin. The ideal face was two thirds as wide as it was high.
Centuries later observers also looked for the elusive mathematical formula to define beauty. In the 18th century, art teacher Antoine Mengs scrutinized Greek statues and devised a complicated formula to duplicate a face beautiful by Greek standards. He determined the size of the eyes, the space between them, where the hairline should start on the brow, and the precise distance from the tip of the nose to the lips.
But when Johann Winckelmann, one of the first historians to examine ideals of beauty, looked for “perfect” beauty in Greek art, he concluded that it was difficult to find-if, indeed, it existed at all. “If,” he said, “it was absolutely clear what true beauty is, then men wouldn’t differ so much in their opinions.”
Certain characteristics, according to Winckelmann, were recognized by the Greeks as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead; a low forhead for the look of youth; and perfect eyebrows, called “eyebrows of grace,” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose-“a feature,” says art historian von Bothmer, “which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today.”
The mouth admired by the Greeks was similar to the current fashion: naturally reddish, the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, was unmarked by any dimple. These weren’t considered appealing for centuries to come.
The most important criterion for beauty was the hair. Blond hair, the color of flax, was considered the loveliest, so it is not by coincidence that many Greek gods are portrayed as blond. Women’s hair was worn simply, combed and parted above the brow, gathered at the back of the head and twisted with ribbons into a high top knot.
To achieve the desired look, Greek women used makeup, including powder, rouge made from a root imported from Syria, black and red pencils and perfume, all applied before a shiny metal disc that reflected their faces. And, to hide unwanted signs of aging, Greek women camaflouged their wrinkles with white lead and tinted their hair to cover gray.
The use of makeup, though, was limited to the hetaera, or courtesans, because beauty wasn’t considered important for the Greek housewife. As the orator Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.”
But being beautiful did not always mean being nice. Phyrne, a young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles and model for some of his most beautiful works, had a particularly nasty way of showing off her advantages of youth. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, she called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, had to wash their faces, too. Phyrne, young and naturally beautiful, looked none the worse, but her older companions spent an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.
The Romans took up where the Greeks left off. In the first century, the Roman poet Ovid wrote the first manual of beauty advice. The science of makeup was well known in the ancient world. According to historian Scarborough, women of the upper classes followed Ovid’s recommendations and prepared their cosmetics according to his formulas. Women tinted their hair if it became gray, smeared wrinkled skin with wax to make it look smoother, and replaced missing eyebrows with ones made of fur. Renaissance and Rotting Teeth
Beautiful women of the Middle Ages-from the 13th to 15th century-were found in the legends of King Arthur and the poems of Chaucer. The standards of beauty were very specific. Hair should be blond and fine like gold wire, and if nature didn’t provide the proper color, it could be produced by dyes imported from the East. “And,” says Christian Zacher, professor of medieval literature at Ohio State University, “gray eyes were prized above everything else.”
The concept of feminine beauty entered a new era with the the 15th-century Italian Renaissance. Botticelli, Leonardo and Raphael painted a procession of marvelously varied faces yet all are united by a certain serious beauty. “Boicelli’s Madonnas are lovely,” says art historian Ravenal, “because they appear delicate and destructable.” Leonardo’s paintings of the Virgin show a woman who is beautiful not because her features are perfect in the Greek sense but because her face conveys a sense of mystery combined with maternal tenderness.
Raphael’s standard of beauty shaped the work of artists for centuries. “His image of beauty is exquisite,” says Ravenal. “It’s not threatening. While less monumental than the Greeks, it’s still harmonic. Raphael understood the feminine psyche.”
A spirit of the scientific inquiry permeated Renaissance activity. Artists like Leonardo and Albrecht Durer investigated facial proportions but, says Barbara Brown, curator of Southern Baroque art at the National Gallery, “they were looking for a guide to drawing rather than a canon of beauty.” Others in this era, however, did try to come up with a formula. A 16th-century Italian writer, Firenznola, defined the ideal face down to the smallest detail, even identifying variations of color in the whorls of the ear.
In England, the elegant women of the 16th century had their own ideal of beauty, the never-married Queen Elizabeth I. They mimicked her hair (dyed), eyebrows (plucked) and facial beauty (aided by thick layers of cosmetics). Lotions, potions, ointments and creams were sold at fairs and brewed at home.
One popular cosmetic of the day was Venetian ceruse, a substance made of white lead which helped women achieve the ghostly white pallor so sought after by Elizabethans. Bathing became acceptable, and “Water to make women beautiful forever” was one sales pitch of the day. Unfortunately, many cosmetic potions of the day were not as innocent as water. One “brand name” lotion of the 16th century, “Solomon’s Water,” was made of sublimate of mercury and guaranteed to eliminate all spots, freckles and warts from the face. It did. But in the process it also removed most of the outer layer of skin.
In the Elizabethan era, women began to realize that rotting teeth were unattractive, so they concocted tooth powders of honey and sugar or crushed bones and fruit peel to smear on their bad teeth. If all else failed, they resorted to the familiar trick of the day-keeping their mouths closed.
The 1600s were a time when the beauty publishing industry gained momentum with books such as Sir Huplats’ “Delights for Ladies,” a how-to for making cosmetics at home, cleaning teeth and coloring hair. One piece of advice from Huplats: If your hair fell out after dying it with sulfuric acid, wear a wig. Rubens: Big is Beautiful
The women painted by Peter Paul Rubens in the 16th century would hardly be thought of as today’s ideal. They were pale but with rosy flesh tones, and their cheeks and chins were resplendantly plump. So were his bodies, with rounded thighs and swelling busts. Rubens infused his subjects with the warmth he experienced in his personal life. His long first marriage was happy, ending only with his wife’s death. Four years later, at the age of 53, he married 16-year-old Helene Fourment, whose face appeared many times in the paintings made during the rest of his life.
Class, in economic and political terms, became a factor in beauty. According to Jean Liebault, a 16th-century Parisian doctor, The faces of ideal women should be pale, because unattractively tanned skin was associated with country women who had to work outdoors. Cheeks should be soft and pink and dimpled like children’s, and best of all was the asset of having a double chin. Red hair was out, eyes should be big, ears small, and teeth present.
But not everyone agreed. Liebault’s wife had her own point of view on her husband’s notion’s of beauty, which she expressed in a book called “The Miseries of the Married Women.”
By the end of the 17th century many women were still concocting herbal creams using traditional recipes or experimenting with their own rather unusal ingredients. Dung, minced veal and goat hair were mixed with lemon juice or milk. If an improved complexion didn’t result after applying these remedies, women would hide their faces behind masks of black velvet or silk stiffened with leather.
And yet there was a price to pay for being beautiful. A famous woman of the time, the London socialite Maria Gunning, was said to have died from her makeup. After years of whitening her skin with Venetian ceruse, she was eventually poisened by her cosmetic’s active ingredient: lead.
By the late 18th century, cries revolution was in the political winds of Europe and America. Individualism and personal liberty were the rallying cries of the day. In art, “faces became important,” says Ellen G. Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. “Features used to be less important. Now there was a real interest in the subject rather than the painting’s historical or allegorical context.” Victorians and the Double Standard
One London author, Alexander Walker, considered definitions of beauty in his 1836 book “Beauty: An Analysis and Classification.” He indentified the need for asymmetry, saying that it is “the first character of beauty in thinking beings. An occasional irregularity makes us better appreciate symmetry.”
Victorian women had to live with the double message, to hold your man by being “seductive and innocent at the same time,” says Valerie Steele, author of “Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age” (Oxford University Press, 1985).
In a sense, the Victorians inherited all of the earlier western beliefs bout feminine beauty from the Greek myth of Aphrodite, which associates beauty with love or sexual desire, and from the negative myth of Pandora, in which beauty is equated with evil. On one hand, Victorians were anxious to enhance their beauty with cosmetics but were hesitant to do so because makeup was associated with prostitutes. In addition, they were aware by this time of the dangers lead and arsenic contained in some preparations.
As a result, there was much debate over does she or doesn’t she wear makeup. Lois Banner, in “American Beauty” (University of Chicago Press, 1984), says that even friends and associates could not always tell whether a woman was using cosmeitcs. Mrs. William Seaton of Washington, wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer, wrote to a friend in 1816 that the “belles of Washington spoke of using rouge and pearl powder” with great familiarity. Yet, although Dolly Madison was supposed to use rouge, Mrs. Seaton absolutely did not believe the rumors because, she said, “as I am well assured I saw her color come and go at the Naval Ball.”
To achieve a beautiful look, without benefit of externally applied cosmetics, some women drank vinegar or ate chalk or even arsenic-hardly what today’s doctor would recommend. But at that time, physicians would prescribe Fowler’s solution, an arsenic-based medication, to help get rid of acne. Applied directly to the face, it produced a translucent skin tone and became so popular that women used it regularly as a face cream. The drawback was that arsenic eventually was absorbed by the body through the skin just like the white lead in ceruse had been centuries before.
A forerunner of today’s punk look was the rebellious 19th-century artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who painted women a far cry from the Victorian ideal but whose looks gained some popularity. Rosetti, himself a rather promiscuous and poetic man, chose to paint neurotic, depraved women whose faces, surrounded by long, wild red hair, showed a pained, remote beauty. His favorite model, Elizabeth Siddal, was tortured by his infidelities, and this lonely creature, with a brooding full-lipped sensuous face, was found dead at a young age from an overdose of laudanum, a type of opium.
In pre-World War I times, full faces and voluptuous bodies were favored traits that were associated with good health and beauty. Actress Lillian Russell fit the bill perfectly. A star of the musical comedy stage in New York, Russell had blond hair, luminous white skin and soft dimpled cheeks, not unlike a doll’s face. She was described as “a golden-haired goddess with big rounded cheeks.” For several generations of American women, Russell was the epitome of feminine beauty. If a woman made a slighting remark about another, the retort would be, “You’re no Lillian Russell yourself.”
The other face that captured the public, especially in England, was that of actress Lilly Langtry, who modeled for artist James McNeil Whistler. “She had a pure Greek profile,” Oscar Wilde said of Langtry. Yet despite her reputation as ngland’s most beautiful woman, many Americans did ot find her attractive. She was a large woman with a muscular body, and even though she had an extremely fair complexion, her large nose and large lips were not considered particularly beautiful by the American public. The Modern Face
World War I was, in many respects, the dividing line between the Victorian age and the modern era. Tastes in clothing fashion changed as did tastes in women’s faces. The corset was put in the attic and the modern woman openly made up and had her hair bobbed. It was an era when the women won the right to vote and were even critized for leaving their faces in a “raw state” without benefit of cosmetics. Marlene Dietrich-with plucked brows, etched red lips and rouge painted beneath the cheek-bone rather than on it-typified the elegant face.
During the 1920s the charming childish “flapper” look-characterized by a small, pursed mouth, round face, and obligatory short waved hairdo-was replaced in the public’s imagination by the face of Greta Garbo. “She changed everyone’s way of thinking about what was attractive.” says Kobal. “No longer was beauty amorphous.” Strength now became an ingredient in the formula for a beautiful face.
From the 1950s, the face that became an icon of American beauty was that of Marilyn Monroe. Surrounding her soft, open, vulnerable face was a frame of peroxided hair. A color traditionally associated with angels and virtuous women, it heightened her raw sensuality and legitimized it as well. Women of all ages chose to bleach their hair, too, and obtain exact copies of her bright red lipstick made by companies such as Max Factor, creator of “makeup for the stars.” According to Kobel, the cosmetics she used “were applied so cleverly to take away what wasn’t quite right with her face.”
“In her lifetime,” said Steinem, who has recently published a new book on Monroe, “Marilyn” (Henry Holt, 1986), “she was not equally appealing to men and women. With its promise of sexual reward, admiring her face and body was a masculine pheonomenon. But now, after her death, the challenge is gone and women can feel more emphathetic towards her.”
Just as the perception of Monroe has changed, so has the role of women and the concept of beauty. Perhaps the most telling example of how much the ideal beauty has evolved begins in the last century with Sir Francis Galton. He constructed a model of beauty by superimposing hundreds of pretty faces and decided that the composite was the ideal face of the time-one with regular, average features. The ugly face, by contrast, was “full of surprises.”
A face “full of surprises” not beautiful?
“Unfair, untrue, absurd!” says Kobal today. “Look at the faces of Gloria Swanson and Georgia O’Keefe. A nose or mouth of a different turn is often what’s needed to capture our interest and our heart. It’s the hybrid that we find truly captivating.”