What makes a woman beautiful? Society’s answer changed significantly between 1870 and 1970. For better or worse, our appearance communicates something to the people around us. As cultural attitudes and codes of morality changed, so did the standards of beauty. The tools, products and techniques that were utilized to create the ideal look tell the stories of women’s daily lives, cultural attitudes about gender and race, and the empowerment of women.
“Beautiful: The Changing Faces of Beauty and Cosmetics, 1870-1970,” the new exhibit now installed at the Montgomery Museum of Art & History, explores these concepts through an array of historic cosmetics and beauty aids.
One issue the exhibit explores is the economic importance of the beauty industry for women. A display of rarely seen artifacts on loan from Christiansburg Institute Inc. tells the story of the young women at the institute who took cosmetology as part of their vocational training. Their coursework could provide a means to a viable career.
Further illustrating the story of beauty attitudes and techniques are advertisements, hair care equipment and accessories, period photographs and cosmetics packages.
From the influence of the moving picture industry to the idea of women exhibiting their patriotism through their red lipstick, the exhibit raises the question: was the rise in cosmetics empowering to women or did it exacerbate the attitude that a woman’s value was only in her appearance?