Monday, April 9, 2012

Victorian-Era Beauty Advertisements: Part One

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at The Johnston Collection (which includes the wonderful Fairhall House museum) last week on beauty in Victorian girls' and women's magazines. I chose magazines in particular because the second half of the nineteenth century was a time in which more people became literate, more magazines were able to be published more affordably, and technological improvements meant illustrations and fashion plates became commonplace. Magazines were the dominant media form, especially as books remained relatively expensive. Not only were women specifically targeted as readers in the nineteenth century, but they were also newly imagined as consumers. The arrival of the the department store, a concept borrowed from France, transformed how items for the self and the home were bought, with their extensive ranges of branded goods arranged in lavish displays designed to be browsed. The illustration above of a woman selecting from a choice of hats from Myra's Journal of Dress and Fashion (Sept. 1885) is one of many depictions of women in the act of shopping that showed its new-found importance to femininity.

Most magazines became heavily dependent on advertising. Even quality publications like The Queen (which became Harper's and Queen) placed ads on almost half of its pages by the mid-1880s. While people complain about ads taking up column inches and screen space today, the strong presence of advertising in the print media is not new. For girls' and women's magazines, the ads that were included were often for products that promised to improve the reader's appearance, with corsets, skin creams and hair products featuring regularly.

Cosmetics, however, had a bad name for encouraging artifice and deception. Charlotte Yonge, the editor of the Anglican girls' magazine The Monthly Packet and author of popular books such as The Daisy Chain opposed cosmetics as a form of lie: "All attempts to pretend to beauties that we do not possess are clearly falsehood, and therefore wrong." Young women in particular were warned away from cosmetics because they were considered more vulnerable to potential damage to their "moral character" because of their sexual associations.

Cosmetics were therefore not commonly advertised but products that would purportedly improve the skin by removing freckles, tans, redness and roughness were promoted because they did not transgress beliefs about "natural" beauty being superior than artificial aids. This ad for Beetham's Glycerine and Cucumber from Woman (11 April 1894) promises to give the user soft, smooth and white skin that "blooms".

Along with facial creams, hair products also promised natural improvements to a woman's beauty. Koko for the hair, for instance, is described as a "hair food" that promises to do everything from preventing greyness to eradicating dandruff, but it was not only the hair that benefitted from treatment, as the ad suggests that Koko also stimulated the brain. After brushing with Koko readers are directed to look into a mirror to see the increased "brilliancy" in their eyes, which suggests a benefit to health and well-being, not only appearance.

In the lecture I showed a contemporary Maybelline magazine ad featuring the company's familiar slogan "Maybe She's Born With It. Maybe It's Maybelline" to show the continuation of these ideas about natural beauty (or at least cultivating the appearance of natural beauty) in advertising. It's a real conundrum that women are encouraged to desire products that will "improve" their looks, but they ought to be working to make it seem as if they were "born with" their cosmetically enchanced charms. The many contradictions surrounding women's beauty in Victorian magazines seemed to strike the audience at the lecture as none too dissimilar from those we see in the popular media today. And nowhere are these resonances more obvious than in early advertisements for weight loss, such as Trilene tablets, which promised to "cure corpulency permanently". With that degree of effectiveness, how surprising that they're not still in manufacture.


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