Skin Deep

American Beauty

by Lois W. Banner
Knopf, 369 pp., $20.00

Skin to Skin: Eroticism in Dress

by Prudence Glynn
Oxford University Press, 157 pp., $19.95

What is Beauty? The question has been debated on every level from the highest and most philosophical to the lowest and most pornographic, with opponents sometimes coming to blows over the rival charms of their ideal or real mistresses. Is She (for Beauty is traditionally female) a Platonic idea or a passing fancy? And, if corporeal, is she deliciously svelte, desirably stout, or divinely strong?

From the commercial point of view, we know, it is unimportant how Beauty is defined. What matters is, first, that the current definition with its hidden terms and imperatives should be universally accepted. (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who Have More Fun: if you are not a blonde, you will have less fun, and you will not be preferred by gentlemen; or—possibly worse—the men who prefer you will not be gentlemen.) Second, beauty should seem difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain. And finally, its pursuit should involve the greatest possible expenditure. For maximum profitability, fashion must be as artificial as possible, as tyrannical as possible, and as conventional as possible. Any falling-off from this standard reduces profits for someone. If I am perfectly content with medium-brown straight hair and comfortable old clothes, I am a danger not only to manufacturers of cosmetics and clothing but to newspapers, magazines, and television, all of which depend for their survival on advertising.

The most desirable mental state for a potential consumer, as Betty Friedan first pointed out, is a kind of free-floating anxiety and depression, combined with a nice collection of unrealistic goals and desires. To promote this frame of mind, advertisements announce that “you can be beautiful” and depict women of an inhuman, air-brushed perfection of face and figure on Caribbean beaches and in expensive restaurants and large shiny cars, being admired by large shiny men. The undeclared terms of the argument are: “If you were beautiful, you would live like this,” and “You are not beautiful now.”

For anyone who is feeling depressed about his or her appearance, Lois Banner’s American Beauty is an excellent antidote. This detailed history of the changing standards of beauty from about 1830 to 1950 (with a glance at more recent developments) records the tremendous efforts that have gone into promoting the current style of looks over the years. It also—like Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (not mentioned, but obviously a precursor)—proves that almost all of us would have been considered devastating if we had had the luck to be born at the right time and place.

Though American Beauty does not, as its jacket claims, cover two centuries “of the American idea, ideal, and image of the beautiful woman,” in most other ways it performs far more than it promises. Lois Banner’s approach to her subject, as befits the work of a serious social historian, is exhaustive. She is interested in fashions in personality, manners, and morals as well as in appearance. She has studied not only the history of dress and …

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