While we’ve never received an RP pitch for a Barbie post (*ahem* get cracking) we have, over the years, featured many amazing and insightful posts on beauty standards, cosmetics, makeup regimes, and the art of gender. Our authors have shown decisively that beauty standards have changed over time, and that while these beauty rules often encourage people to enact idealised versions of femininity and masculinity, individual people — the women and men who populated the past — have interpreted, adopted, furthered, and rejected these standards in their own individual ways.
But the post that spoke to me most strongly was this one, written byDaisy Payling in 2019: “Beauty and the Beaumont Magazine: Transgender Make-Up.” Payling blends insights from Trans activists, such as Charlie Craggs, with sources from the past that illuminate the lives, struggles, and triumphs of Trans women and men. In particular Payling focused on the Beaumont Society, the longest running support organisation for the Transgender community, and the past issues of the society’s publication, The Beaumont Magazine. The post shows how organisations and publications like these could be a helpful source of advice, while also offering senses of community, care, and support to members and readers.
This brings us to this vintage 1966 advertisement for “Hair Fair” Barbie.
The quote that Payling uses to open her piece, from Charlie Craggs herself, speaks provocatively to the ad for “Hair Fair” Barbie, above. Craggs talks about makeup as a crucial tool, a powerful mechanism by which to shape identity and self-presentation. It is something to be respected, celebrated, and treated with care. This is something that comes across clearly in “Hair Fair” Barbie, whose close-cropped head can be covered with any number of elaborate wigs. Appearing in 1966, in the midst of the second wave, this advertising campaign celebrates beauty choice and variety. Changing this Barbie’s hair, the ad says, is just as deliberate, desirable, and possible as changing her clothes.
Of course the ad has its limitations, many of which are serious. Everyone in the spot is white, from dolls to humans. Nearly everyone is blonde. There aren’t any boys playing with Barbie. And this Barbie’s look is stereotypically and traditionally feminine, all skirts and dresses — although she does sport a pretty groovy pair of tights around 0:22.
So while we should be cautious about celebrating “Hair Fair” Barbie uncritically, she does have one thing in common with Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the iconic woman-who-does-it-all: she owns her sense of style. The tools of fashion, which can include makeup, hair styles, accessories, clothing, and anything else that we use to decorate, shape, and adorn our bodies, all have, as Payling suggests, “a transformative power.” How we own those transformations is up to us.
In the Fall of 2020, newreports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.
While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.
One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:
Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.
Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.” Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.
It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.” Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.
 “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” TheLancet (29 October 1904): 1230.
Early twentieth-century vernacular literature aimed at elite and middle-class Indian women was full of contradictions in authors’ attempts to mediate conflicting colonial modernities in the pursuit of personal care, beauty, and health. During the interwar period, middle-class consumers could choose from a barrage of foreign and local products, albeit on tight budgets and alongside concerns of domestic economy (as espoused by social reformers). In domestic literature as well as advertising, the use of bazaar-bought branded products and homemade chemical concoctions were proffered as desirable resources and products, but also revealed the potential for dangerous artifice and excess. In these same domestic manuals and women’s periodicals, a plethora of methods were identified for natural beatification and aesthetic health including exercise, diet, and domestic remedies which were perceived as “natural” by virtue of being homemade. However, these concoctions, from cold and toning creams to soap, involved purchasing chemicals and ingredients not usually found in the Indian kitchen.
Vernacular texts simultaneously elaborated on the superiority of indigenous systems and practices, including Ayurvedic (Vedic-based medical system) and Unani Tibb (of Greco-Arabic origins) recipes and prescriptions (or nukshas), reviving and adapting these older practices by including select chemicals and Western concoctions. In Hifz-i-Sihhat (Preservation of Health), an Urdu-language manual written by the Begam of Bhopal Sultan Jahan and published in 1916, the chosen format for nukshas was to print English chemical names in brackets and offer an Urdu transliteration.[i] In other manuals, too, English functioned as a corroboration for the superior nature of chemicals, construing them as scientific. In a 1944 Bengali-language Narir Rupa-Sadhana o Vyayama (The Pursuit of Beauty and Physical Exercise for Women), for instance, author Latika Basu shared technical recipes containing numerous chemicals such as hydragyri cholor corrosive, ammoni chloridi purificati, and mist arneygdalae amar. Basu embraced the bazaar alongside chemicals purchased from dispensaries and cooked up in the kitchen and courtyard of the Indian home as connected epistemological spaces in which to attain ideal beauty and health.[ii]
Ready-made and branded products also came with their own contentions. Susie Sorabji, writing for the Madras-based The Indian Ladies Magazine (1901-1938), criticised the use of “paint and powder,” by arguing that English products were incompatible with the Indian locale and environment, reminiscent of nineteenth-century evaluations of western medicine in India.[iii] Instead, she advised that women should “keep the hair, that glory of a woman, intact, and dress as simply as possible.”[iv] This advice departed from that of the Urdu-language Ismat magazine (1908-1993), in which a housekeeping/house management column called Khaanadari, comprising nukshas, domestic notes, and sections on health and comportment, first appeared in 1932. The author, Mohammad Zafar, offered advice for bodily beauty including exercise, nutritional advice, seasonal adornment, tips for soap and cosmetic use, and step-by-step guides for maintaining “rang aur roop” [colour and glow].[v] Zafar’s approach, in contrast to Sorabji’s, focused on the careful selection and use of products— adornment was a delicate thing [singaari ek nazuk cheez hai] and “cosmetic goods needed to be selected with caution.”[vi] The Khaanadari column also routinely offered advice on altering skin colour, coded as making skin colour [rang] beautiful [khoobsurat], correcting the colour that was pale [zard]— read unhealthy and sickly—or purchasing prepared “rang cream” from shops.[vii]
A decade later, by the late 1940s, Zafar’s position moved closer to Sorabji’s. In a 1948 column (now published from Karachi in the newly-formed Pakistan), he delineated a difference between khoobsurati and husn (both broadly mean beautiful). He prioritised the cultivation of khoobsurati, as general beauty that encompassed inner beauty (“one always has it”) and health, over the pursuit of husn, a beauty that garnered praise, attraction, and “affects another person”.[viii] He also claimed that adornment had become a sort of purdah (female segregation) or niqab (a garment that covered the body and face), warning that bad cosmetics could ruin your face.[ix] The purdah analogy revealed Zafar’s anxiety that cosmetics were being used as superficial masks rather than as resources in the cultivation of natural beauty: a template for ideal modern middle-class womanhood. Yet, despite this late rejection of cosmetics and overt beautification, most popular literature of the late colonial period drew on and adapted intergenerational oral cultures and substances, naturalised chemicals through “cooking” them at home, and borrowed from multiple repositories of transnationally-circulated printed methodologies to transform homemade chemical concoctions into natural, authentic, trustworthy products.
[i] Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal, Hifz-i-Sihhat (Bhopal: Sultania Press, 1916).
In the 1910s, a curious print culture phenomenon appeared in China’s urban areas. Journals such as the Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) and Women’s World (Nüzi shijie) began to run columns and articles that provided recipes for manufacturing soap, hair tonic, perfume, and rouge at home.[i] They often explained the chemistry behind the manufacturing process and promoted the use of modern lab equipment and glassware to produce the desired items. The pieces deemed their detailed technical manufacturing information as highly appropriate for genteel women to apply in their inner chambers.
A typical example of the gendered portrayal of domestic manufacturing in these publications can be found in the piece titled, “An Exquisite Method for Manufacturing Hair Oil,” that appeared in first run of the Women’s World (1914–1915) column, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” (hereafter, “The Warehouse”), and its companion piece that appeared in the February issue. As the editor noted in the February entry, the first article had elicited much interest and a woman reader by the name of Mme. Xi Meng had already sent in a request for more tips (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 3). The February issue included a recipe for hair tonic, which listed its ingredients in both Chinese and Latin:[ii]
純粹硫酸 Acidum Sulphruicum [sic]
檸檬油 Oleum Limonis
玫瑰精 Spiritus Rosae
橙花水 Aqua Aurantii Florum
丁香油 Nelkeuöl [sic]
肉桂油 Oleum Cinnamomi
橙皮油 Oleum Aurantii Corticis
白檀油 Oleum Santali
(Chen Diexian 1915, vol. 2 [February], 4)
Many of the items could be purchased in Shanghai’s pharmacies, but since spiritus rosae was particularly expensive, the editor wanted to make its recipe readily available. The recipe instructed:
Extract the fragrance of fresh flowers, and attach it onto something solid, so that it lasts and does not disappear. There are many ways of doing this. One can use a method for suction; the method for squeezing, the method for steaming, the method for soaking. None of these are as ideal as the method for absorption. To make spiritus rosae, use the method for absorption (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 6).
What followed was a highly detailed and technical description of how to achieve this method at home. The tools, instruments, and materials needed include bottles, tubes, alcohol burners, hydraulic acid [sic], and no less than five pounds of marble.
China had a long history of manufacturing cosmetics at home. The knowledge behind this domestic production tended not to be written in recipes, but was embodied and passed down from generation to generation. Domestic producers would thus not have been likely consumers of these printed recipes.
As urban consumption of makeup and toiletry items grew in the 1910s, manufacturing such items at home would also seem less pressing. To understand why these pieces appeared when they did — and who was consuming them and why, it is worthwhile to consider what was unprecedented about them.
Appearing in China’s burgeoning mass media, new-style columns like “The Warehouse” made certain skills public, presented them in new terms for new purposes, and made them readily available for a far greater reading and practicing audience than ever before. The new epistemological frame within which the knowledge was presented (chemistry and physics) and the material accoutrement (lab equipment and modern glassware) stipulated as necessary also attracted readers.
The application of these recipes would have required considerable investment in resources and time. Chemistry knowledge was necessary and some called for considerable lab equipment. The instructions to manufacture the spiritus rosae ingredient for hair oil, for example, listed the following items as necessary:
Given the nascent state of China’s glassware industry, chemical apparatuses were often imports and available for purchase at a cost at exclusive scientific-appliance stores such as Shanghai’s China Educational Supply Association. Once producers procured the ingredients and equipment, they then had to follow detailed instructions.
To achieve the method of absorption, practitioners were instructed to drill holes into stoppers that were to plug the glass bottles; the holes had to be large enough for a glass tube and funnel to be inserted; the glass tube then had to be bent. Instructions on how exactly to use an alcohol burner to heat the glass and mold it to the appropriate shape were provided.
While genteel women were the supposed readers of these recipes (and those with the curiosity, means and knowledge to apply these recipes could have done so), participants in the reading community of these recipes included men. Male consumers of these pieces included connoisseurs of technology, dabblers in chemistry, young students and budding industrialists.
It was far from automatic for the well-educated, male or female, to turn toward production and manufacturing as the literati had long felt a severe distaste for hands-on engagement with things for subsistence or commercial purposes. Yet, by 1915, there was a growing sense that this was necessary. The persistence of internecine warfare and imperialist aggression dashed the initial hopes of the 1911 republican revolution. With the chaos of republican politics threatening national strength many of China’s lettered men and women started to explore new regimes of knowledge and experiment with new social and occupational roles, including those of the once taboo realms of industry, manufacturing and commerce.
It was in this context that these recipes helped cleanse the hands-on work in industry and manufacturing of its negative connotations. These “how-to” pieces became sites where experiential engagement with chemistry and manufacturing was promoted as crucial in strengthening China, as well as a sign of good taste and bearing. They became part of the arsenal of strategies available for readers navigating their new cosmopolitan identities in a post-civil-service-examination arena of urban playgrounds and industrial centres. By appreciating these pieces with a sense of refined curiosity or in a posture of playful leisure, readers could define their sense of exclusivity based on notions of production that were tasteful and authentic in terms of their scientific, domestic, and noncommercial nature.
The domestic realm as a site of production also served as a metaphor for the larger marketplace in treaty ports that existed beyond the reach of the state. There, scientific, commercial, and manufacturing knowledge increasingly displaced moral knowledge and statecraft as the preferred epistemological foundations for a competitive nation.
Just a few years later, a strong reaction rose against presenting chemical experimentation and manufacturing as a dilettantish endeavor appropriate for genteel women. With the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Sai Xiansheng, or “Mr. Science,” would emerge as part of the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” and science was, along with democracy, promoted as the foundation of a powerful nation. The portrait of the genteel woman engaging in leisurely production of cosmetics at home became emblematic of a “traditional” culture that had long fettered China’s modernization.
These recipes have been long overlooked by historians as insignificant as a result. Yet, they deserve to be reconsidered. Though they vanished quickly from the pages of China’s urban periodicals, they were historically significant. They were indicative of a period before science and manufacturing had been formalized in China and when efforts to learn and do industrial production was “vernacular,” occurring in ad hoc, informal and curious places (Lean 2020).
[i] Articles in the Ladies’ Journal include Ling Ruizhu, “A brief explanation of the methods to make cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.1 (Jan 1915): 15-18; Hui Xia, “Method for Making Rouge,” Funü zazhi 1.3 (March 1915): 15-16; Shen Ruiqing, “Method for Manufacturing Cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.5 (May 1915): 18-25. In 1915, Women’s World featured a new column from January to May, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” that ran recipes and instruction on manufacturing cosmetics every month.
[ii] These ingredients are better known as sulfuric acid, oil of lemon, the essence of roses (i.e., the scent of roses), borax or hydrated sodium borate, orange flower water, alcohol, oil of cloves, oil of cinnamon, oil of orange peel, and sugar alcohol, rice starch and oil of sandal wood. A couple of ingredients are not listed in Latin. Glycerin is English and Nelkeuöl, which is misspelled in the article, and should be spelled Nelkenöl, is the German word for oil of cloves. The first ingredient, sulfuric acid, is also glossed and spelled incorrectly as “Acidum Sulphruicum.” The foreign-language rendering of several of the ingredients helped establish that sense of cosmopolitanism. Yet, mistakes were present and speak to the complex nature of the translation process and the diverse linguistic circuits these recipes traversed.
Lean, Eugenia. Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.