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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Politics of Beauty

The 1920s were a time of significant upheaval the world over; World War I disrupted daily life, gender roles, and economics. While some countries adapted more readily to the new social climate, British society worked hard to re-establish Victorianism as a national identity. This meant pushing British women from the workplace back into the home and attempting to control the aesthetics of what a desirable and proper British woman could be.

The major media push shifted from celebrating women doing their duty for the nation by taking on factory jobs to celebrating them for returning to their kitchens to care for their children and menfolk at the end of the war. Take this cocoa ad, for example: between January and March of 1919, the British woman moves from manual laborer to doting wife and mother.

Alongside the mainstream media preference for housebound homemaker, though, a culture surrounding beauty and femininity sprouted up. Makeup became a necessity for the vast majority of women, rather than for just the very wealthy or the prostitute. A slim body became the expectation, and women took a new interest exercise and outdoor activity. Keeping yourself beautiful and polished became a duty rather than an expression of vanity. This shifted expectation was another way of reminding women what their place was: the pretty, feminine, heterosexual ideal.

In this climate, fashion became politicized, most notably in this question: to bob, or not to bob?

Long hair was the standard for much of modern British history. However, the 1920s witnessed the rise of the bob, the now-ubiquitous chin-or-higher length haircut. The introduction of this cut in the early part of the decade caused a flurry of controversy; the bob was immediately associated with flappers, and flappers were associated with the sexually uninhibited. Women’s magazines, which also rose to prominence during this decade, ran constant stories on whether the bob should be attempted, and employers would think twice before hiring a woman with the style. To bob was to mark yourself as a Modern Woman, a positive figure for us and for those who embraced it at the time, but an anti-Victorian troublemaker for a society invested in keeping women home and accounted for.

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