1940’s Beauty: What Was it Like?

Ahhh yes, the 40’s… I have no problem admitting that I imagine myself writing this on a typewriter in the back room of a Humphrey Bogart movie, with 40’s swing music playing, wearing what all the other “dolls” were wearing. But what were all the doll faces wearing, and how was their hair kept, and what kind of makeup did they use? What was the standard of beauty during the 1940’s?

As a visual learner, the easiest way for me to grasp beauty standards in the 1940s was for me to Google it, and I learned a lot from my search. First, the majority of the women pictured were White women. There were only two pictures of Black women, both of which featured light-skinned Black women; I think to safe to say that the standard was primarily White. Next, I noticed that many of the women were wearing knee-length dresses. Although there are several pictures of women wearing pants, we can conclude that dresses were a part of the standard, and pants were only beginning to trend in women’s fashion. One of the most noticeable things about both the pants and dresses is the slim waistline. Shaped like a classic 1940’s Coca-Cola soda pop, the women had a delicate curve about them: slim at the waist, and proportional hips and legs. Their hair was straightened, except for the few curls that were intentionally created, and strategically placed.

So let’s review: White (or light skin) women, who are thin, and wear dresses, with straight hair. As a voluptuous, Black woman who thinks leggings are basically pants, and has curly, kinky hair, the beauty standard ruins my fantasy of looking like the other gals (but there is still an abundance of swing music and “pop” in my imagination.)

It would be unfair for me to claim that was the only standard of beauty during that time. This visual analysis does not account for the beauty standards in the minority culture and/or subcultures at the time. However, this is indicative of the mainstream culture, and many of these still exist today.

The Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists formed in 1974, worked tirelessly to deconstruct this White beauty standard: “the sanction in the black and white communities against Black women thinkers is comparatively much higher than for white women.” It was hard for Black women in the 40’s and 70’s to be taken seriously has intellects and activists because being smart equated to being ugly. Many women activists  today also face this problem. In order to combat these stereotypes, we must stop judging women based on archaic standards and start encouraging well-roundedness is personality, academics, and careers.

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