After the recent release—and subsequent backlash—of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, it seems only fitting to talk about beauty advertisements. While Dove’s sketches were criticized for purporting to question ideals of beauty while actually reinforcing a stereotypically thin, white, and blonde kind of beauty, they are redolent of a trend in advertising that has been around since the advent of fashion magazines in the late 19th century: beauty products are just that—beauty products, aimed to render one beautiful even as they create the very standard of beauty.
In the last few months I have spent a lot of time with 1920s & 30s issues of American Vogue, and one thing that stands out is the intersection between beauty product (or article of clothing, or a fashionable hat, or even a luxury car) and a sense of individuality, of interiority.
It’s the same message that fuels Dove’s beauty sketches: how you look—which of course can only be a product of using product—is dependent on/affects/mutually determines how you feel inside. And, vice versa, your beauty products ought to (in the language of advertisements) adequately express your interior identity as an exterior, on the body.
Take for example a Louis Philippe ad for Angelus Rouge Incarnate in the July 1, 1933 issue of Vogue. “Here’s that remarkable Make-up,” it begins, “That Actually Matches the Color of the Human Blood.” Blood, which is typically meant to stay inside the body, here needs to come to the surface—literally: the most natural rouge is one that appears entirely natural to the (inside of) the body, “that approximates the actual, pulsating color of human blood.” In other words, your rouge ought to look more alive that you are.
Artificiality is totally naturalized in this ad: by appearing to be like the most natural thing to the body—living blood—the rouge is actually more natural than the body it covers. Even though the language of the ad specifies that this rouge is absolutely not artificial, because it “provides a natural make-up free of artificiality,” it is in fact an artifice. But what’s important is that the artifice is one that feels natural, feels like a part of one’s natural identity.
(Louis Philippe’s rouge ads rely on this slogan for decades, with variations, indicative of an overall pattern of interiority/exteriority in beauty advertising).
In a rather different ad for lipstick, enter Guerlain’s minimalist ad from 1935. Although the whole written content of the ad is “Lipstick by Guerlain,” the ad is “saying” a lot about what lipstick does for one’s appearance: literally lipstick may cover your lips with an artificial substance, but metaphorically lipstick transforms your whole person.
These two ads—two of thousands—demonstrate the way beauty, both in the 1930s but also today, in pseudo-ads like Dove’s beauty sketches, is determined by those same advertisements. Paradoxically, both these two lipstick ads and Dove’s video emphasis naturalness in beauty, and the importance of existing in your own skin/body to appreciate your own beauty. At the same time, however, all of these rely on artifice—whether the rouge, the lipstick, the implicit Dove products, or the explicit mediation of women through another voice and through a constructed drawing—to render naturalness.
Most importantly, this “naturalness” can (and ought to, according to advertisements) be incorporated into an interior, individual sense of self. In the 1920s, Vogue ran an ad for Manuel’s wigs which displays the same woman, in the same dress, wearing three different wigs, with the word “TRANSFIGURED.” What is spectacular about this ad is not the way in which by wearing different wigs the woman actually does look radically different, but the expectation that these transformations will “induce in the wearer some inner mysterious soul change.”
Wearing a different wig—and for that matter, wearing any given product—will change your soul. Funny how this doesn’t sound all that strange couched in the pages of a fashion magazine, or in a vaguely melancholic YouTube video. This premise—that exterior beauty as it is rendered artificially determines your interior self—informs a great deal (if not all) of advertising’s rhetoric on beauty. And whether because we have been totally ingrained with the ideology of advertising, or because there really is something to be said about feeling great and/or feeling connected to a cohesive identity when you wear certain clothes, use certain products, or don certain accessories, in the end doesn’t matter.
As long as beauty is necessary for women’s success in society, as long as women are continued to be viewed as objects to be consumed (even if only visually), then advertising will revolve around these intersections between exteriority, artificiality, naturalness, and individual interiority, because ultimately, they appeal to women’s dual life: the need to appear a certain way to exist in society, and the desire to have a unique, purely interior self.