The Modern History of ‘Beautiful’

January 28th, 2019

One word, three syllables and centuries of history – there’s a lot behind ‘beautiful’. It’s fascinating that it can have such an impact on how someone is perceived, but that what defines it can shift so frequently. It’s our changing attitudes that are to thank for that, but it’s that very indecisiveness which has lead to so much welcomed variety in the fashion industry.

This fascinated us, which led to a happy few days in the office as we researched and wrote about the ever-changing idea of beauty, focusing on the who and the why behind each decades version of ‘beautiful’. Let’s dive in.

1920s – The Roaring Twenties

In the early 1900s, weight was seen as a sign of status – after all, if you could afford to eat a lot, surely that meant you had money. This led to things such as the Fat Men’s Clubs, where a weight of over 200 pounds was needed to join. This was a stark contrast to the usual idea that a slim figure equals fertility, which was the common idea of beauty before (and somewhat after) this. By the 1920s, tastes had become tailored to those thinner, although not near the level of the 1990s.

Image result for 1920s fashion

In terms of icons, the movie scene was just hitting its stride this decade, which makes Greta Garbo one of the earliest in a long line of silver screen sweet hearts. Her piercing eyes said more than she ever could – especially since a lot of her films were silent!

1930s – The Turbulent Thirties

With the explosion of Hollywood, the ideal image of a man or woman was soon much easier to identify as audiences were being told what the sexiest and coolest characters looked like. This is where a peculiar side effect of cameras at the time had a very real impact, as the lenses tended to make the actors look 20 pounds heavier than they were. This would mean that they’d have to look even leaner in real life, so even with an illusory 20 pounds added, they still looked slim.

An era not defined by one single beauty, many (and, importantly, we) say that Katharine Hepburn was the face that people most often associate with this period. Her sharp cheekbones were almost as disarming as the strong and independent personality which stood out in a field sometimes dominated by helpless damsels in distress.

1940/50s – The Flying Forties / Fabulous Fifties

We’re cheating a little here and combining the two, because the truth is there was little growth between the decades and the major changes happened gradually over the twenty years. Over this period, the movie industry moved to California from the much colder east coast, which saw movie characters in less clothing. This meant more toned bodies naturally became desired in the movies, since people were no longer going to be hidden behind layers. The hourglass figure also came back in style, testament to the healthier economy in places like America.

Within this timeframe, we were also gifted the person that probably first comes to mind when we talk about iconic beauties – Marilyn Monroe. Leading roles in films like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot which both released in the 50’s catapulted her into the public eye, where she remained until her death. She’s also responsible for the red lipstick becoming such a timeless look, still used frequently today.

1960s – The Swinging Sixties

Testament to the sometimes schizophrenic nature of beauty trends, hourglass figures were quickly out – replaced by thinner bodies and slimmer, longer legs. This was also important for men, as size now came with it connotations of power and confidence; tales were rife of people only being shortlisted for jobs if they were over 6 foot. For women, beehive hair styles and thicker false lashes had become all the rage, while London became the go-to place for fashion.

Image result for 1960s twiggy

This push from England’s capital was largely lead by Twiggy, who exploded onto the fashion scene at just the age of 16. Personifying the mod look, her rise wasn’t limited to England and later she became a hit on the international stage – her collaborations with pop phenom David Bowie definitely providing a helping hand.

1970s – The Disco Era

Longer, straighter hair became more revered in this decade. Make-up was also used less, with earthier foundation that provided a tan-like glow preferred to the thick eyelashes and eyebrows of earlier and later decades. Athletic bodies also became popular during this time – a trend which has been fairly consistent since.

Jeans and mini-skirts became popular, and we saw one of the first ‘must-have’ hair styles hit the scene, heralded by Farrah Fawcett. Encapsulating the athletic chic of the time, she was a “true Hollywood success story” as she transitioned from impressive high school athlete to star of major productions like Logan’s Run (1976) and The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-76).

1980s – Decade of Decadence

Taking the idealization of athletic bodies to a very obvious conclusion, work out videos became all the rage in the 1980s. This time was considered the peak of the sporty and gymnastic look, with almost every icon of the time blessed with legs that go for days – almost every icon, though. The eighties were also about individuality, which meant the fashion scene was blown wide open as everyone was trying to innovate in different ways. Sure, people found cultural success with the workout videos, but it’s in breaking the mould that people developed an almost post-modern approach to fashion that was quickly accepted by the masses.

Spearheading the sporty side of fashion expansion was Jane Fonda, who preferred heavy make-up with bright and bold colours to the more naked look of the 70s. On the other side were the rebels breaking free from some of these established standards, and few represented this like Madonna. Ricocheting between denim jackets and lacy corsets, she soon became as known for her fashion choices as she was for her musical releases.

1990s – The Naughty Nineties

Too old to be fashionable but too recent to be nostalgic, the nineties are held in a weird perpetuity for fans of fashion. For every leopard print item or pair of oversized denim dungarees that are condemned nowadays, we got genuine shifts that we can still see in the fashion industry today. One element of this was the smoky and earthy approach to make up, which is still a popular look today.

A movement which had a bit of a shorter life span was the ‘heroin chic’ look, embodied by only the second British model on this list – Kate Moss. She led the new wave of super-thin beauties on the cat walk, and alongside Kurt Cobain, introduced a shade of grunge into the popular fashion palette of the day.

2000s – The 2000s

This decade saw a fusion of styles from different countries and decades, and music subcultures began to have very identifiable looks to them. In the early 2000s, hip hop was prevalent which meant that sweat bands, snap backs and shutter shades were everywhere. Later in the decade, this turned to a more nostalgic, indie-focused look for men.

Films previously had a major influence on what was considered currently ‘in’, but it wasn’t until the 90s and 2000s that the smaller television screen started to guide popular fashion. The 1990s had ‘The Rachel’ haircut, made famous by Jennifer Aniston’s starring role in Friends, but the 2000s was more broadly by lead Sex and the City. Alongside the lead Sarah Jessica Parker, people like Britney Spears and Beyonce also helped dominate the fashion and music industries.

All of that means the people of 1939 will be fuming with how their predictions went.


So, what will our wrap up of the 2010s hold? If the past decades are anything to go by, it’s clear that the transition of beauty being more defined by sexuality as opposed to health will still be alive and well. With this comes the important caveat that character and personality have now become major factors in whether someone is seen as beautiful or not, which we certainly welcome.

Let us know how you would describe this decade in fashion using five words or less, and if you want a little help achieving some of your favourite looks from this article then head over to our contact us page!



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