Teresa Riordan:

"Inventing Beauty" (Broadway Books, 2004)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
In most animal species the male displays spectacular cosmetic features that are probably meant to attract the attention of females. The human species is unique in that the opposite is true: men hardly comb their hair and shave their beard, whereas women undergo a lengthy and expensive process to transform themselves into very visible bodies. It is almost every single body part that is subjected to a process of "enhancement", from eyelashes to toenails. This has become an incredibly vast worldwide industry and has spawned an incredibly sophisticated technological revolution. Since the goal is to look "beautiful" (whatever the age's definition of "beautiful" might be), this ends up being as much an artistic endeavour as it is a marketing endeavour. Women turn their bodies into works of art. Even the invisible parts are supposed to be wrapped in carefully designed garments such as bras and slips. Decorating her body is not enough: the decoration (clothes, make-up) has to change frequently. Basically, a woman is not one work of art but an entire gallery of works of art. Teresa Riordan calls it "a one-woman harem" to one's male mate.

The story has genetic and psychological implications, but it gets even more interesting as a story of technological advances. Much of today's industry of beauty would be different without recent inventions. Beauty is in effect one of the "early users" of new technologies, from nylon to cheap steel.

From a strict Darwinian point of view, it is easy to claim that women compete for men by enhancing their bodies (although i'm not sure that the enhancement is always what men would like). It is harder, though, to explain why women would need so much: for example, literally thousands of different types of nail polish (and i have my doubts that nail polish has any effect on male mates).

That said, Riordan's book is mainly about the technology. She explains how innovations in chemistry and metallurgy led to innovations in the industry of beauty. An incredible number of these products were high-tech: the moment chemistry or metallurgy introduced a new technique, someone applied it to create a product for women.

Here is a list of milestones in the beauty industry:

  • 1840: Guerlain introduces the first lipstick
  • 1846: David Hough invents a hoop skirt supported by a dome-shaped crinoline
  • 1852: The first public bathhouse opens in New York
  • 1856: W.S. Thompson invents the steel-frame cage crinoline
  • 1869: Steam molding enables stiffer corsets
  • 1872: The bustle becomes more popular than the crinoline
  • 1875: Charles Michel uses electrolysis for removal of facial hair
  • 1875: The long-waisted corset is introduced
  • 1888: Mum introduces the first deodorant
  • 1889: TEresa Dean publishes "How to be Beautiful"
  • 1890: Charles Gibson's illustrations of the "Gibson Girl" promote the S-shaped tall and slender woman as fashionable, and therefore the swan-bill corset
  • 1892: The fashion magazine Vogue debuts launched
  • 1892: Burroughs Wellcombe introduces the first vanishing cream, "Hazeline Snow"
  • 1894: Paul Unna discovers the relationship between sun exposure and skin aging,
  • 1896: Colgate introduces toothpaste in tubes
  • 1903: Helena Rubinstein begins selling her Valaze anti-aging cream
  • 1907: Pond begins to sell a day beauty cream and a night beauty cream
  • 1907: Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman is arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a one-piece swimsuit
  • 1907: Eugene Schueller (founder of L'Oreal) invents the first synthetic hair dye
  • 1909: Diaghilev's ballets in Paris launch the fad of mascara
  • 1910: Paul Poiret introduces his girdle
  • 1911: Oskar Troplowitz's Beiersdorf introduces the Nivea anti-aging cream, the first stable water-in-oil emulsifier
  • 1912: Suzanne Noel performs the first "face-lift" cosmetic surgery
  • 1912: Coco Chanel proclaims that women should dress for themselves and not only for men
  • 1914: Mary Phelps-Jacobs files the first patent for a bra
  • 1914: Cutex introduces liquid nail polish
  • 1915: A portable lipstick container is marketed by Scovill
  • 1915: Gillette introduces the Milady razor for women to remove underarm hair
  • 1915: Elizabeth Arden introduces the Ardena Skin Tonic lotion and the Venetian Cream Amoretta beauty cream
  • 1917: Maybelline mascara makes mascara affordable for everybody
  • 1918: By the end of World War I the popularity of the corset has dramatically declined, replaced by the girdle
  • 1923: The swivel-up tube for lipstick is invented by James Mason in the middle of a lipstick craze
  • 1923: Coco Chanel makes suntanning fashionable
  • 1926: Greta Garbo launches the fad of the eyebrow pencil
  • 1926: Maidenform introduces a push-up bra
  • 1932: Revlon introduces a nail polish, a variation on the nitrocellulose-based substance invented by Carleton Ellis
  • 1935: Warners introduces four cup sizes called A, B, C and D
  • 1936: L'Oreal invents sunscreen
  • 1939: DuPont launches nylon stockings
  • 1943: A poster of Betty Grable launches the fad for shaved legs
  • 1946: Louis Reard and Jacques Heim introduce the bikini
  • 1947: Christian Dior promotes wide hips and tiny waists as fashionable causing a renaissance of the corset
  • 1950: Hazel Bishop invents kiss-proof lipstick
  • 1952: Mum introduces the underarm deodorant
  • 1954: Roger Vivier invents the stiletto heel
  • 1958: Silhouette introduces the all-elastic X girdle that causes the decline of the corset
  • 1960: An article in Harper's Bazaar publicizes the face-lift to ordinary women
  • 1962: Frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin perform the first silicone breast implant