October 2004

Jennifer Leblanc


Inventing Beauty by Teresa Riordan

At some point in life every woman has poked herself in the eye or pinched her lids with a beauty tool and cursed the inventor, assuming it would have to be a man who devised such devious torture devices. Actually, we can thank our great- great- great-grandmothers for everything from electric razors to waterproof mascara.

New York Times invention columnist Teresa Riordan has put together Inventing Beauty, showing us that two-thirds of the early patent holders for some of the craziest, or most useful, beauty tools were women. With diagrams from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, Riordan takes a closer look at fashion and cosmetic inventions simply as technology. As she writes, “Everything in the beauty arsenal had to be designed and engineered.” Today we tend to think of technology solely as electronics, not as mascara wands or underwires. Riordan traces the rise of materials like cheap steel and rubber as important to making women more attractive throughout time. Think of the transformation of corsets from whalebone to steel and then into the first bras. After one look at some of these patents, some of which resembled torture chambers or circus equipment, no woman will ever complain again. Modern bras would be chosen over lace up corsets any day. As to the extinction of the corset, Riordan traces it back to World War II with an amusing story about bras being a matter of national security. The millions of women working in factories couldn’t possibly work in corsets but the materials needed to make bras were rationed for battle gear. Until Maidenform stepped in. An official document explains that bras were essential because “Unsupported breasts caused fatigue,” and they also served as “distraction to male associates.” Maidenform was essentially trying to save its own hide but instead saved female rib cages from the corset forever.

Going lower down the body provides interesting trivia about a past culture’s physical ideals. Riordan provides many patent diagrams for the bustle, its construction, and the desired effect. But she cannot explain why anyone in a pre-J.Lo century would want to extend their backsides with horse-hair-filled contraptions. She has found the history, and at one point, even a purpose for the hoop skirt: "During the Civil War Southern Women smuggled provisions hidden in their skirts across enemy lines. One belle even managed to smuggle a roll of army cloth, several pairs of cavalry boots, a roll of crimson flannel, packages of gilt braid and sewing silk, cans of preserved meat, and a bag of coffee!" It’s a wonder the South didn’t win the war.

The advancement of cosmetics is a scarier and more fascinating tale. Some things have stood the test of time, such as kohl and Pond’s Cold Cream. Others, like the first waterproof mascara made of 50% turpentine, have thankfully been either improved or abandoned. Even before modern media and publicity Riordan discovered that actresses always set the trends -- Josephine Baker with smoky eyes, Clara Bow’s tiny mouth and the platinum hair of many silver screen sirens (the most shocking picture in the book is of Greta Garbo before and after. An initially homely, double-chinned Swedish teenager was transformed into a film legend with the right fashion tools). Surprisingly Riordan has found that the Depression, the time of bread lines, was when cosmetics flourished. As tight as money was, a woman always had ten cents saved for nail polish or lipstick.

Technology’s role is also evident here. For example, without nitrocellulose, an explosive and the basis for celluloid, we wouldn’t have nail polish. There are also a few bits of juicy gossip, one of them being Elizabeth Arden’s real name: Florence Graham. But imagine the glamorous Catherine Zeta Jones in a commercial for Red Door perfume by Florence Graham. Riordan knows that she is dealing with pre-feminist ideals and inventions in a post-feminist world, possibly fueling the feminist fire over society’s pressure to be beautiful. She even acknowledges her own biases towards her subject by admitting that it “galled the feminist inside me to admit” that more women than men created the beauty cache. She writes, "I must admit that lurking in the back of my mind was the thought that, surely, these must be the tools of oppression foisted by men on an unsuspecting female public. Alas, several years of intensive research failed to confirm -- in fact, undermined -- this point of view."

But Riordan neither condemns nor celebrates the inventions or their products. She lets the readers decide for themselves how they see these fashion supplies. She simply follows the evolution of what they had then to what we have now. And as crazy as some of these creations were, she reminds us of the present day lengths to which women go to for beauty. A hundred years ago we had dimple-producing devices; now we have Botox injection. Inventing Beauty is far too interesting for anyone’s personal feelings to prevent her (or him -- there are also some wince-inducing male products in these pages) from enjoying this book. With an open-minded look at history, these inventions can be quite funny instead of infuriating. And after, if any woman wishes, she can still believe that the inventor of, say, stilettos was really a man.

Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful by Teresa Riordan
Broadway Books
ISBN: 0767914511
336 Pages