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The Evolution of Beauty (Book Review)

Riordan, Teresa. Inventing Beauty: A History of Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. x + 307 pp. Acknowledgements, Introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $17.95

As far as inventions go, the world of cosmetics has seen its fair share of the genius and the absurd. For instance, before mascara wands, a company called Tattoo sold cream mascara. Once the cream was squeezed onto a brush, it was then applied to the lashes. Then there is the Electric Wrinkle Rollers, a nineteenth century invention that promised to take the place of a hand massage and roll wrinkles out of the face in five to ten minutes. Given the advertisement’s superfluous use of the word ‘scientific’ and its promise that it will massage away ‘wasted tissues’, the invention has earned a slot in the absurd column, while also proving that Svengali promises are easy to swallow if science is supposedly behind it.


Inventing Beauty: A History of Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful is at once a love letter to beauty as well as an ode to the geniuses who have made modern makeup rituals and beautification techniques possible. Writer Teresa Riordan has written a column on invention for ten years for the New York Times, and her assessment of beauty apparatuses is expertly anatomized by body part throughout the book. She regards inventions and cosmetics with fascination and humor, letting readers revel in the ingenious and the ludicrous alike. Ultimately, what comes across is that the beauty industry is anything but ‘cosmetic’ or superficial in nature, and that its infrastructure - which rakes in an estimated 49.2 billion dollars a year has been meticulously constructed over the decades via a public relations campaign that caters to both health and beauty.


Rather than just retelling fascinating beauty factoids, (of which there are plenty!), Riordan’s book is filled with illustrations, photographs and sketches that treat every cosmetic device like the scientific instruments that they are, dissecting pieces of apparatuses the same way one would dissect a space shuttle engine components. For instance, while today’s makeup lovers have everything from glue to magnetic strips at their disposal to fasten false eyelashes to their lids, Riordan takes readers back to the mechanics of Charles Nessler, a man best know for inventing the hair-curling machine to set a ‘do in a permanent wave, but who also was among the innovators of false eyelashes. While describing Nessler’s device, Riordan provides multiple figures as part as his patent.

Riordan takes the time to synch up obsessions with beauty with evolutions in other technologies, such as the pocket mirror. She reminds us that Mark Pendergrast wrote in Mirror, Mirror that, “Once a luxury for the rich, mirrors were everywhere” (15). That ubiquitous presence had an intense effect on the beauty industry, making flaws and areas for improvement an everyday reality. Dovetailing the constant presence of the mirror was the more common reality of photographs, In 1888, George Eastman introduced what was called the Kodak ‘detective camera’, a far less cumbersome apparatus than the heavy box cameras of the Gilded Era. With both professional and neophyte photographers able to document the world around them with greater ease, it is no wonder that, psychologically, the idea of looking constantly primed and glamorous found a more receptive audience.

Riordan’s research provides biographies of both well-known makeup companies, as well as forgotten ones, such as the cosmetics firm Volupté. In 1938, the company ushered in the lipsticks Lady and Hussy, establishing the kind of demarcations between ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ makeup that persists to this day in the form of colors whose PR campaigns bill them as either vampish or subtle.

Not neglecting the ever burgeoning teen market, Riordan rehashes how, by the 1920s underwear companies - abandoning the idea of girdles and corsets in their most restrictive sense - had begun the manufacturing of the bra prototype. In the launching of this new bra, (a truncated version of the more old-fashioned sounding word ‘brassiere’) companies like Boyishform flirted with the teen demographic by hosting sales promotions such as “a giveaway contest held on the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City during the second annual Miss America Pageant” (93). By 1932, companies like Maiden Form launched bold advertising campaigns beyond the pages of women’s magazines, advertising on the sides of buses and on neon signs at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, recognizing that hype equaled sales, especially among up-and-coming youth. Riordan reminds readers that, with the bra, the worlds of ‘marketing’ and ‘invention’ merged, further indoctrinating buyers with the idea that all things beauty and all things scientific went hand in hand.

Riordan’s book is one of those refreshingly fun historical reads. Amid all the history, facts and tidbits about the evolution of the beauty industry, we forget we’re gaining further insight into how the beauty industry has taken over our lives. To be recognized as beautiful is not just an ambition, but a job, a way of getting the world to appreciate and admire one’s worth. Whether Riordan is talking about bustles or nail polishes, she is ultimately talking about the way we view ourselves, and how far we are willing to go to manipulate appearances to achieve a desired result.


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