Beauty

The Insane History Of Beauty Standards Since 1900

By Andrea Mew··  16 min read
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We’ve come a long way…or have we? Because Kim K’s bum actually gives me real Gibson Girl vibes.

“Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself,” said iconic French fashion designer Coco Chanel, but when you look back at beauty standards over the years, it can easily feel like beauty wasn’t really about being yourself at all.

Women have been putting themselves through the wringer to be a part of their respective decade’s trends, and unfortunately, certain body types were cherished at times and shunned during others. We can pinpoint much of the quick evolution of beauty standards from the idolization of celebrities, whether in old Hollywood or on modern social media. Sometimes that meant embracing healthy shapes, but other times the decade’s standard was mostly unattainable. We’re taking a look at the insane history of beauty standards from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. Want to come along?

1900s-1910s

Hey, this one looks a bit familiar… ladies back in the early 1900s were all about S-bend corsets which emphasized their curves in an s-shape. Their bottoms appeared almost shelf-like, which we now see echoed in the Kardashian-style BBL era, and their posture leaned forward as a result. Women sought this pigeon-breasted look that apparently was supposed to be a healthier alternative to older styles of corsets which compressed a woman’s chest.

The S-bend corset ushered in the era of the Gibson Girl, whose voluptuous bosom appeared enticing and less uptight to men and envious to other women. This slant forward gave women a more alluring, sensual look as if she were leaning in to you.

This “New Woman” hourglass figure with an impossibly cinched-in waistline was modeled after Camille Clifford, an actress of Danish descent. In art and print media, young women depicted in this style were given a more active and vivacious persona. She could be more athletic, engage in physical activities outdoors, and even participate in civic duty.

Once the Edwardian era made way for the 1910s, restrictive clothing fell further out of fashion. Paul Poiret, Jacques Doucet, and Lady Duff Gordon designed garments that veered away from constricted waists and allowed women’s silhouettes to show a more natural form. Designers like Poiret can also be attributed to the Orientalism craze, where daring women would wear “harem” pantaloons, vibrant colors, and draped fabrics.

Leading ladies of the time like Ethel Warwick, Marie Doro, Elizabeth Arden, and of course Camille Clifford embraced a more natural, ethereal makeup style that your everyday women looked up to. Though commercial cosmetics were gaining popularity, most women used homemade makeup or very limited products to achieve a porcelain doll look. This was characterized by ample amounts of rouge, defined eyebrows, powdered faces, and small and bright lips, but was mostly a “no makeup” makeup look. This soft fluffiness was best accompanied by matching hairstyles like a full pompadour, cottage loaf pompadour, and romantic curls, which were topped off with large hats and bonnets.

1920s

As women began to take an even more independent role, demanding more economic, political, and sexual freedoms, their fashions became increasingly androgynous. Curvacious figures were replaced by the “flapper,” popularized by a cartoonist named John Held, just after WWI. Her silhouette should be straight and slim to best suit her loose, calf-length dresses. After all, living out the “stylish young party girl” life of smoking in public, dancing at jazz clubs, and drinking alcohol would be pretty difficult without free, relaxed clothing.

Traditional femininity was thrown to the wind and the boyish figure was all the rage. Following this gender-bending trend, women cut their hair shorter into bobs and finger-waved styles to really make a statement against the Victorian beauty standards of the decade prior.

The push to hide natural curves went even further, with women “binding their chests with strips of cloth” and replacing their corsets with girdles that flattened their stomachs.

Though women of the ‘20s sought a less feminine look, they ironically wore more makeup to give their visage a boost of drama. Where the cosmetic standard was once to wear nothing, lest a lady be mistaken for a prostitute, now women darkened their eyelids and lash lines, rouged their cheeks, plucked their eyebrows to thin arches, and lined their lips with bright colors and an exaggerated cupid's bow.

1930s

The drama of the ‘20s was swiftly replaced by the modesty of the ‘30s after the stock market crash which ushered in the Great Depression. Beauty standards reverted to slightly more conservative, wholesome styles in response to economic crisis.

Feminine figures made a comeback in this era with the advent of the modern bra boosting up a woman’s chest, and modest body contours became fashionable. Despite skirt lengths hiding a woman’s lower body, the ideal body standard was actually a woman with broader shoulders, narrow hips, and much more height than the flapper of previous eras. With the boyish trend gone, women could embrace curves, but celebrities of the time still had lower BMIs like Barbara Stanwyck and her 18.5 BMI or Lena Horne and her 20.3 BMI.

Women were still encouraged to embrace feminine beauty, but the more masculine shapes of their garments and the top-heavy figure preference mirrored a more utilitarian, masculine image. This aligned with the need for women to dress more practically in order to help their husbands keep their families out of poverty.

The ideal woman of this era was shaped by Hollywood starlets like Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, or Greta Garbo who naturally had a Cornet body type. Women grew their short bobs out to their shoulders and toned down their stage-like makeup styles for a more screen-favored look.

1940s

Take the modesty of the 1930s and add on wartime utilitarianism, and you have the revised body standards for a decade characterized by WWII. Glamor and femininity were even further removed from your everyday woman’s societal expectations, but high fashion idolized form-fitting, figure-flattering attire.

Enter the classic Pin-up girl, who married practicality with sex appeal. Though she may be donning a more casual outfit, this girl oozed sensuality despite her more trimmed, muscle-toned figure. Her hourglass figure still had some curve to it to maintain a soft appearance, but women of this era were preferred to look stronger.

We Can Do It! ww2 poster public domain

Ladies lifted weights, even in strategic ways to strengthen their chests and give more of the appearance of a larger cup size, despite being slimmer. This era gave women a mostly attainable body standard, with your everyday woman maintaining an average BMI of 23.6.

This adorable-meets-sexy-meets-kickass look was paired with side-parted, voluminous curls. But as the Idealist Style blog so eloquently put it, while ushering in the Hollywood Golden age, the 1930s “was also the awakening of the (unholy) union between body image and public media, leading to an externally influenced perception of the ideal of beauty.”

1950s

After the end of WWII, your everyday woman began to embrace her femininity again. Wives didn’t necessarily need to work while the world was undergoing economic recovery and the glamorous stay-at-home mom image became iconic. This woman’s kitchen was modernized and color-coordinated, just like her attire. 

Her attire was expected to emphasize a more dramatic hourglass figure than that of the 1940s woman. Wasp’s waists were back in, thanks to celebs like Elizabeth Taylor and her 20.5 BMI or Shirley MacLaine’s 18.8 BMI. Many women opted to try risky, slimming diet and exercise trends, but the average BMI was still at 23.6. In their attire, a tasteful amount of skin was appropriate peeking out of pencil skirts and three-quarter-sleeve tops, button-downs, and preppy sweaters.

To maintain their curly brushouts, women of the 1950s thought that one wash a week was enough and that they should brush their hair at least 100 times after sleeping in their rollers. 

The 1950s also popularized salon perms and the “bottle blonde” look, thanks to emblematic ladies like Marilyn Monroe. Women had much more time to spend in the salon, so they indulged in “paraffin wraps, seaweed baths, suction cup massages, and even steaming facials.”

1960s

Hey, mama, welcome to the ‘60s! Beauty standards once again shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum as the decade went on because of women leaving behind their traditional homemaker identity and opting to make waves in employment, education, and politics. 

The feminist movement led women to prefer less curvaceous figures and embrace a more childlike, waifish silhouette. So, ironically, while women fought for freedom from societal expectations, “the ideal female body began to look like a malnourished preadolescent girl, weak, emaciated and non-threatening.”

That being said, while super skinny models with straight, boxy, A-line figures dominated print media, mature and busty figures were cherished on the stage and screen. The contrast between the Twiggy-girl and actresses like Brigitte Bardot or Priscilla Presley demonstrated an early divide in culture between women who rejected the male gaze and those who didn’t necessarily align with feminism.

All at once, you had adolescent, mod chic in contrast with late-stage, va-va-voom glamor in contrast with the hippie movement which took women in an entirely au naturel direction.

Despite the prepubescent look being en vogue, American women’s BMI in the ‘60s rose to 25.2 on average. For comparison, top actress of the time Jessica Lange had a 20.4 BMI.

For the ladies who dolled up, women of the ‘60s were expected to wear their hair at new heights with creative, era-defining looks like the Beehive, the Bombshell, and the Afro. In a similar vein, creativity with makeup was encouraged by fashion spreads with models donning bright eyeshadow, funky eyeliner shapes, and exaggerated doe eyes.

1970s

The girl power movements which began in the ‘60s carried over into the ‘70s and further solidified a “free spirit” look for ladies. Idolizing Hollywood starlets’ romantic figures was replaced with the “independent, youthful and naturally skinny woman with a tan and rosy cheeks.

At the same time, the ideal female physique was still difficult for many women to attain. Anorexia nervosa caused significant hospital admission rates at this time, and drug use in party culture became glamorized. Ladies had a 24.9 BMI on average, but top female celebrities like Joni Mitchell sat at 20.5 or 18 like Morgan Fairchild.

While these trends allowed a more laid-back woman to embrace a tomboy-ish wardrobe and tone down her makeup to let her natural beauty shine, women in pursuit of femininity in the ‘70s went the more disco-inspired, ultra-glam route.

Ladies opted for tight fitting, high-waisted jeans and bell-bottoms, dramatic tops, psychedelic or colorful prints and patterns, and embellished dresses. Whether on the glam side or the hippie side, bronzed skin was in and women were known to spend ample amounts of time in the tanning booth.

While women like Stevie Nicks, Cher, Farrah Fawcett, and Pam Grier dominated fashion, they also inspired women’s salon trends. Fluffy afros, long and straight locks, or heavily textured shags were some of the most common styles women were expected to try during this decade.

1980s

If the ‘60s and ‘70s introduced many women to the psychological desire to be the skinniest version of themselves, the ‘80s ushered in a time where physiques built by physical fitness and tight nutrition were all the rage.

Though the ‘80s brought us the classic supermodel with ladies like Brooke Shields, your everyday woman was expected to look more like your “girl next door.” She was expected to be toned but not too muscular. This body type was accentuated by the introduction of street fashions, tracksuits, and other athleisure even while not exercising. In general, tall and thin women were praised for maintaining their body with aerobic exercise and dieting. The average BMI of women in the ‘80s was 25, but many of the top celebrities had BMIs under 20 like Cheryl Tiegs at 17.6 or Cindy Crawford at 19. It’s worth noting that, compared to average women of the time, 60% of Playboy bunnies of the time weighed 15% less.

Additionally, the ‘80s built up the androgyny introduced to fashion in the ‘60s. Glam rock and New Wave musicians inspired women to wear wild, over the top styles, tease their hair high, and don dramatic makeup. Some of the most envied celebrities that women aspired to look like were Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Paula Abdul.

Hair was over the top with volume. Ladies who had fine hair rocked mall bangs or palm-tree-like high ponies to stay on trend. You could also find volume in women’s makeup trends like bushy, defined eyebrows and eyelids full of colorful shades.

It’s worth noting that fashion trends across the pond inspired movements in the United States as well with the popularity of women like Princess Diana. Though her fashions rebelled against traditional royal style, Princess Diana still rocked a more conservative, structured look.

1990s

The top beauty ideals split again in the ‘90s. Preferred silhouettes were divided between the runway glamazon supermodel like Naomi Campbell and the waifish youthful look like Kate Moss. For your everyday woman, thin and athletic was preferred, but if you were to carry any weight it should be on the top. No matter the case, pear-shaped figures were still out of fashion.

Casual apparel further reinforced the new body standards since much of the fashion appeared to be…anti-fashion. Women took on “casual chic” with their rejection of feminine fashion, wearing sneakers, jeans, t-shirts, and other streetwear. In alternative scenes, dark grungy colors and patterns were preferred, but in the mainstream you wouldn’t be surprised to see fluorescents

While it was a high-class fashion trend, the “heroin chic” body type of certain supermodels with thin limbs, bones protruding, and razor sharp jawlines led women to aspire for unhealthy levels of thinness, with or without drugs. Though the average BMI for American women was 26.3, iconic ladies gave women a difficult standard to achieve, like Tara Reid who had a 17.5 BMI or Penelope Cruz with her 19.6 BMI. Some were even lower, like Kate Moss who had a BMI of 16.

With media taking a new role in leading people’s lives, the ‘90s made it easier for people to adopt niche trends or have wider styles to choose from. That being said, the broader market still preferred certain standards from eras past like tanned skin (from self-tanners or tanning beds) and rejected other ones, swapping big, fluffy hair for subtler looks.

2000s

The sexy glamor found on ‘90s magazine spreads made its way to the mainstream in the 2000s. Enter in the ideal ”bombshell,” and the independent and sexually liberated woman who was tanned, wore hair extensions, and likely experimented with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures. As time went on, fashion cycles which used to be decades quickly became year-by-year standards, so pinpointing an exact desired body type throughout the 2000s is somewhat difficult.

That being said, the four ideal looks from the decade appeared to be the average figure, the hourglass figure, the sporty but chesty woman, and the Barbie figure. Either way, washboard abs and toned bodies were preferred. Overall, bigger breasts were still the preferred look instead of wider hips and thighs, and this was emphasized by the fashions of the time. 

Tops were cropped, low-rise waistlines were preferred, garments were bedazzled, furry, or just outright extravagant, and shoes were strappy. Young Hollywood starlets like Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan carried over the “heroin chic” body type that they adorned with satin slip dresses and their purse puppies. BMI rose to 27.5 in the 2000s, despite top actresses like Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman modeling 17.2 and 19.5 BMIs respectively.

As for their hair, in the early 2000s, women experimented with dramatic hairstyles made with braids, spikes, knots, butterfly clips, and chunky highlights. As the 2000s went on, however, hairstyles became more polished and ladies leaned toward big blow-outs, Bump-It assisted poufs, and side bangs.

The ideal woman was epitomized by the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the brand’s annual event that took its top models, a.k.a. Angels, and dolled them up to create a fantasy.

2010s

Curves made a comeback in the 2010s, and for the first time since the early 1900s, women sought bigger bottoms than bosoms. If the Gibson Girl defined that era for idealistic body standards, Kim Kardashian and her sisters defined the 2010s. The slim-thick hourglass figure has been called out as naturally unattainable for many women, achieving it through Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) surgeries, fat transfers, and fillers, but nevertheless this look persisted.

BMIs rose in this era in relation to the prevalence of obesity to 28.7, and by the end of the decade, 30% of American women were considered obese based on having a BMI of 30.0 or higher.

The early 2010s saw the quick trend of taking the tan too far with leading ladies from The Jersey Shore showing off their borderline orange skin. We can also thank the Kardashian family for a fair amount of the top beauty trends of this decade, like their overlined lips and their heavily contoured full face makeup.

Girls who wanted to rock an alternative look modeled their fashions on Ke$ha with her smokey eye look, as though she were still wearing makeup from the night before, and dark lipstick.

Many women took to the salons to ombre and balayage their hair, and sometimes chose colorful dip-dyes for added flair. The beachy waves that Victoria’s Secret Angels championed were another cultural standard. 

There were so many subcultures in fashion that it’s difficult to narrow it down to one for the decade, a problem which I predict will continue into the future. That being said, things like athleisure, street style, VSCO girl vibes, logomania, and bodycon silhouettes were broad trends overall.

Across the pond once more, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, influenced the more polished trends of the time with her preppy, structured garments and bouncy curls before Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, built on Kate’s fashion empire with her own relaxed take on British fashion.

Despite women being influenced by “slim-thick baddies” on Instagram, the 2010s have also been characterized by bringing forth the body positivity movement, which has normalized being overweight and even obese to push back against a culture obsessed with thinness.

Closing Thoughts

If trends move in the cyclical manner they have in the past, we can expect the 2020s to tone down the bottom-heavy physiques of the 2010s and take on a more utilitarian, athletic approach. This is something we’ve been observing already as the body positivity movement faces pushback from a silent majority of women just wishing for healthy, happy figures. 

Trends ebb and flow, so what you need to know is that despite modern technology allowing you to change your appearance (granted you’ve got the cash flow) at the drop of a hat, the trend that will never end is embracing your natural beauty and dressing in ways that flatter your unique figure. What’s hot one day might not be hot the next, especially in our digital era where beauty standards can change and be adopted overnight, so it's futile to wallow in self-hatred for not looking like an in-fashion celebrity does. After all, they might not even look like that soon!

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