Discussions on Beauty

Each year I teach a spring course at the local university, but this past week I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker for a group of high school students- primarily young ladies from the ages 14-18. The topic was beauty- and the extent to which women have gone in aspiration of perfection. I focussed my lecture images on the 18th and 19th century- as this was a time period when reforming and reshaping the human body was in its extreme.

I began with a question: What is beauty? This is a difficult question to answer- thus my reasoning for asking it. I asked a few more leading questions:Who is beautiful? What are the characteristics of someone who is beautiful? Why do we believe these people are beautiful? Can everyone be beautiful?

Once the room started to open up, I was impressed with these young ladies answers. While they could not give me specifics on what they personally deem to be beautiful, they did all agree that everyone can be beautiful “in their own way.” Interestingly enough, when I asked them what society defines beauty as, the room roared with response.I told them there is one woman who is defined as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her image is immediately recognizable. Everyone knows who she is. Everyone recognizes her face. I asked them if they would like to see a picture of her. Of course, they said “Yes.”So, I showed them her image:

La Joconde (or Portrait of Mona Lisa)
Leonardo DaVinci, 1479-1528
Le Louvre, Paris

I asked the young ladies if they thought Lisa del Gioconda was beautiful. Some said yes, and others said No. I proceeded to discuss the ideals of the 16th century and how it was considered beautiful to have an extremely high forehead (achieved by plucking the first few inches of the hairline away). I discussed the intentional removal of the eyebrows via waxing or plucking. And, I used her plump rounded hands to discuss body weight. I explained in the 16th century (and even up to the 19th century) being plump signified wealth- an abundance of food- the ability to obtain large amounts of goods.

I went on to further my argument for Mona Lisa’s unrivaled mark on the world of female beauty by showing them multiple images of present day celebrities (those they would immediately recognize) posed and portrayed as the Mona Lisa herself. (Just do an image search for La Jaconde on the internet and you will see what I am referring to.) I asked them, “Why would these celebrities want to be portrayed as the Mona Lisa? What is about her that makes her so famous?”

After this, I showed them a variety of 18th century corsets, panniers, pocket hoops, and discussed how the ideal shape of the 18th century was that of an inverted triangle on top of a rectangle. I asked if they would be comfortable wearing these garments on a daily basis, and there was a resounding “No.”

I discussed 18th century hair and make-up practices. We discussed the origin of beauty marks and the cloth and leather face patches fashionable during this period (used to cover small pock scars). And we discussed the use of toxic materials in 18th century cosmetics.

Portrait of a Lady in Blue
Thomas Gainsborough, 1779-81
The Hermitage Museum
Image intended for educational purposes only


We then discussed the rebellion of the corset and the free flowing gowns of the Napoleanic period. We talked about how ladies of this period often literally caught their death during the winter months by wearing too few layers of clothing because it was “unfashionable.” I asked if any of them had gone out wearing things that were not appropriate for the weather because they wanted to be fashionable. Some nodded their heads, “Yes.”

The Three Graces in High Wind
James Gillray, 1810


We discussed the reimergence of the corset in the 19th century and the development of the cage crinoline. I jokingly remarked, “During this period, it was fashionable to put ladies in cages…..”

Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image intended for educational purposes only

We moved on to the bustle and the extremely tight fitting corsets of the latter part of the 19th century. We discussed the health implications of tight lacing and how it effected the development of the internal organs. I also discussed the development of an article of clothing that afflicted women wore to keep their internal female organs from slipping outward.

I discussed the alteration of photographs in the 1890s to display the much sought after wasp-waist. I discussed Cathie Jung, who has made it her life mission to achieve the smallest waist in the world but now has to forever wear a corset because her midsection can no longer support her upper body weight.

Altered photo c. 1890s
Source Unkown/Image pulled from the V&A


I reminded them that every photo that comes across their desk, every image they see on television has been altered in one way or another.

I showed them images of rail thin runway models who earn triple digit incomes because they are anomolies of nature. I showed them images of plastic surgeon’s marks on girls as young as 14. I asked them if they thought if these girls were beautiful and allowed them time to discuss their thoughts.

Finally, I showed them an image of Dominic Philbert’s reprise of the Mona Lisa (created for Safarir magazine). And, then I showed them this image (pulled from a French blog/origin unknown):

This altered version of Philbert’s La Jaconde reads, “The Mona Lisa after being in the United States for one year…. Before…. After.” I asked them, if they thought the “after” version was beautiful. I asked them why they thought people outside the United States thought we would revise the Mona Lisa in this way?

Many of the students thought this image was making fun of Americans and got rather angry. I asked the young ladies what they thought this image said about our culture and if there was any truth to it?

After a great deal of discussion, I concluded with one final question: In 100 years, what will people say our definition of beauty was? This is a question we all must stop and ponder. Do we allow the media to dictate our perceptions of beauty? How about the fashion world? Today, just as it was 200 years ago, it is an ideal that is ever present and constantly changing.

About Susan

Hi! My name is Susan and I am a historian, seamstress, teacher, mother, and wife. My passion for history has manifested itself in the art of recreating clothing from different periods of time. Growing up in the American South, I am heavily schooled in the art of recreating clothing from the 19th century. After nearly a decade of immersing myself primarily in the Victorian period, I found the need to branch out and explore other periods of time. However, it is my connection with the American South and the clothing of rural America that continues to be the driving force behind my designs.

5 thoughts on “Discussions on Beauty

  1. Oh, I love this, and it’s a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. Sadly, none of the pictures work, not sure if it’s just me…

  2. Very interesting read – thank you for sharing your experience with the class. I wonder wether you already know the two books from Umberto Eco “History of beauty” and “On ugliness”, which both deal about the history of beauty in art.

Comments are closed.