«Kirsten Hansen Senior Thesis in American Studies Barnard College, Columbia University Thesis Advisor: Professor Rosenberg 18 April 2007 Contents ...»
Hair or Bare?:
The History of American Women and Hair Removal, 1914-1934
Senior Thesis in American Studies
Barnard College, Columbia University
Thesis Advisor: Professor Rosenberg
18 April 2007
I. History of Hair Removal
II. American Men and the Hair Removal Industry
III. The Clothing Fashion Industry
IV. The Rise and Role of Women’s Magazines
V. The Early Ad Campaign, 1908-1914
VI. The Underarm Campaign takes Shape, 1915-1916
VII. The Underarm Campaign Expands, 1916-1920
VIII. The Leg Campaign, 1918-1934
IX. Establishing a Norm, 1934+
Introduction I came to write this thesis because of a personal curiosity about hair removal and its origins. Among my female friends hair removal is considered an annoying, arduous, often painful, but necessary ritual. Most insist on removing leg hair before putting on a skirt or shorts, and balk at the thought of wearing a bathing suit without shaving or waxing the bikini line. Hair removal is considered so essential to some of these women that they refuse to participate in daily activities such as exercising or going on a date if they have not paid proper attention to removing their body hair. Furthermore, hair removal is generally considered to be a timeless ritual, or at least one that all American women have always practiced. Through my research, however, I discovered that hair removal is not an ancient tradition, nor is it an isolated behavior. Hair removal was introduced first in the nineteen teens and twenties, and coincided with a momentous change in the definition of the American feminine ideal.
In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues that females today organize their self-perception around their outward appearance, in contrast to women of earlier generations, and emphasizes the importance of the 1920s in transforming the feminine ideal from the Victorian model to our modern concept of femininity. Indeed, it was largely the 1920s that brought about a
profound alteration in the perception and definition of the female body:
The 1920s…encouraged a massive ‘unveiling’ of the female body, which meant that certain body parts were bared and displayed in ways that they had never been before. This new freedom to display the body was accompanied, however, by demanding beauty and dietary regimens that involved money as well as self-discipline. 1 In other words, the new 1920s definition of the female body allowed for greater freedom in fashion, but also demanded a new awareness of the physical self. In addition to the “unveiling” of the female body, the 1920s saw the introduction of a litany of beauty practices including the regular use of makeup, the introduction of the bra, and the practice of dieting. In marked contrast to the ideal Victorian woman, who was expected to be more concerned with her morality and development of character than her outward appearance, all of these new fads focused on the presentation of the physical self. 2 Furthermore, these fads went a step beyond traditional fashion, emphasizing the body instead of clothing. Brumberg accurately sums up the great transformation of the female body image when she states: “The body itself became the fashion in the 1920s” (emphasis added). 3 Exactly how and why this transformation in the female body image occurred is a subject of great debate among historians and anthropologists alike. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, the media industry alone was responsible for the birth of this new female image. In his analysis of flappers, one manifestation of the new female image, Zeitz explains, These artists, advertisers, writers, designers, film starlets, and media gurus fashioned her sense of style…their power over the nation’s increasingly centralized print and motion picture media, and their mastery of new developments in group psychology and behavioral sciences, lent them unusual sway over millions of young women who were eager to assert Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project : An Intimate History of American Girls, 1st ed. (New York, NY: Random House, 1997), 98.
their autonomy but still looked to cultural authorities for cues about consumption and body image. 4 According to Zeitz, this transformation of the female body was entirely a top down process. The media created an image of the modern female and sold it to women.
In her extensive study of the origins of the cosmetic industry in America, historian Kathy Peiss offers an opposing theory. Peiss maintains that the media industry was an important contributor to creating women’s newfound role as consumers, however she professes that women themselves were most responsible for the transformation of the female body image. The invention and distribution of make-up began as a grassroots industry in which women were the inventors, manufacturers and distributors. 5 Highlighting entrepreneurs such Helena Rubenstein, Peiss explains that in the early days of the cosmetics, women were more successful than men in developing the industry. 6 Not only were women highly involved in the creation and sales of make-up products, they were extremely aware consumers. Women chose to wear make-up as a mode of selfexpression, even when their husbands or male employers preferred them not to. 7 Thus the creation of the cosmetics industry depended on invention at the grassroots level; women of all classes, races and ethnic backgrounds acted as both producers and consumers, and made the ultimate decision regarding the new female image.
Zeitz, who favors the “producer-led” explanation, and Peiss, who favors the “consumer-led” explanation, provide conflicting explanations for a still unresolved Joshua Zeitz, Flapper : A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who made America Modern, 1st ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 8.
Kathy Lee Peiss, Hope in a Jar : The Making of America's Beauty Culture, 1st American ed. (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 1998), 63.
Ibid., 182, 202.
debate. 8 This paper aims to reexamine the origins and implications of the transformation of the feminine ideal through an often overlooked but highly pertinent practice: the introduction of hair removal among American women. Although historians have examined the history of hair removal in ancient cultures, and anthropologists have tried to assign symbolic meaning to this practice, little attention has been given to how this custom entered American culture and became an integral element in the new definition of the female image. But as Brumberg asserts hair removal was a central component to the new female body image, “Beginning in the 1920s, women’s legs and underarms had to be smooth and free of body hair.” 9 Where then, did this practice begin? Why and how did hair removal become a part of the feminine ideal? And what are the implications of this practice for American culture?
This paper offers a brief history of hair removal, and establishes that hair removal was not initially a widely performed custom among American women. Next the paper examines several converging factors that I have identified as being primarily responsible for the marketing of hair removal to American women: 1) the expansion of the men’s hair removal industry; 2) alterations in women’s clothing fashions; and 3) the birth of mass produced women’s magazines. Finally, this paper analyzes the hair removal advertising campaigns that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine and the Ladies’ Home Journal between the years of 1914 and 1934. From these magazine campaigns I derive the majority of my evidence for my contribution to the female body image debate.
My decision to examine the hair removal advertising campaigns as they appear in Harper’s Bazaar Magazine and the Ladies’ Home Journal was based largely upon the Celia Lury, Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 45.
Brumberg, The Body Project, 98.
previous research of historian Christine Hope. In her article Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture, Hope identifies Harper’s Bazaar Magazine as the first of the women’s magazines to run the hair removal advertisements. Significantly, Harper’s Bazaar was not one of the “Big Six,” the mostly widely read women’s magazines of the era, but was specifically a fashion magazine targeting the elite. 10 While Hope compares the advertisement campaign as it appears in Harpers’ Bazaar to the advertisement campaign that appears in the middle class magazine The Delineator, I have chosen to compare Harper’s Bazaar to the much more widely read, indeed, the most widely read women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal. Although my work is organized loosely on the research of Hope, my study and comparison of Harper’s Bazaar to a third magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal, questions several of Hope’s theories about the origins and implications of hair removal among American women.
Where Hope emphasizes the role of magazines in introducing and disseminating the practice of hair removal among women, I also consider the role of the men’s hair removal industry and the women’s clothing fashion industry, and provide a more detailed examination of the magazine industry. Hope clearly favors the “producer-led” explanation for the adoption of the practice of hair removal, but limits her analysis to the role of women’s magazines. Yet the practice of hair removal was a heavily top-down process induced from many sources, not just one. Furthermore, my comparison of the Ladies’ Home Journal to Harper’s Bazaar reveals that hair removal was even more of a class-related phenomenon than Hope suggests, based on her analysis of the less-widely read Delineator. The hair removal campaign which debuted in Harper’s Bazaar in 1914 Mary Ellen Zuckerman, A History of Popular Women's Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995, Vol.
165 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998), 114.
did not appear in the Ladies’ Home Journal until 1934. In sum, the introduction of hair removal to women was introduced through and influenced by many different industries;
furthermore, it trickled down the class hierarchy at a slower rate than Hope suggests.
Finally, Hope only briefly speculates about the link between hair removal and gender, and does not begin to consider the implications of hair removal as part of the greater social phenomenon of the era, the redefinition of the feminine ideal. As Celia Lury notes in her book Consumer Culture, “consumption practices have become an increasingly important part of the feminine self.” 11 I argue that the production and consumption of hair removal products was an integral component of this redefinition.
As with any historical analysis, this paper has a number of limitations. First, my research focuses primarily on the practice of hair removal among white women in American culture. This paper does not attempt to provide any explanations for variations in behavior among racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, while class is certainly an essential factor which must be considered when studying shifts in fashion, my research is restricted to the dissemination of the practice of hair removal among middle and upperclass women.
Despite the limitations of my research, an in-depth study of the advertisement campaigns in Harper’s Bazaar and the Ladies’ Home Journal provides ample evidence to establish that both Zeitz’s and Peiss’s perspectives on the creation of the female body image are incomplete explanations. This paper proposes that the practice of hair removal was neither solely a top-down fashion, nor entirely a grassroots movement. Hair removal was introduced through the efforts of three different industries, the men’s hair removal industry, the women’s clothing fashion industry, and the women’s magazine industry, Lury, Consumer Culture, 134.
each of which recognized and sought to profit from women’s new role as consumers.
These industries appealed to women’s acceptance of gender norms, marketing hair removal as a necessary feminine trait that could be achieved through the consumption of hair removal products. But the development of the women’s hair removal market cannot be viewed simply as a fashion that men developed and sold to women. Just as Peiss made clear in the make-up industry, women were involved in the production and sale of hair removal products, working as producers in the cosmetic, fashion and magazine businesses. Furthermore, female consumers exercised their influence over the market by deciding whether and to what degree to adopt the practice of hair removal. Significantly, elite women were the first to wield their power as consumers. As my comparison of the advertising campaign in Harper’s Bazaar to the advertising in the Ladies’ Home Journal reveals, elite female consumers were the initial target of the hair removal industries, and therefore the first women to consider and ultimately to adopt the practice. Elite consumers set the standard that the middle class would later seek to imitate. Thus hair removal should be understood as a practice that was initiated by industry, but was influenced by the consumer, specifically the elite consumer. The industry’s promotion of the practice of hair removal, combined with upper-class consumerism, succeeded in redefining femininity to include yet another element: the hair-free body. Hence, through the production and adherence to the hair removal campaign, both producers and elite consumers played a role, albeit of differing degrees of influence, in the 1920s reconstruction of femininity.