The early 20th century, known as the 1900s, was a transformative time in history that shaped beauty standards and fashion trends that still influence how we define attractiveness today. As women gained more independence and power in society, perceptions of beauty also evolved from the rigid Victorian ideals of the previous era.
The Gibson Girl
At the dawn of the 20th century, American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created an iconic image of feminine beauty known as the “Gibson Girl.” With her tall, slender figure, piled-up hair, pouting lips and elegant style, the Gibson Girl embodied the classic feminine beauty ideal of the 1900s.
The Gibson Girl was portrayed as youthful, independent and intelligent – a reflection of the “New Woman” that emerged at the turn of the century. Her image graced magazines, advertisements and posters for decades, establishing slim, elegant features as the height of female attractiveness.
Characteristics of the Gibson Girl
- Tall, statuesque figure
- Hourglass shape with a corseted waist and flat stomach
- Abundant piled-up hair, often in a chignon style
- Arched brows and bow-shaped lips
- Elaborate hats and elegant clothing
The Gibson Girl set a narrowly defined standard of beauty that glorified youth and downplayed ethnicity, relegating older and non-white women to the margins of mainstream desirability.
The Flapper Look
In the 1920s, the Gibson Girl gave way to the liberated “flapper” as a new ideal of feminine beauty. Young women known as flappers rebelled against tradition by cutting their hair in short bobs, wearing makeup and short skirts, and adopting an energetic lifestyle.
The flapper look represented women’s growing independence and the Roaring Twenties spirit of fun, youth and mobility. Bindis, headscarves and other exotic accessories also came into vogue, reflecting global influences on fashion.
Characteristics of the Flapper Look
- Short bob hairstyles
- Heavy makeup including dark eyes and bright lips
- Straight, loose-fitting dresses with dropped waists
- Exposed arms and legs
- Beaded dresses and accessories
- Exotic influencers like bindis and headscarves
While still slim and youthful in appearance, the flapper look marked a departure from restrictive Victorian ideals of femininity and signaled a more liberated, cosmopolitan view of beauty.
The “It Girl” Phenomenon
Another beauty trend that emerged in the 1920s was the rise of the “It Girl” – a term coined by author Elinor Glyn and applied to actress Clara Bow. It Girls were vivacious young women who had a daring, magnetic quality that captured the public’s imagination.
It Girls like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford became the embodiment of Roaring Twenties glamour. Their images spread rapidly in the press and advertising, further popularizing short hairstyles, bold makeup and fashionable clothing as markers of modern beauty and desirability.
Characteristics of the It Girl
- Perfectly coiffed short hairstyles
- Often waved or curled (“finger waves”)
- Dark, smoky eye makeup
- Cupid’s bow lips
- Fur coats, elegant jewelry, Art Deco fashions
- Confident, vivacious demeanor
It Girls were considered exciting, modern beauties who pushed the boundaries of acceptable feminine behavior and dress. Their look signaled a break from 19th century norms of modesty and demure womanhood.
Golden Age Hollywood Glamour
In the 1930s and 40s, the beauty aesthetic promoted by Hollywood studios defined female attractiveness for much of the Western world. Stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Veronica Lake enchanted audiences with an ethereal, polished glamour.
Golden Age actresses typically had refined features, porcelain skin, red lips and waves or curls. Their dramatic makeup and elegant clothing created an illusion of perfection that reinforced their status as objects of desire.
Characteristics of Golden Age Hollywood Beauty
- Alabaster skin, often achieved through face powders
- Defined, arched eyebrows
- Cat-eye liner and black mascara
- Crimson lips, accentuated with liner
- Perfectly coiffed waves, curls and upsweeps
- Floor-length gowns, fur stoles, evening gloves
- Diamonds and pearls
This heavily manufactured, unattainable ideal of beauty promoted femininity as alluring and elegant, but also passive and artificial. It left little room for women of color or those who did not conform to a cisgendered archetype.
The New Look
After WWII rationing ended, Christian Dior introduced his extravagant “New Look” in 1947, turning the fashion world upside down. With its cinched waists, full skirts and refined accessories, the New Look revived a 19th century-inspired, ultra-feminine aesthetic.
The New Look was a dramatic departure from wartime austerity. It also celebrated traditional gender roles and soft, curvaceous femininity instead of the lean, androgynous flapper look. Women shaped their figures with corsets and padding to accentuate the bust, hips and legs.
Characteristics of the New Look
- Nipped-in waists and full calf-length skirts
- Strapless, sweetheart necklines
- Hourglass figures with padded busts and hips
- Elegant fabrics like silk, taffeta and velvet
- Clutch bags, gloves, pearl chokers
- Red lips, light makeup, upswept hair
The hyper-feminine New Look revived interest in traditional gender expressions and soft, womanly forms of beauty after the boyish flapper era.
Pin-up art also reached its peak in the 1940s and 50s. Male artists like Alberto Vargas created stylized, eroticized images of idealized women for soldiers, ad campaigns and calendars.
Though exaggerated, pin-ups reflected ideals like full breasts, nipped waists and voluptuous hips. They combined fantasy with accessible beauty, bringing eroticism into the mainstream.
Characteristics of Pin-up Art
- Curvaceous, hourglass figures
- Large breasts with cleavage
- Pouty lips, bedroom eyes, flowing hair
- Nipped waists, bare legs, stiletto heels
- Revealing lingerie and swimsuits
- Coy expressions and body language
As male fantasies, pin-ups reveal the heightened sexualization of women’s bodies underneath fashion’s changes. They underscore beauty standards centered on the male gaze.
Throughout the early 20th century, beauty trends for women shifted with the expansion of freedoms and images circulated by popular media. But they consistently emphasized youth, slenderness and traditional femininity according to white, Western ideals. The period’s most iconic looks reveal how beauty standards respond to social changes while reinforcing existing hierarchies and gender imbalances.