Sunday, 15 May 2011

Review and Appreciation: 100,000 Years of Beauty (Gallimard)

The fact that this review has come so late is a measure of just how much enjoyment it has given me. To pore over it, re-read segments, go to museums to follow up aspects, and now to digest my thoughts. I have mentioned it numerous times in passing; indeed it has inspired several posts. But now I shall review it, and give it the spotlight it deserves.

With 1,500 pages and a wealth of full-colour photographs, this beautifully presented pyramid of a book collection is truly a gift to treasure.

Comissioned by L'Oreal to celebrate their 100th anniversary, the books are organised into 5 volumes - each represents not only a time period but also a theme. The pattern is shaped by, "Prehistory - Origins"; "Antiquity - Civilisations"; "The Classical Age - Confrontations"; "Modernity - Globalisation," and "The Future - Predictions."

Collecting contributions from 300 writers of 35 different nationalities ranging from renowned academics, philosophers and artists, the reading experience is challenging and enlightening. At its heart, "100, 000 Years of Beauty" strives to illuminate just how universal "Beauty" is. Symmetry for instance, a common route to Beauty, acts even in animals to eliminate any suspicion of genetic abnormalities or deficiencies.

Speculating that even our earliest forebears decorated themselves with feathers, natural dyes, and teeth ornaments, Neolithic period paintings actually depict decorated bodies which could either represent makeup or scarification. Stones of manganese dioxide show signs of use on a supple surface and indicate the first instance of cosmetics could well date back at least 45,000 years ago, to the Neanderthals. Hundreds of fragments of red dye pigment was found in archaelogical sites in South Africa, dating back at least 200,000 years to the Middle Stone Age. A skull buried 25,000 years ago is painstakingly adorned with shells and yellow ochre. Decorations in death were for social status, not just beauty.

The word "Cosmetics" is said to be derived from "Cosmos", heavenly stars and planets; and accordingly the earliest forms of makeup and perfumes were equally as appreciated for their supernatural healing powers - acting as antibacterial for eyes, or preventing infection on the skin. In Ancient Egypt, the word for makeup derived from "sesh", to engrave, as the same level of skill was needed - and Kohl was buried with the body for use in the Afterlife. As early as Ancient Greek times, Beauty began to be depicted as dangerous and powerful (Helen of Troy; Nymphs) - and blonde hair became a vital ingredient, e.g Helen, Achilles, Aphrodite and Eros, all described as "xanthos", blonde or tawny. It is odd to see modern images of Beauty unfold so easily.

The careful attention to embellishment was eventually attacked by the Christian church during Roman times: it was seen as an insult to God's handiwork. This is of course why Monks shave their hair and thereby renounce their vanity. Again, this straining between whether makeup enhances or distorts, is an endlessly constant theme.

The different cultures and countries described are truly fascinating. The Ancient Chinese notions of male dominance, characterised by the "Three Follows" - young girl follows her father, young woman her husband, elderly widow her eldest son - possibly explains the distinctively feminine elegance, where even well shaped eyebrows were designed to resemble moths or butterflies. In Japanese Geisha makeup, "a white ethereal face, somewhere between beauty and sorrowfulness, sensuality and expressionless, was the mark of supreme elegance." By contrast, the Ancient African understanding of Beauty embraced many features, even the hunchback - though the head was always decorated and revered the most as it was believed to hold the Spirit.

Famously, it was Simone de Beavoir who finally dispelled the belief that cultivated Beauty and intellect could not be compatible. The woman who does not conform to the social pressure to look her best "devalues herself sexually and hence socially." Suffragettes had been depicted by the media as mannish and wearing glasses, but in truth The Women's Movement as early as 1906 had used Fashion and uniform: silk banners, hats, sashes, but it was not remotely designed to prevent women from looking attractive while demanding their rights. Rosie the Riveter, the poster which defined a generation, presented a new form of Beauty. There was now "nothing passive about beauty." Women's progress, illustrated by their clothes which had formerly been reserved for labourers or soldiers: turtleneck sweater, duffle coat, trenchcoat, beret, and ultimately jeans and T-Shirt - was contrasted by Nazism, which glorified the housewife and encouraged a baby boom. Even Christian Dior's "New Look" collection after the war represented a lapse to the past. Far more enlightened was the iconic Chanel suit.

Meanwhile technology changed the face of the Beauty industry. Perfume, for instance, for so many centuries the preserve of the elite and distilled from natural ingredients, now stands for a huge mass market. Typically, 98% of costs are for publicity, and raw ingredients are limited. Mascara, another iconic Beauty staple, was the brainchild of a certain Maybel's brother, who mixed soot and vaseline and legend has it that consequently Maybel got the man of her dreams. Hence the name "Maybelline" was formed. We have Helena Rubenstein to thank for introducing what we now recognise as a mascara wand.

Ancient forms of beauty, such as an Indian implanted jewel embedded in the forehead, make modern body modification seem nothing too revolutionary after all. And with the advent of Plastic Surgery, Beauty is now not only admired and desired, but actually achievable, for a price. The appetite for makeover shows encourages the depressing result that "transcending social critique is only possible after one has submitted to that critique."

Whether Beauty is timeless and organic, or whether it is a social pressure - is open to debate. 100,000 Years of Beauty has a variety of voices, but the conclusions will be your own.

1 comment:

  1. Gail, Hi! Just wanted to let you know that your review of this collection put a smile on my face. I was ecstatic to see a few of the pages. I have been watching this collection on Amazon for months. I was going to purchase it for my 45th birthday. But, unfortunately the used copies were sold. The price of the next two collections were one was on Amazon for 420 dollars and the other on Alabris for 708 dollars. I just can't justify that when I am paying my moms medical bills. So I will wait patiently, if this collection is for me to have I will get it, one will come for sale that is in my means. But wanted to thank you for a glimpse of the pages. Roz