by Lucy Jane Santos
What is considered beautiful varies according to the historical place and period, and according to gender, ethnicity and class – but beauty has always been a prized attribute. The 20th century, however, saw a massive change in how beauty was understood and achieved.
The beauty industry was soon firmly established. Its self- proclaimed mission was to sell products and services covering three main benefits: to change the condition of the skin, to slow down the ageing process, and to cover or enhance the skin itself.
Historians and anthropologists cannot agree on why this new industry sprang up with such vigour. But this new importance of beauty is thought to have been influenced by an increase in life expectancy and insecurities about ageing. Adverts for toiletries and cosmetics, certainly, heavily emphasised how those who failed to be youthful risked social stigma or – the worst-case scenario – remaining unmarried. This was a genuine possibility given the gender imbalance after so many men died during the First World War.
The first half of the 1920s had seen women’s magazines filling with advertisements for face creams and body treatments. These aimed to make the user younger, thinner (or for those who felt too thin, stouter– as they called it then), hair-free and more fragrant.
The Victorian idea of beauty based on moral temperament was out, and beauty based on the effort put in (even if someone else actually did the actual hard work) was, definitely, in.
The beauty therapist or hairdresser would have been a person of great trust and not inconsiderable training. Although there was a great deal of variations depending on the size of the salon, on the whole, everyone working in them would have gone through either an apprentice system or gone to a training school like the Barrett Street Trade School for girls which opened in 1915. By 1920 nearly one thousand girls, mostly from London’s East End and specially selected by the head Miss Cox, had been trained there over a period of two years. They would have learnt boardwork (dressing false hair on a board or wig form) and salon practice. You could train as many different trades, but they had a specialist section as Hairdressers and the Beauty Trade. The students graduated in March, which was the beginning of the London season, and a time when there was a great demand.
On top of having the best staff salon owners would want to have all the latest equipment and secure every new method of beauty treatment. An interview with Mary London, of Mary London salon in Glasgow, made this clear. She stated she made it her business to go off periodically to beauty salons in many different countries for research: ‘So that what is available in New York and Paris is also available in Glasgow.’
Modernity was vital to the beauty industry in general. It was important for companies to acknowledge the technological advancements used in their products’ design, distribution and ingredients. But it was also vital to address the consumer through the rhetoric of modernity and novelty in advertisements. Increasingly, advertising was using terms such as ‘discovery’, ‘advancement’ and ‘innovation’ to enhance associations with modernity and the new worlds of science and female emancipation.
The design of the salon spaces was critical – they stressed a sense of luxury and warmth in contrast to the drab life of the majority. But premises were also designed to appeal to the values of modernism, streamlining and cleanliness. Hygiene was prized: mostly because the conditions in salons were not always that sanitary. Because of the state of the Victorian drains West End salons were considered to be the most dangerous places to have your hair washed. There was a very real risk of having a bubble of sewer gas coming up through the pipe hence in the 1920s it became the practice to sit with your back to the sink when having your hair washed!
The design of the hairdressing and beauty salon had once been modelled on the private cubicles of department stores. However, by the interwar period, they became almost universally (if space permitted) a space divided into two. The first of these was a reception area, which resembled an upper middle-class parlour, and the second, the workspace where the treatments were carried out.
An up-to-date salon (and every salon would have strived to be up to date!) would have been a warm and luxurious place. A good salon would have all the mod cons including electric lighting, marble-topped sinks, plenty of hot and cold running water and reclining chairs. The beauty technology on offer included electric curling irons, banks of gas or electric hairdryers, vibrator machines and electric hairbrushes. Companies such as Messrs R Hovenden made a fortune in refitting salons and providing them with the latest equipment.
The hairdressing and beauty salon developed as a new urban pleasure – a space where women could be public but private. Even ‘parlour’ and ‘salon’ are terms explicitly invoking the female spaces within a private residence, implying a solid sense of respectability. These spaces were the height of what it meant to be a modern woman in the interwar years.
Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium is published by Icon Books in July 2020. www.lucyjanesantos.com