- Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975
Susannah Walker's book is a solid social history that explores the trajectories, themes, and tensions of twentieth-century African American women's beauty culture. Walker has effectively mined numerous sources including industry trade journals, memoirs, newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, and New York Amsterdam News, periodicals such as Half-Century Magazine, Ebony, and Jet, and company records and publications such as those of publisher Claude Barnett and beauty entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. Overall, the book strikes a fine balance in describing the economic contribution of beauty-based businesses to African American communities, explaining style changes over time, and closely analyzing the visual culture and texts of black beauty culture advertising and promotion.
Walker's introduction clearly lays out the wider conceptual framework through which she considers the specific circumstances and effects of African American beauty culture. She argues that the images, discourses, and practices of black beauty culture demonstrate understanding among African Americans that beauty was a "social issue" for black women. Beauty culture also "reveals the participation of blacks in American consumer culture," (4) an "involvement....[that] often highlighted racial discrimination in American society." (6) In addition, black-owned beauty businesses deserve recognition "as a distinctive version of black economic nationalism that sometimes meshed with, and at other times conflicted with, African American efforts to promote the economic power of black consumers to white companies" (4) and to achieve equal "consumer citizenship." (7)Walker's study thus draws together issues raised by the histories of women, business, and consumer culture.
Questions of beauty and femininity, and the time-consuming and sometimes risky practices used to achieve them, are certainly fraught topics for all women. Yet this book makes clear that African American women faced particular challenges. For all American women, maintaining a fashionable appearance demonstrated conformity to current feminine ideals and was an important means of establishing that they deserved respect. For African American women, asserting their respectability with dress and comportment was also an act of resistance that countered white supremacist characterizations that maligned their moral reputations and justified sexual assaults. Furthermore, while American women are familiar today with the concept of "bad hair days," African American women have long been characterized even within their own communities as having either "bad hair" or "good hair" on a continuum from more to less curly. These are vastly different self-conceptions and ways to experience one's body. Clearly, black beauty culture is a key arena for exploring issues of identity, resistance, conformity, and difference in America. [End Page 195]
Hair is so central a topic to African American culture that a library catalog search of the subject "Hair-Social Aspects-United States" only yields books about African American hair. Yet as Walker's evidence convincingly shows, the dilemmas of hair styling also provided unique opportunities for African American women to improve their economic situation as stylists and door-to-door sellers of beauty products and to create new, autonomous social spaces-beauty shops-for community building. But the determination of what constituted a respectable, if not beautiful hair style was inevitably entangled by tensions about whether a style signified conformity to white standards of beauty, created possibilities for respectability and advancement, and/or denoted pride in self and community.
Walker finds in black beauty culture promotion a negotiation among the sometimes competing demands of product sales, racial uplift, and dignity. Madame C. J. Walker finessed potentially troubling issues, for example, by selling her famous hot combs and hair tonics as essential to hair "treatments" and health, rather than identifying them as "straighteners." Her company advertisements also emphasized how purchases benefitted the company's female sales force and enabled financial support of black schools and organizations. White-owned companies in the early twentieth century were more likely to promote hair products as necessary cures for African American hair they described as intrinsically defective. However, these businessmen eventually learned that appeals to racial pride were more...