- Mapping Beauty, Fashion, and Femininity:Recent Contributions by Blain Roberts, Marcia Ochoa, and Vanita Reddy
Marcia Ochoa's Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014
Blain Roberts's Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016
Vanita Reddy's Fashioning Diaspora: Beauty, Femininity, and South Asian American Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2016
Until recently, beauty, fashion, and femininity have, for the most part, been overlooked by academia in spite of their sociocultural and political meaning, implications concerning power, role as instruments of modernity, and status as technologies of neoliberalism. Instead of recognizing the critical potential of these subjects, scholars have long disregarded them as irrelevant and frivolous. Aside from well-known foundational projects on philosophical discourses of beauty, surprisingly little scholarship has explored these themes. Exceptions are rare but worth noting: in the early aughts, two case studies of the Miss America Pageant were published (Watson and Martin 2004; Banet-Weiser 1999) and preceding those was a single edited collection (Cohen, Wilk, and Stoeltje 1996) that explored the ways in which gender ideologies are represented and reinforced in beauty pageants globally. Only now—over a decade after the last contributions to the field—have three works by Blain Roberts, Marcia Ochoa, and Vanita Reddy attempted a much-needed continuation of the debate and deepening of the analysis. These scholars' projects consider beauty, fashion, pageantry, and femininity as complex constellations of material and symbolic cultural signifiers. All three books delve into questions of how these terms and their conceptions complicate the narratives of a nation—and its diasporas—through embodiments that remap geographies of race, gender, culture, and national identity. [End Page 46]
In Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, Blain Roberts undertakes an extensive and meticulous historical analysis of the construction of female beauty in the South, tying her analysis to the way consumer culture informed Southern beauty via products, rituals, and pageants—all of which together reiterated and reinforced women's embodiment of the impact of the cultural and economic modernization of the most highly racialized and segregated regions of the United States. One of the most illuminating elements of her study is that, by conducting a racially inclusive cultural history of beauty, she unveils the dialogue that white and black Southern women had with each other when articulating their specific approaches to beauty.
In her introduction, Roberts defines beauty "as an expansive category that encompasses ideals, practices, rituals, labor, and even spaces" (9), demonstrating the power of this definition through the examination, historicization, and contextualization of the complex significance of beauty in women's lives during the Jim Crow era. While her first chapter explores white Southern women's attempts to reconcile modern beauty practices with the ideals of Southern ladyhood, her second chapter examines black Southern women's struggles to gain access to a black beauty culture in the face of financial instability. This analysis goes beyond products and practices to position the reader inside of the beauty salon to investigate the role of black beauticians. "Free from economic entanglements with whites, beauticians fought the intransigence of white southerners by taking advantage of the opportunities their workplace provided" (230). These opportunities, Roberts shows, often brought these women to the front lines of local activist and civil rights movements.
Many of the "pretty women" (white and black) who were created in "parlors" by beauty products, practices, and rituals, found a showcase for themselves on the pageant stage. Pageants—the most popular public ritual of Southern beauty during the twentieth century—became a medium for the region to demonstrate that "glamour, it turns...