Many years ago I bought a curiosity in a book sale: The Book of Beauty, published in 1961 by the newspaper magnate George Newnes, and edited by Eileen Allen. It’s still available on rare book sites but I’ve never seen it anywhere else, and it has fascinated me. The photographs are particularly arresting, the kind of thing I gazed at in awe in my first, but still dated Girl Guides’ Handbook in the early 1970s, about what hat to wear to a job interview, and how to arrange your hair before you go to bed.
None of the advice was remotely relevant to me, and so I gazed at these pages with the curiosity of an alien species. So many instructions as to how to wash a foundation garment, with many photographs of the types of foundation garments available, all very mysterious to me since even my mother didn’t wear such old-fashioned objects. A strange ritual called ‘setting your hair’, with rows of extraordinary pincurls, looked the most ugly and uncomfortable way to go about your day. ‘Home perms’ were apparently part of this, but I’d heard of them from a cartoon strip in The Bunty, which was still printing strips from the 1950s. I was boggled by the inference that hair had different categories of viewer: that you might wander around the house, or confine yourself to your bedroom, or reveal your hair to the shops, or a party, or the world, depending on what it looked like. (Couldn’t you just, you know, go out?) This chimed with photographs I’d seen in the Radio Times of characters from Coronation Street wearing gauze headscarves to go to the shops, clearly showing the fat rows of rollers underneath, and I do recall an old lady on my street wearing just such rollers out while shopping in the morning, but never in the afternoon.
If nothing else this book is a valuable anthropologist’s resource for how young women of the early 60s were expected to dress by a conservative press. But little bits of the approaching Swinging Sixties were allowed in, to show how up to date this volume was, and therefore how necessary. Nan Van den Hoek (perhaps just a journalist’s pen-name, as it means ‘Nan from the corner’) was clearly the up to the minute practitioner in ‘Beauty though Mysticism’. Eight pages on yoga, plus illustrations for a couple of poses, were allowed in as long as their use to deal with stress, exercise and fitness was firmly directed towards ‘beauty.’
After the opening statement that beauty is really all about naturalness, the book is packed with ways to make that naturalness fit into the fashions and restrictions of the day (gloves and hats every day). Lady Isabel Barnett, a qualified doctor, and a regular ‘witty television personality’ on What’s My Line (but not a peeress in her own right: her title was mis-styled from her husband’s knighthood) contributed 40 pages on calorie-counted diets and weight loss. There is also advice and instruction on plastic surgery, make-up for the camera, ‘learning to be a model at home’, slimming tips, problem legs, how to wear glasses and curl your lashes: nothing in this book isn’t being covered today by the fashion magazine industry, so the social imperatives haven’t changed very much. But it’s the obsession with presenting the right face to the world that this book drives home, and seems so utterly alien.