And furthermore ...

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Friday, 14 May 2010


National types of beauty

“I love those decadent wenches who do so trouble my dreams”

In the 1880s Francis Galton was so convinced that measurement could unlock the secrets of science he started collecting data that would establish empirically where in England the most beautiful women came from. Because he believed in the absolute objectivity of science he could not ask assistants to make judgements for him, nor could he ask women to meet at a certain place at a given time so he could take their statistics. Instead he travelled from city to city and when he spied a woman who matched his idea of beauty he’d follow her at a distance, scribbling down information about height, weight, gait and so forth in his notebook. It’s actually not surprising he wasn’t arrested for his behaviour. Men could get away with this sort of thing and had a policeman stopped him and made enquiries he most likely would have been released on the grounds he was just another eccentric savant, and England was full of them.

In the early 1930s publishers of cigarette cards hit upon a scheme that might have intrigued Galton though he wouldn’t have found it at all scientific. They gathered together photographs of actresses and models from around the world into a series called ‘National Types of Beauty’. The idea each nation had its characteristics of beauty would have met with Galton’s approval though the project could hardly be called scientific since it left the final decision to the individual smoker.

Finding examples wasn’t hard; the company approached various studios who were happy to licence out images. Actresses like Anna May Wong from China, Frances Doble from Canada and Greta Nissen from Sweden came to represent those qualities most desirable in a woman from their country, or perhaps they didn’t. Maybe they simply asked for an example without any selection process involved. The primary idea wasn’t to conduct an anthropological survey rather to have a set of photographs that would have the customers coming back for more. Some of the women match stereotypes so the women from the Middle East look mysterious, those from Europe’s hot countries vibrant and so on but some don’t. Miss Eve Gray from Australia with her plaited bun looks more Scandinavian than antipodean. Also, there are no black women. This series is as much about class as beauty so only those women from wealthy, industrialized, ‘sophisticated’ countries stood a chance.

A short description was written on the backs of the cards. This striking example of photographic art gives a vivid impression of the beautiful Norwegian; stately, fair haired, blue eyed and of fair complexion and The distinctive modeling of the face, the black glossy hair and the almond shaped eyes, indicate a type of beauty always associated with the Far East (Japan). This was a time when a man could feel confident in his assessment of foreign women, even if he’d never met one. the Spanish were feisty, the Chinese demure; ‘those Mexican senoritas will as soon as look at a man as cut his throat’.

Depending on your level of sensitivity, the descriptions on the back are either quaint or appalling. In a few, short years racial profiling would stain Europe, not just in Germany but in England, France, Holland and everywhere that fascist groups and sympathizers came together. It was the age when Galton’s theory of eugenics came into force. We’d soon go back to our old ways. 1950s Hollywood was riddled as a poxy sailor with racial stereotyping and in other countries we’d just shift the posts, so a typical Australian beauty now wore an Akubra hat and rode a horse and those eastern European dames still had a hint of cruelty about them but were tragically oppressed by a communist regime.


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