Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book Review: Teresa Riordan, Inventing Beauty

Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations that Have Made Us BeautifulPublisher/Year: Broadway Books, 2004

Who has not heard the story of one Mr. Titslinger, the inventor immortalized in the glitzy stage show in the film Beaches? New York Times writer Teresa Riordan is counting on everyone knowing the popular story of how he invented the bra. Or did he? This is just one historical point that Riordan focuses her attention on in her captivatingly educational book Inventing Beauty. The book takes us on a journey from head to toe to tail, bringing forth beauty myths and truths for all the women who have ever, as another reviewer stated, “pushed, pulled, tweezed, squeezed, and spackled themselves into synthetic loveliness.”

Did you know that women’s right to use cosmetics was actually argued on the political stage in the United States? Charlotte Smith, editor of the The Woman Inventory and Madame M. Yale, a cosmetics entrepeneur, went before the House of Representatives Agricultural Committee in 1892 to debate whether women could use cosmetics to improve their appearance. The outcome of the debate is obvious as the cosmetic industry generates billions of dollars annually on women’s desire to look beautiful and put together. But the fact that this topic was posed on such a stage is yet another example of how a woman’s body has never really been her own.

Did you also know that “because of consumer demand, the vibrator (at this stage meant to be externally rather than internally applied) was only the fifth electrical device introduced into the household, arriving just after the electric sewing machine, fan, teakettle, and toaster”? It was devised to assist physicians in the treatment of hysteria (so they would no longer have to manually stimulate their female patients), and was thought to be beneficial for the treatment of wrinkles. This information certainly makes you look at the vibrator in a new way.

Riordan looks at how the bustle started as a modest means for enhancing a woman’s derriere. It turned into a fashion fright though as women soon had to endure contraptions that could hold a whole tea serving set! She also examines the evolution of our fascination with lips--why the first lipsticks were orange to devices that aided women in drawing the perfect cupid lips to the development of the containers we are all familiar with today.

Riordan completed some meticulous research on the beauty industry for this book, all of which is carefully documented in the Notes and Bibliography sections. To support this research, Riordan has also littered advertisments, photographs and sketches throughout the pages to provide an extra layer of value to her prose. You can check out the stars and models who helped sell these products and ideals to the public, and then compare them to the pictures of the poor women who had to endure the neverending cycle of product reinvention in order to attain the current beauty ideal.

Historians will be amazed at the facts and information Riordan was able to unearth, but all readers will be dazzled by the clarity and enthusiasm with which Riordan tackles this touchy topic of female beauty. Roirdan has managed construct a book that neither rails against the beauty industry for promoting unrealistic beauty standards for women nor enthusiastically celebrates its achievements for women. She perfectly captures the comedy and drama of the situation, by combining the horror stories of women enduring carbolic acid peels with the often amusing tales of the inventors and entrepeneurs who (disastrously) came up with these ideas. And Riordan’s wonderfully inviting writing style makes Inventing Beauty an irresistible read for anyone interested in learning a little more about the everyday life of women.


  1. Thank you for adding another book to my TBR pile! I included this in my "Friday Five" over at Kate's Library.

  2. Thanks Kate! Apologies for the late response; time moves too quickly sometimes.