The idea of female beauty has changed throughout history, ranging from celebrating maternal curves to imposing ideals of a skinnier representation of women. Although the standard has changed, we are safe to say that some beauty is considered timeless, no matter the period.
The first two decades of the 20th century was a period when the image of female beauty was going through a transitional period, influenced by the emergence of photography, cinema, and the mass media.
It was the time when the belles of the silent era reigned supreme, challenging stereotypes about women while sporting some of the most iconic looks in history.
A Filipino mestiza woman in 1875
Maude Adams as Phoebe in Quality Street (1901)
Elegant, feminine, but also capable of succeeding in a man’s world, some of these women were at the forefront of the liberation that was taking hold, changing their position in society.
What adds to the charm of these photographs is the fact that most of them were taken more than a century ago. They continue to inspire the fashion trends of today, while nurturing the eternal beauty of original divas of the silver screen.
However, among them are not only movie stars but also opera singers like Lina Cavalieri, or members of royal families, such as the oldest daughter of Nicholas II Romanov, the Grand Duchess Olga, who met her tragic end with the rest of the Romanovs during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Anna Pavlova, Russian prima ballerina
Cléo de Mérode (1875 – 1966), French dancer, circa 1903
Silver gelatin photograph of a Malayali woman in the 1900s
Ethel Warwick (1882 – 1951), British actress
Cléo de Mérode
Pretty Nose (c. 1851 – after 1952), Arapaho war chief
Carolina “La Belle” Otero, Spanish actress, dancer and courtesan, circa 1890
Miss N (Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit by Gertrude Käsebier), 1903
Lily Elsie (1886 – 1962), English actress and singer
Lina Cavalieri, Italian operatic soprano
Lone Bright Eickemeyer, Broadway actress, photographed by Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr. 1912
Camille Clifford, Belgian actress
Gladys Cooper in fancy-dress costume
Marie Doro, American stage and film actress, in 1909
Marie Doro (1882–1956)
Mary Pickford, American-Canadian film actress
Postcard of Maude Fealy as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet Source
Ethel Clayton, American actress of the silent film era
There are also theatre actresses and ballerinas, together with women hailing from exotic parts of the world, like the Philippines.
Contrary to their European and American counterparts, the woman of Philippines has no make-up, reflecting the cultural differences and providing an insight into the ideal of beauty among the peoples of the Pacific.
Lehnert Landrock – Ouled Naïl Girl – Algeria – 1905
Maude Adams (1872 – 1953), American actress
Maude Fealy, American stage and silent film actress
Portrait of photographer Rita Martin by her sister Lallie Charles, c. 1907
Publicity photo of Anna May Wong
Theatre Magazine pub. 1913
So, feel free to scroll through these early photographs that formed the beauty standards of an era that might be long gone, but still echoes within our time.
Let us know in the comments what you think about the trends that shape our view of beauty and how they change and correspond with the times we live in.