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The evolution of beauty between the 16th and 20th centuries

evolution de la beaute - hygiene

Between the 16th and 20th centuries, the standards of beauty have drastically evolved, for a time advocating feminine curves, before promoting slimness as the norm. Looking back at the past can be reassuring. Indeed, the history of beauty proves how subjective it all is. At Gellé Frères, we have always believed that every woman is beautiful in her own way, and that every woman deserves the title of Queen.

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The evolution of beauty in the 16th century

In the 16th century, beauty was considered a divine asset, a gift. You either had it, or you didn’t, and no artifice could change it. There was mistrust towards cosmetics that alter complexion or the colour of eyelids. Anything unnatural was considered impure. Back then, beauty was highly localised: it was mostly observed through a woman’s face, hands and bust.

The evolution of beauty in the 17th century

The 17th century saw a radical change in people’s idea of beauty. Greater attention was paid to the silhouette, and accentuation of certain parts was encouraged, even if it meant wearing a tight corset to stretch out the body and emphasise the waist. Although the corset appeared as early as the 16th century, it was not until the 17th century that it became widely popular, distinguishing the women of high society from the common people.

The evolution of beauty in the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment highlighted women’s individual traits and personalities. Taking care of oneself and one’s body became a valued practice, and beauty soon was associated with good health. A beautiful body is a firm body. The first to access these beautifying practices were of course women of the court. The diversification of beauty instruments, in the form of oils, waters, talc, ointments and powders, eventually contributed to the spread of such high standards among the people. Eau de toilette fragrances became lighter. The watchword was no longer the intelligible, but the sensitive. On the eve of the French Revolution, this beauty trend involving more natural tendencies might have been an early sign of women’s emancipation.

The story of Maison Gellé Frères started in the 18th century with Jean-Louis Fargeon, the official perfumer of the Court of Versailles and Queen Marie-Antoinette. He later passed on all his know-how and expertise to the Gellé brothers, who opened their first shop in 1826 in Paris.

The evolution of beauty in the 19th century

After the French Revolution, grandiloquent wigs and beauty spots – these fake moles made of black muslin – faded away. Two opposite representations of female beauty emerged. On one hand, “la belle malade” (the beautiful destitute) is skinny and doesn’t wear make-up because she is naturally sublime. Painter Camille Claudel depicted this feminine ideal, highlighting its mysterious physique. On the other hand, “la petite bourgeoise” (the petty bourgeoise) is plumper with a milky white body, these voluptuous forms being symbols of good health and fertility.

The 19th century also saw the standardisation of nudes. The whole body became important. It could be observed more closely during shows, at the music hall or the beach, which became a relaxing destination.

The notion of coquetry was accepted and the beauty market expanded.

The evolution of beauty in the 20th century

Women could now go to a beauty salon to be pampered. Beauty is everywhere, in the media, the cinema, in magazines, in the thoughts of both women and men, who are becoming familiar with beauty care. A flat stomach and slimness have become the new social norm, causing torment and annoyance to those with different body types.

What will the expectations be at the end of the 21st century? We all bear these messages and social norms. So why not shape them the way we want them to be?


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