Beauty & Fashion: The rise of the fashion industry in the 20th century (part 2)

Alessandra Monaco

This is the second article in a three-part mini series exploring the intersection of beauty and fashion. The first article, which has also been adapted into a comic by Shaunauk Sokey, investigated the meaning and role of ‘beauty’ through history. In this subsequent piece, Alessandra Monaco explains how key events in the twentieth century such as World War I and II, the Countercultural Revolution and the Second Wave Feminist movement of the 1960s have shaped, influenced, and resisted societal narratives of beauty. The article also examines how globalisation, neoliberalism, and profit-driven industries have commodified health and beauty into marketable goods and have led to the rise of the fast fashion industry.

Fashion Industry and the World Wars

The two world wars, which punctuated the first half of the 20th century, left a significant imprint on women’s socio-economic emancipation in western societies. As men served on the battlefront, women, quite ironically, became fundamental to the steady functioning of their countries. Not only did they continue to manage their households, women also, to an appreciable extent, replaced their husbands, fathers and brothers in the fields and factories, hospitals and schools. This development effected a quick change in women’s fashion and their general attire as the shapes of dresses became more suited to movement and work. Women’s clothing no longer served to highlight their status, instead focusing on the work and role they performed. Uniforms, tailleurs, simpler, more comfortable cuts and trousers took hold on fashion. It is worth highlighting that these developments occurred in the backdrop of the Suffragette Movement, where women marched for the Right to Vote amongst other demands for equity and emancipation.  

Women marching for the Right to Vote during the Suffragette Movement.
Photo by Nationaal Archief on Unsplash

Despite the new roles played by women and the struggle for emancipation, The changes witnessed during the inter-war period were still within the parameters of lingering gender inequities. Women’s social status continued to be subordinate in a male-dominated society and they were still expected to be physically attractive to their spouses and significant others. The nascent fashion industry was quick to profit from this incongruity: French Haute Couture promoted the new style of dressing and the American tailoring industry made it accessible to a wide swathe of women in the West. The feeling and perception of transience associated with war inspired women to dress sensually for the soldier coming back for a short furlough: dresses became shorter and lingerie lighter and silkier, makeup was promoted, and to look attractive became a patriotic duty.

Fashion magazines, pin-ups and beauty pageants

As change impacted Western society’s sense of style and fashion, it also needed a vehicle for outreach. Publications focused on fashion became an enduring part of popular culture and a major support agent for disseminating changing design styles as well as creating a new narrative on how to look and feel. A new role also opened up for women in feminine magazines where they were often able to combine the frivolity of beauty and fashion with deeper insights into cultural and political ideas. Nevertheless, many of these publications continued to promote traditional stereotypes of the female figure devoted to her family, and not particularly educated. It was also in the inter-war period that the seductive, erotic icon of the pin-up was imagined and executed to persuade men to enlist in the army and used as a reward for their coming back, an object of their pleasure.

Designed as a flirting doll, showing her natural curves with a non-explicit outfit that only accidentally showed her abundance, the pin-up girl became a beauty standard for young women of the present and following generations. The curvaceous hourglass figure sporting a measurement of 36-24-36 became an object of aspiration for women, fitting well into the expectations of the “male gaze” and reducing the female figure to a mere object of male desire.

Pandering further to male fantasies about female beauty and its embellishment through fashion, beauty pageants entered popular culture soon after the Second World War. Peddling fraudulent dreams of independence and happiness for women, beauty pageants advanced a stereotype of “attractive” women solely based on their physical appearance and their power to captivate and seduce, disregarding their personality, capabilities, and intelligence. In conservative societies, beauty pageants sparked discussions on their appropriateness and morality but even in a country like Italy, deeply moored in Christian values, the ascent of actresses like Silvana Mangano, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sofia Loren from obscurity to stardom after their successes at “La Bella Italiana” (Miss Italy), gave beauty pageants the required acceptability. The fashion industry continued to guide these social developments while promoting its commercial interests – for instance, the Miss Universe contest which began in the United States, was created by the Catalina swimwear brand to promote their swimwear.

1952 Miss Universe contest poster created and promoted by Catalina Swimwear. Source: Glamoursurf

For a long time, the standards promoted by prominent beauty pageants stuck close to Western norms of appearance and fashion – it was only in 1966 that Reita Faria of India became the first Asian Miss World, while the first Black woman, Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad and Tobago, won the Miss Universe contest a decade later in 1977. While racial diversity has been recognized and even promoted by international beauty contests, they have had a poor track record when it came to the unrealistic physical standards forced upon pageant participants all over the world. Societal (male) expectations force extreme dieting, cosmetic procedures and aesthetic surgery upon young women who suffer intense psychological stress, and often end up abusing drugs and alcohol to steady themselves psychologically. Time and again, the price of this desire for glamour and fame is a wasted youth.

From austerity to conspicuous consumption to resistance

A strong surge of economic activity in Western societies followed the end of the Second World War, driven largely by the mass production of goods in the United States. As journalist Sophie Benson accurately describes in her book, The Sustainable Wardrobe, finance capital identified the urgency to transition from prioritizing needs to fostering desires and training individuals to covet new things before fully using the old ones. Advertisements started to shift from being factual to emotionally evocative, and creating an image of prosperity through which the possession of objects became more important than real necessities. Not surprisingly, fashion too became an aspirational tool pushing people to run after unreachable ideal types. And, yet, women who had become used to some amount of freedom as part of the war economy were being expected to confine themselves again to a domestic role, affirming to the “mystique of femininity” advanced at the time of the Cold War as more of a political strategy than just a factor of entrenched patriarchy. It was understandable that this societal ask would face a rebuttal soon.

The Counterculture revolution of the 1960s encouraged women, minorities, pacifists, beatniks, hippies to question all entrenched orthodoxies and change the existing social paradigm. The curvaceous model of the pin-up gradually gave way to slimmer and more androgynous figures with slender elegance and delicate appearances thanks to cinema, fashion magazines, and the gradual penetration of television into households. Alternative cultural movements were emerging in opposition to rising materialism and consumerism in society, and fashion became a distinctive way to declare their affiliation with one of these groups. Despite their differences, all these counterculture groups put a strong political and revolutionary stamp on beauty and physical appearance

With the rise of the feminist movement[1]  women started reclaiming freedom to make decisions regarding their own bodies without interference from the male-dominated society. Women won legal and reproductive rights, subverted their social roles, demanded access to education and job opportunities, and reclaimed their sexual freedom. They wanted to be subjects of their own lives, to be allowed to seek beauty and pleasure for their bodies without being judged or considered objects of pleasure for men. In 1968, protestors at the Miss America pageant announced a boycott of all products related to the competition, and triumphantly deposited bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes and women’s magazines into a Freedom Trash Can[2], rejecting the pressures of the “male-gaze” and flaunting their unshaven legs as a representation of freedom and emancipation. 

The Civil Rights movement was accompanied by the assertion of “Black Is Beautiful”. Taylor Haynes, in his Fashion Activism, describes how clothing and hairstyles emerged as powerful symbols for Black activism. It also marked a cultural shift in Black feminine expression, resisting Eurocentric beauty standards and aimed to foster a sense of identity and pride in their African heritage. In fact, the afro hairstyle not only symbolized political assertion and racial pride, it also became a fashion statement, allowing for new expressions for African American women irrespective of their political affiliations.[3]

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was accompanied by the assertion of ‘Black is Beautiful’.
Source: Archive for Christlich-Demokratische Politik (ACDP)

The Beat Generation of the late 50s also combined political contention with fashion, rebelling against materialism, racism and militarism. It transcended the boundaries of race and gender, integrating black as a significant fashion statement strung together by the notes of Jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Beat movement’s fashion narrative was also enormously influenced by Jack Kerouac’s novel, “On the Road” with its characters in tattered essentials like blue jeans, white t-shirts, and worn-out canvas, reflecting a lifestyle seeking freedom from societal norms and affirming a simplistic, non-conformist attire. Beat female writers chose to wear shades of black, diverging from the prevalent hourglass, ultra-feminine fashion and endorsing individuality and an anti-establishment sensibility. Long, flowing hair for both men and women further stressed the Beats’ spirit of rebellion. Their disregard for prevalent aesthetic concerns, prioritizing intellectual and spiritual growth, emerged as a distinctive hallmark of their style.[4]

In many ways, the Beat Movement was a precursor to the Hippies who created a unique identity and aura with their belief in peace, love, freedom, and harmony with nature. Their commitments were all reflected in a fashion attire inspired by ethnic and folk clothing, Eastern cultures, and elements of the Victorian era. Today, their adoption of symbols, clothing, and spiritual practices from other cultures without necessarily understanding or respecting their significance might be labelled by some as cultural appropriation. It can’t, however, be denied that the Hippies movement aimed to promote unity, celebrate diversity, and challenge societal norms by rejecting the materialistic upsurge of the post-war era.

The echoes of the rebellious, countercultural movements in the United States also reached Europe, sparking large protests and insistent questioning of entrenched norms and hierarchies. In France, workers and students demonstrated against the De Gaulle government’s continuing imperialist role in South-East Asia. The movement had a significant impact on popular culture and style. The Atelier Populaire, emerging from the strikes of teachers and students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, produced a poster titled “La Beauté est dans la Rue” (beauty is in the street) in 1968, portraying a protester (a girl) hurling a stone in the direction of the observer (the police), boldly signifying that beauty, understood as art, creativity, and culture, no longer belonged exclusively to the bourgeois; rather, it originated from the grassroots and became a politically revolutionary act that defied the system’s norms. Beauty also served as a metonymy, symbolizing women’s active involvement in protests while asserting their presence with aplomb.

Critics may argue that these movements failed, falling into violence, addiction or resignation, and that most movement members abandoned and betrayed their ideals in exchange for a quiet, and often, a bourgeois life. While this is probably true, without the radical gestures and actions of these movements, some of the rights and freedoms we have today wouldn’t have been possible and women would probably still be living according to the “mystique of femininity”.

The rise of neoliberalism and beauty as a form of societal control

In the 1980s, the West embraced a dominant neoliberal economic model characterized by a surge in finance capital, strongly prioritizing profit maximization and shareholder value. In the United States, the policy framework under Reagan significantly reduced the role of the government, promoted tax cuts and deregulated industry. Simultaneously, in the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher privatized a large part of the state-owned sector, deregulated the financial markets, and diminished the role of trade unions.

These macroeconomic changes left an indelible mark on the fashion sector, triggering a notable departure from traditional craftsmanship and artisanal tailoring toward a more corporatized industry. Corporate boards and profit-driven shareholders began wielding influence over production decisions, often prioritizing cost efficiency, scalability, and marketability over the intrinsic value of craftsmanship and individual expression. Concurrently, the removal of trade barriers and increased international trade enabled fashion brands to globalize, resulting in outsourced production to regions with cheaper labor costs. The ascendancy of major corporations in fashion led to industry consolidation, as conglomerates like LVMH emerged from the merger of luxury brands, signaling the onset of corporate dominance. This shift marginalized smaller, independent artisans and tailors, unable to compete with corporate giants’ economies of scale and marketing prowess. Fashion’s focus shifted from creativity to meeting market demands and financial targets, eroding its heritage and artistic essence. This corporate-driven approach reshaped the industry, emphasizing brand image, trends, and rapid collection turnover at the expense of not only quality and cultural heritage that defined earlier fashion eras, but also human rights and environment.

The rise of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell has been capitalized by the fashion industry. Pic by Christopher Macsurak. Source: Flikr.  

This was also the time of the rise of supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer, who became emblematic figures. These models epitomized a new form of empowerment and success, ostensibly breaking barriers by gaining widespread recognition and enormous financial success. The beauty and fashion industries capitalized on these models’ images to sell products, reinforcing certain beauty standards as well as giving impetus to consumerism. The notion of “girl power” and “having it all” was marketed, suggesting that women could attain empowerment by mirroring the success and glamour of these models. Their prominence was heavily mediated by mass media, which projected an image of these models as powerful, independent women.

One way to look at the rise of the super-models is to explore the intersections between this phenomenon and post-feminism, as these top models embodied notions of individualism and choice. They appeared to transcend traditional constraints, leveraging their looks and personal branding to achieve fame and financial success. They fed the imagery of “post-feminist healthism” dictating not only a particular appearance but also a lifestyle: being healthy, fit, and maintaining a certain body shape signifying empowerment. The pressure on women to conform to these standards has been immense. Media portrayal of the ‘ideal’ woman as thin, toned, and always camera-ready created an unattainable benchmark for everyone else. However, this focus on health and fitness often masked deeper issues. It obscured the prevalence of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and mental health struggles resulting from the pressure to conform. While advocating for empowerment, this paradigm inadvertently imposed new limitations on women, dictating how they should look and live, thereby contradicting the fundamental feminist ethos of freedom of choice and autonomy. For this reason, post-feminism’s focus on individual bodies and choices can be seen as a way of exerting power over women by shaping societal perceptions of empowerment and success through the lens of appearance and sexuality.

Post-feminism has therefore been accused by some critics of fostering competition among women, reinforcing patriarchal norms, and overlooking structural inequalities. It promotes the idea that women can achieve success by conforming to societal beauty standards, thus perpetuating a culture of objectification and emphasizing appearance as a measure of success. In this scenario, women are now both victims and creators of fashion diktats, beauty stereotypes and market trends. It’s a duty to conform, to assert oneself and be recognized. Penalty: exclusion.

In the realm of the capitalistic, consumer-driven markets and governance, the commodification of health, beauty, and identities establishes itself as a cornerstone. Within this landscape, profit-driven industries transform health and beauty into marketable goods, fostering rigid societal norms that regulate bodies and influence behaviors to fit aspirational ideals. These market forces intertwine with governance structures, echoing Foucault’s insights on biopolitics, illustrating how power extends beyond traditional political realms into the regulation and control of biological and aesthetic aspects of life. This intersection reveals the subtle mechanisms through which power operates, shaping individual behaviors, perceptions and societal norms, mirroring the pervasive influence seen within capitalistic markets and their control over societal values and identities. Susan Bordo, an American philosopher, strongly inspired by Foucault, asserts in her work, “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body[5], that the female bodies are oppressed by the culture of dieting culture and fashion, used as tools by a male dominant ideology, always willing to control women and make them docile.

Globalization as accelerator of dominant cultural models

The power exerted by the commodification of healthism, fitness, dieting and fashion trends on women and the constant push of unrealistic aspirational model have had an enduring presence in the globalization era marked by the omnipresence of the world wide web.  In these times where everyone can be reached everywhere at any time, it’s easy to spread dominant cultural models where beauty ideals, assumptions, and routines prevalent in the West affirm themselves as global benchmark.

Globalisation has accelerated the commodification of beauty and health. Source: Unsplash

Despite the melting pot of a globalized society as found in the West, elements of colonialism continue to strongly affect non-western cultures, pressuring them to conform. The requests for aesthetic surgery, for instance, increased significantly in Asia to match up to the “big western eyes”. While in the US, Afro hairstyles are still forced into reasonable length and size by school uniform policies, discriminating against naturally curly Afro hair, dreadlocks, cornrows and so on. Fair skin tone is still predominant in beauty standards, even though for the Western elite all-year-round tanned skin has become a distinct sign of ease and affluence. Fair skin continues to be a symbol of beauty, especially in all those countries and cultures that suffered colonial domination and largely lived and worked outdoors under the sun.

Skin care involving daily routines and products is now quite widespread. It seems ridding oneself of wrinkles could also exorcise death. In a society so obsessed with the continuous improvement of one’s external appearance, there naturally is no time for deep reflections that the certainty of life’s ending entails. We’d rather place our hopes in transhumanism or cryonics. Ageism is indeed a pretty big issue for the contemporary society and something people have increasingly been encouraged to reject. Age – both physical and mental – has become a reason for discrimination. In recent decades, older people have started to be considered an economic and societal burden for the community. Consequently, contemporary culture vigorously propagates the idea of being forever young: we must keep fit, eat healthy, be thin, dress fashionably, use cosmetics and surgery, behave like teenagers and, above all, keep spending our money.

In this same period, the masses have been encouraged to become aspirational fashionistas to gain status, and are told that their social recognition is strictly bound to their possessions and their ostentation. The answer to Eric Fromm’s question “to have or to be?” is quite obvious: you are what you have! Low production costs aided by deregulation and delocalization have resulted in the rise of fast fashion that allows all the wannabes to follow the newest fashion trend and mimic the luxury of their idols. While this phenomenon is rightly criticized because of environmental and social exploitation, social movements are encouraging the boycott of fast-fashion companies, but perhaps it’s a simplified solution to a more complex issue. In fact, both, luxury fashion and neoliberalism are to be blamed for the rise of fast-fashion: tons of cheap, low-quality garments are produced to imitate and keep pace with the countless collections that high fashion brands put on the market every season and to deceive the working class with the illusion that they can replicate the lifestyle of the rich by having access to imitation products. While you could recreate the makeup of a famous star and be current with the seasonal color palette purchasing cheap cosmetics, there’s no guarantee that they would be safe, and have not been made with cheap and unhealthy raw material. You could wear an imitation dress and feel like the belle of the ball, even if it is dyed with harmful, non-tested substances that can cause adverse reactions to your skin. At the end of the day, we all know what the message is: no pain, no gain in beauty!

Low production costs, deregulation and delocalization have resulted in the rise of fast fashion. Source: Unsplash

“Mens sana in corpore sano”. Or might it be the opposite?

Contrary to Giovenale’s original interpretation in Satire X, today there’s a tendency to use the phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” to signify that a healthy body is the necessary foundation for a sound mind and soul.

It might be high time to reverse this saying and begin to consider that a healthy, beautiful body requires sound, firm, and trained mind and soul to live a fulfilling life; that nurturing the mind and spirit allows us to live in harmony with our body, as a unity capable of transcending the mere physical exteriority of the here and now. The question is if the sensibilities of the time we are living in can overcome the prejudices and conditioning we, both, endure and perpetuate simultaneously; if there might be a higher horizon of meaning that can guide us toward a more respectful and non-judgmental attitude towards our bodies and those of the others.

The third and conclusive part of this mini-series will offer some reflections and thoughts to shape alternatives to the current fashion industry and its practices.

Alessandra Monaco works as an independent sustainability consultant and advisor in Lugano, Switzerland, drawing upon over 16 years of experience within the fashion industry. In 2023,Alessandra transitioned to a solopreneurial role, and now works with organizations seeking to pave a path toward a fairer and more sustainable future.


[1] Raffaella Baritono, La ‘mistica della femminilità’ e il modello americano negli anni della guerra fredda, 2002

[2] Deborah L. Rhode, Appearance as a Feminist Issue, 69 SMU L. Rev. 697, page 698, 2016

[3] Taylor Haynes, Fashion Activism, 2021,

[4] Sophie Wilson, How the Beat Generation Created the Uniform for Disaffected Youth, 2022,

[5] Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 1993, University of California Press

Note: The pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.

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