All the Rage: Power, Pain, Pleasure – Stories from the Frontline of Beauty 1860–1960 by Virginia Nicholson - review by Sophie Oliver

Sophie Oliver

Dress to Transgress

All the Rage: Power, Pain, Pleasure – Stories from the Frontline of Beauty 1860–1960


Virago 470pp £25

‘Don’t be a fright. Don’t wear loud-hued leggings. Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face”.’ Even on a bicycle, that emblem of their public freedom, women were offered stern words about how they should present themselves. Greater liberty in one aspect of women’s lives was often matched by new kinds of coercion in what they wore and how they looked. Virginia Nicholson’s history of modern women’s dedication to their appearance is full of ironies like this.

Whether in 1860 or 1960, rules abounded. Readers of The Lady’s Dressing-­Room (1893) were advised to avoid exciting novels, especially late at night (risk of wrinkles), outdoor sports (might toughen the skin), violent emotions and slouching (unseemly). In The Way to Beauty (1955), Constance Moore instructed her followers to touch their toes twelve times each morning and adopt the banana and milk diet. Through etiquette guides, advice manuals, magazines, diaries and memoirs, Nicholson tells a disturbing story of women – predominantly white women in Britain and the United States – puffing, panting, pinching and worrying their way through a period of great change in their rights and visibility.  

She is particularly good on how a body looks when styled according to the fashions and expectations of an era. A photograph from 1860 shows Princess Alexandra well covered and moulded into the shape of a bell: small on top, with a cinched waist, and huge below, upholstered

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