The history of Western film is a pretty good barometer of how beauty standards have changed from decade to decade. We've ricocheted from girlish innocence in the early 1900s, to Flapper-style raunch, to 1970s high-cheekboned neurosis, all the way to the approachable-yet-gorgeous Jennifer Lawrences of today's red carpets. The ideal face shape, hair, eyes, even eyebrows have been both mirrored and dictated by screen sirens throughout the years, and they're an effective lens through which to observe how the "perfect" face, body, and attitude have developed over time.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but you can't use this list to say that things have changed all that much. For all the differences in makeup and style, the ideal face has always been symmetrical, with big eyes and good bone structure. The ideal body has always been some interpretation of "slim." In other words, the ideal has remained unattainable for most of us.
Still, after that, all bets are off. Here's a look at how Hollywood's beauty standards have changed, by the decade.
Early Cinema: Huge Eyes, Little Lips, and Innocence
Lillian and her sister Dorothy Gish were the queens of silent, black-and-white cinema in America. With huge eyes accented by kohl, tiny demure lips, ladylike curls, and intensely innocent expressions, they were the incarnations of perfect, restrained femininity. And their bodies? Tiny, frail and draped in wisps of lace.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The 1920s: The Flapper
Clara Bow was the first it-girl, the incarnation of the flapper phenomenon of 1920s USA. She winked, twirled, and charmed her way through films with her distinctive bob haircut, dramatically drawn-on eyebrows, round face, bold lips, and sarcastic expression. Her body was juvenile, though: tiny breasts with rounded arms and thighs. (The rail-thin body we now think of as typically 1920s is actually a mostly modern invention.)
Image: Laura Loveday/Flickr
The 1930s: Voluptuous & Blonde
Jean Harlow started the craze for white-blonde locks, tiny drawn-on eyebrows, and, of course, that famous cupid’s bow pucker and beauty spot. Body-wise, she was sexual rather than regal, tall and voluptuous but still more stereotypically “feminine” than athletic. And she looked like drama on legs in a backless gown.
Image: Tom Magie/Flickr
The 1940s: Big Hair, Tall, and Leggy
Rita Hayworth was the epitome of the innocent sexiness of the ’40s: shiny hair, perfectly glossed lips, and natural eyes and eyebrows. The harsh blonde up-dos of the ’30s had given way to girl-next-door locks, and a general return to down-home American beauty instead of harsh sophistication. Hayworth was healthy, long-legged, and curvy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The 1950s: Petite, Blonde, and Delicate
Hitchcock’s icy blondes were the taste of the ’50s: impeccably groomed, unapproachable women with tiny waists, delicate wrists, and serenely oval, cheekboned faces. Kim Novak and the tiny brunette Audrey Hepburn carried the day, too, but Grace Kelly was the incarnation of the dream: petite, blue-eyed, and graceful rather than energetic.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The 1960s: Major Curves Ahead
The ’60s brought a few broadenings in the ideal of beauty. Faye Dunaway still carried the torch for the icy blondes, but Sophia Loren’s vulpine Italian face and explosive silhouette made curves high-octane on the big screen. Wide eyes, huge lips, and exaggeration in all areas, from hips to breasts, were the big themes.
Image: Film Star Vintage/Flickr
The 1970s: Pale and Natural
Diane Keaton became the icon of 1970s cinema, alongside ill-fated actress Sharon Tate (who was killed by the Manson Family). Tate was a more traditional beauty — almond-eyed, beach-blonde, and tall. But Keaton — whippet-thin and fresh-faced, with an overall air of lanky grace — was an incarnation of the time.
Image: Craig Duffy/Flickr
The 1980s: The Blonde Bombshell
Kim Basinger, the top actress of the ’80s, was an incarnation of all its aesthetic values: big lips, huge flops of blonde hair, thinned eyebrows, a rectangular face, and a beachy, lean bustiness. Heather Locklear and Christy Brinkley were other icons of the age, but Basinger looked the part the most.
The 1990s: Cute & Grungy
Even though the ’90s were still very much about Baywatch types, Winona Ryder — petite, huge-eyed, black-haired, strong-chinned, and heavy-eyebrowed — was the actress of the time. She was elfin and delicate, which fit the grunge aesthetic but also took us back to the Gish sisters with a serious heavy edge.
The 2000s: Athletic And Direct
Halle Berry was the ultimate actress of the 2000s: athletic and lean, with a bold, crop rather than long, loose waves, a direct and commanding expression, delicate cheekbones, and a heart-shaped face. She was also arguably one of the first African-American A-listers, which meant a serious shift in our perceptions of beauty on the big screen.
The 2010s: TBD
We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight to see what's really making us flip in the 2010s — we’re only halfway through. Is it Emma Stone’s gamine-hipster ginger look? Kristen Stewart’s huge eyes and lanky limbs? As of now, I’m putting in a vote for Lupita Nyong'o as the iconic film beauty of the decade, purely because of that face. What do you think?