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How did people decide what was beautiful (male/female) in the past?

(158 Posts)
LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:25:25

Just that, really. I know about medieval standards of beauty a bit, and I know they had a huge thing for blonde women, liked their men bearded, and so on. But I don't know much about the last 500 years or about whether it's different in different bits of Europe. Obviously I guess it must be once you get outside Europe!

But how did people judge what was attractive in a man or a woman?

I know that people must have varied as much as we do but there must also be things we'd think were completely odd to find sexy, but that were attractive back in the day. I know in about 1375 Chaucer has the Wife of Bath say she's attractive because she has a gap in her teeth.

I also wonder how much people genuinely looked very different in the past and now. Of course we are healthier on the whole and I understand we're a bit bigger than women used to be, but I wonder what else has changed.

ISeeYouShiverWithAntici Wed 29-Jan-14 14:28:05

I bet it was whatever the painting style depicted and however the rich and influential looked. I watched a programme about the mistresses of some king or other and how everyone wanted to see what they looked like and copied the way they did their hair etc.

Whether the painting reflected tastes or tastes were influenced by the paintings is the same chicken - egg thing as does the media influence or reflect us here today.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:29:53

YY, I can believe that about painting. I wonder if there were fashions we don't even know about, because they existed among people who were very ordinary and didn't own paintings or get to see aristocrats - because presumably they would still end up with pretty fixed ideas?

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 29-Jan-14 14:34:32

Well, Tudor discussions of male beauty are obsessed with shapely legs - cf Henry VIII competing with Francis I about who had the best calves. I think that was related to the fact that stuff men were supposed to be good at, like riding, resulted in muscly legs.
Something I noticed doing Tudor reenactment is that once you put people in clothes that highlight certain features, you start comparing those features. When we were doing a late Elizabethan year where the men's doublets had very short skirts, you got very conscious of men's legs, because you could see them.

The Victorians go on about attractive beards, of course - it's in Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. I've always assumed that was related to masculinity.

sonlypuppyfat Wed 29-Jan-14 14:36:13

I suppose rich people were thought of as more beautiful and they were the ones who could eat loads and never have to work in the hot sun so pale fat women were thought of as more attractive, shit I wish I had a time machine.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:37:06

Huh. That is really interesting. And makes complete sense.

I love the attractive beards point.

I was just thinking about those photos of Laura and Almanzo Wilder - not Victorian of course, but same era and clearly using the same fashion books. He's clean-shaven. I always wondered if he was actually attractive, because she never really suggests he is. This pic.

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 29-Jan-14 14:37:31

Oh yes, Sonlypuppyfat, and soft hands. You never hear about soft hands any more, presumably because hardly any women do work that roughens them.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:37:40

grin You and me both sonly. Though I am dark haired and I believe that's historically a bit of a short straw.

ISeeYouShiverWithAntici Wed 29-Jan-14 14:38:31

My history is shit grin but I am sure the programme I saw talked about pamphlets or something similar so that ordinary people did indeed get the gossip about the rich and powerful.

ISeeYouShiverWithAntici Wed 29-Jan-14 14:39:26

HA! And me, Sonly.

AngelaDaviesHair Wed 29-Jan-14 14:41:31

I always think Charles II was nice looking when he was young, but in his own time he was considered seriously minging apparently.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:41:37

I'm sure it's not shit!

Pamphlets would work. It's just interesting to me - someone was mentioning on here the other day about how there's a very specific 'look' round where she lives, and I do think I notice that too. I would not confuse women on a night out in Newcastle with women anywhere in the south. But I've absolutely no idea how that sort of regional fashion develops or what it would have been in the past.

I guess in industrial towns, following tunip's logic, it must've been different because people's clothing must've been dictated a bit by their jobs.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:42:12

I so did not know that about Charles. He is nice looking. Could be flattering portraits I guess?

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 29-Jan-14 14:44:58

I wonder how much related to looking like you would produce children with the right sort of qualities.
I'm reading a time travel novel at the moment called The Sterkarm Handshake in which a modern corporation time-travels to the 16th century Scottish borders, and one of the modern girls enjoys the fact that the men there fancy her because she's tall and strapping. I can believe that because if you were a border reiver you would definitely want a big strong girl to bear you big strong sons!

AngelaDaviesHair Wed 29-Jan-14 14:46:35

I wonder if eople often prize a characteristic that's typical of their group.

In Akan people in Ghana, having a long neck and neck creases was always traditionally considered very attractive, and it is an Akan trait. So you got bonus points for looking very typically Akan, ie embodying what made them distinct from from other groups or having something they had more than other groups.

Then there is simple rarity value, which would probably account for blond and red hair being particularly prized.

And probably some local preferences might come about because a high status or popular individual had those characteristics, and so people regarded them positively. I think that still happens with film stars.

AngelaDaviesHair Wed 29-Jan-14 14:48:23

He is nice looking to us, but was very definitely not to his contemporaries, even in his portraits. Too dark and swarthy apparently, they didn't like his big nose either. Yet to me he has strong features much more appealing that the bland blond chinless wonder look that was clearly preferred in his time.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:48:56

That's interesting about the Akan people. I guess it makes sense in terms of cultural identity?

tunip I absolutely love that novel. I do think that is very likely.

It just boggles my mind on occasion - this is Henry VI. He is not attractive. He could surely have got someone to paint him prettier. So either he was keen on honest portrait painting, or he thought he looked good here.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:49:20

Being chinless was attractive?! Crikey.

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 29-Jan-14 14:52:56

Well, we must all have seen photos of rich women showing off their new plastic surgery and thought 'WTF? You look bizarre.' But they paid good money for it! So different groups of people do value different types of appearance, and if that can be true at the same moment in time and with international movement of images, it could be true even more easily over 600 years.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 14:54:09

Yes, but we usually understand what look they were going for.

AngelaDaviesHair Wed 29-Jan-14 14:57:00

I always think that a lot of plastic surgery is an end in itself. By which I mean that, regardless of whether the woman actually looks better, she enjoys being able to show people that she can afford £40,000 or whatever having her face altered. The aesthetics of it matter less than the opportunity for ostentation.

KatnipEvergreen Wed 29-Jan-14 15:02:05

I think looking strong, fit and healthy was attractive in any time.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 29-Jan-14 15:02:22

It's terrifying, but I read that plastic surgery has been around since at least Roman times. Frightening thought given the state of anaesthetics.

HesterShaw Wed 29-Jan-14 15:02:58

Elizabethans had the thing for high foreheads didn't they? So much so, that they shaved their hairlines higher. That just looks peculiar nowadays.

And the seventeenth/eighteenth century portraits of women all look the same - I wonder what they really looked like. They appear to ALL have sloping, plump shoulders with not a hint of collarbone showing, piled up soft curls, slightly bug and doe eyed, with a faint rose complexion. They can't have all looked like that!

Brodicea Wed 29-Jan-14 15:03:39

The Hampton Court Beauties are quite revealing - a set of nine-ish portraits of beauties from the court of Charles I (I think!). They all have no chins, bushy eyebrows and look a bit like they have colds.

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