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The beauty pageant and British society

By Rebecca Conway


Next week sees the culmination of the 2013 search for Miss England. Aspiring beauty queens from across the nation will compete for the title and the chance to contend for the Miss World crown in front of a global audience of one billion television viewers.

Studies of the beauty contest in Britain have tended to focused on the controversy surrounding these pageants and their status as, according to some feminist activists and scholars, “celebrations of the traditional female road to success.” Without wishing to downplay the significance of resistance to the beauty contest, I think that we need to focus on the origins and development of these events in Britain in order to fully appreciate their cultural value.

Originally conceived in the mid-nineteenth century by the American showman P.T. Barnum, the first recognisable beauty contest took place in Delaware in 1880. A panel of expert judges (including Thomas Edison) was assembled to select the winner of the Miss United States title, which was created to promote the resort of Rehoboth Beach outside of the usual holiday season. The 1921 Miss America Pageant introduced the bathing costume as a wardrobe stable for competitors, casting aside earlier fears about the need for more modest attire. In the 1920s and 1930s, such contests became widespread in Britain and were deployed to promote a variety of places and products.

Cultural commentators and journalists in interwar Britain labelled the period as a time of cultural change, embodied by factory girls that now looked (according to the writer J.B. Priestley) “like actresses.” The appearance and lifestyle of young women seemed to undergo a rapid transformation in these years. Those who worked found that they could afford to purchase mass-produced fashions, beauty products, and cosmetics. This change in appearance was coupled with access to new forms of leisure at the cinema and dancehall. Although changing fashions and an apparent obsession with Hollywood movies were criticised in the press, young women in interwar Britain were provided with a certain amount of freedom to manipulate their appearance and follow the latest trends. Girls from across the social spectrum now had the means to style themselves as a beauty contestant.

Although the Daily Mirror created its first beauty competition in 1908, these features appeared infrequently in the popular press because photographs were difficult (and expensive) to reproduce until the interwar years. This changed by 1930 when images of attractive young women and beauty queens had become “a necessary element of a popular newspaper.” While the Daily Mirror’s 1908 competition had been judged solely by a panel of experts, the ability to print photographs of participants ensured that the readers of the newspaper could also begin to play a role in choosing each beauty queen. Anecdotal evidence from the Cotton Queen Quest (launched by the Manchester Daily Dispatch in 1930) suggests that this voting system may have helped to drive additional newspaper sales amongst friends, colleagues, and relatives keen to see their candidate advance to the final round of the competition. In a period of intense competition between popular newspapers, the beauty contest was a popular feature that seems to have boosted newspaper sales.

A group of novice swimmers are shown the basics in front of a packed crowd at the Open-Air Bath in Blackpool c. 1934. Image courtesy of Blackpool Archive. Used with permission.

The beauty contest flourished in interwar Britain thanks to a new focus on the healthy body and the benefits of outdoor leisure pursuits. As Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska describes, physical exercise became a “mass phenomenon” in this period and seaside resorts responded to the vogue by constructing large open-air bathing facilities. Venues like the Open-Air Bath (1923) in Blackpool were capable of holding thousands of swimmers and spectators. Designed as sites to celebrate and cultivate a healthy body, these bathing facilities provided a natural home for the beauty contest. Pageants continued to be a regular feature at seaside swimming pools into the 1960s with new titles emerging such as Miss Great Britain, crowned at the extravagant Super Swimming Stadium in Morecambe from 1945. Without such venues, it seems unlikely that the beauty pageant would have been able to develop quite so rapidly in Britain in these years. The birth of the British beauty contest was reliant on the high level of investment and development at seaside resorts in the first part of the twentieth century.

The American origins of the beauty contest might suggest that these events were mere cultural imports like the jazz record or MGM film. While it’s easy to spot the similarities between British and American pageants, there are also important differences between each competition. British Pathé newsreels of competitions from this period highlight the clear distinctions in the staging and format of interwar beauty titles ranging from the Radio Queen, to the Queen of the English Riviera. The influence of local traditions, in particular, cannot be downplayed. The clothing and pageantry used in the grand final of the Cotton Queen competition, which operated between 1930 and 1939, was heavily influenced by British festival traditions like the May Queen.

The emergence of the beauty contest in interwar Britain demonstrates why it deserves further critical attention. The competition casts revealing light onto the popular press, gender, and leisure in the interwar years. We need to think carefully about how and why pageants are shaped by the context of their creation to truly appreciate what these events can tell us about Britain’s cultural and social history.

Dr Rebecca Conway received her PhD from the University of Manchester in 2012. She has previously taught at the University of Manchester and Sheffield Hallam University. Her article on the Cotton Queen Contest in 1930s Britain was recently published in Twentieth Century British History.

Twentieth Century British History covers the variety of British history in the twentieth century in all its aspects. It links the many different and specialized branches of historical scholarship with work in political science and related disciplines. The journal seeks to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, in order to foster the study of patterns of change and continuity across the twentieth century.

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