From cigarette cards up to Miss Universe

Major Drapkin and Co. of London produced a set that was completely different from the ones described above in 1928. A series of 36 black-and-white photographs entitled “National Types of Beauty” depicted women of different races who, according to British colonial eyes, exemplified beauty in a particular country.

Each card featured a portrait in black and white of the “beauty” chosen. On the back, she was classified by her facial features, colouring and class. The Greek beauty, for example, was described as follows:

Grecian beauty is still alive and well in this happy picture. The nose continues straight down from the forehead.

Author provided

The photo of the Egyptian woman was labeled:

This image is a beautiful Egyptian woman of the upper classes. She has dark hair and delicate features with brown eyes, olive skin and brown eyes.

These descriptions classified and portrayed the women as “exotic”. The women were a racial group that was described and portrayed according to colonial interests of the time.

The card for Egypt, for example, shows a woman dressed in a harem style veil, which is more Cleveland Street belly dancing than a fearsome burqa. Turkey is also exotic in the imagination of both writer and photographer:

Khadidje Hanoum is a beautiful woman who was born to a Turkish government official. She has been described as possessing every Oriental charm.

Persia’s image is a young woman with a turban, who appears to be mystical and bejewelled.

Persia is perhaps best known for its striking beauty. The dark eyes in the portrait suggest the mystic.

All the women in the group are white or fair-skinned. The Australian beauty, Miss Eve Gray is the British International Pictures star; Miss Dorothy Black is the South African beauty.

No other African nation is featured, except for South Africa and Egypt. India is noticeably absent from Asia.

While “National Types of Beauty”, while appealing as portraits highlights photography’s murky past and its complicity with colonial, misogynist and racist agendas. This agenda was primarily aimed at dominating people and places classified as being less civilised or of lower status. These images show a long history of presenting women as consumable.

Beauty today: Classifying the best.

In 1940, paper shortages at the start of World War II led to the end of production of cigarette card. Despite this, women are still classified based on their looks, and thanks to the visual media, it is easy and quick. Beauty pageants today are the best place to see Western standards of beauty. Cigarette packets, which now specialize in the macabre, are the only places where you can find them.

Miss South Africa Demi Leigh Nel-Peters. Steve Marcus/Reuters

Miss World and Miss Universe, television spectaculars that classify beauty based on race and collect data to suggest it’s scientifically quantifiable continue this practice.

While the official Miss World websites and Miss Universe websites only publish the age and height, the overall body measurements of the finalists (weight, size of bra, etc.) can be found on celebrity sites.

South African Demi-Leigh Nel Peters won the Miss Universe 2017 title. Nel-Peters reflects the beauty ideals of Western culture, including her Australian counterpart Olivia Rogers. She has a small nose, thick lips, “healthy” breasts and long legs.

Miss Universe contestants wearing their national costumes bring race into question. This exercise accentuates outdated stereotypes based on colonial parameters that were visualised on 1928 cigarette cards. It is amazing how “oriental”, the national costume for Miss Turkey 2017, is.


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