Fall 2014 – Poiger Abstract

Cosmetics, Beauty and Modernity
Uta G. Poiger

Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities
Professor of History
Northeastern University

Over the last 120 years or so, Germans, like people in many parts of the world, have associated visible cosmetics use positively as well as negatively with women whom they labeled “modern.” Because of the highly visible presence of cosmetics in consumer culture, social scientists and cultural critics from Siegfried Kracauer to Ulrich Bröckling have commented on cosmetics in their more general attempts to diagnose possibilities and pathologies of modernity. For historians, by contrast, cosmetics and beauty have hardly been of interest in their attempts to explain the peculiarities of German history as modern or anti-modern. With an emphasis on the interwar period and on recent decades, the paper investigates examples of how marketers, critics, and consumers have linked specific beauty practices and physical features to terms such as “German,” “Western,” “white,” and “modern.” Cosmetics have been part of presenting cultural affinities and cultural differences as well as visions of individuality. Contextualizing instances where cosmetics use was lauded or critiqued as “modern” helps answer larger questions about the significance of individualism for modern and anti-modern discourses.

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