Guest Post: Interview with Aileen Ribeiro

We’re pleased to be able to share with you, this interview performed by Dr. Kimberly Chrisman Campbell.

A new book from dress historian Aileen Ribeiro is always cause for excitement, but especially when it’s as ambitious and provocative as Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (Yale University Press, $45), which explores the relationship between art and beauty in the Western world from the Renaissance to the present day. Dr. Ribeiro kindly agreed to share some of her beauty secrets with WornThrough.

KCC: You write: “One of the main debates about beauty is whether it is universal or specific.” Have you come to your own conclusion?

AR: I think the answer lies between the two. There are some universal canons, such as high-ish cheekbones, an oval face, large eyes, and plump, smooth skin. These features apply to beautiful women of all races. They may be slightly adapted in different periods of time–and added to others such as the size of the mouth–according to the beauty ideals of the moment. But beauty also encompasses the specific, individual aspects of the appearance of the woman under consideration.

KCC. Another theme of the book is the tension between natural and artificial beauty.

AR: I don’t think that in the timeframe I was dealing with there were many truly natural faces on display in portraiture. Even in allegorical portraits of women as, for example, Venus, contemporary aesthetics either consciously or unconsciously demanded that the face should be subtly enhanced to underline the meaning of the work of art. Today, when articles about celebrities state that they are wearing no makeup, I refuse to believe it.

KCC: While you were researching the book, you went around asking your friends and colleagues to name their ideal beauties. Who would you nominate?

AR: At a surface level, I might go for Nicole Kidman; at a deeper level, the grave beauty of the Burmese politician Aung San Sun Kyi. Of the beauties illustrated in my book, I would nominate van der Weyden’s Unknown Woman, Canova’s Paolina Borghese, Millais’Lillie Langtry, and Boldini’s Consuelo Marlborough. My favorite is Lavery’s Hazel Lavery, perhaps because she’s the perfect painted beauty, in both senses of the word!

KCC: While you could argue that a beautiful face from the Renaissance is still beautiful today, the ideal body type has changed immensely over the centuries.

AR: I don’t necessarily agree. The aim, from classical antiquity onwards, was for beautiful women to be slender rather than plump, but above all to have perfectly proportioned bodies and faces. For this book, I chose to concentrate on the face, which one writer in 1754 called “the chief Seat of Beauty.” I do make some reference to ideal bodies, but what interests me more is the way that clothing created a myriad of different bodies.

KCC: Was it a natural progression from writing about dress to writing about beauty?

AR: Beauty and cosmetics are intimately linked with clothing. In the Renaissance, the word “cosmetic” was defined in the broadest way as the enhancing of body and face. Painting the face can be equated with dressing the body, and both are about appearances and their meanings.

KCC: You’ve uncovered some wonderful historical recipes for cosmetics. Did you try any of them?

AR: The recipes were fun, and a remarkable number included ingredients which could be used today. I haven’t yet ventured to try any of them, although I’m rather tempted by the notion of rosemary flowers boiled in white wine, which could first be applied as a face wash and the rest of it drunk. Advertisements for cosmetics resonate with those of today: the emphasis on anti-aging, the inflated claims to work miracles, and the high price of products. Crème de la Mer, anyone?

KCC: You argue that the French Revolution “established a permanent gap between the appearance of young and old, which lasted well into the twentieth century.” Since then, to what extent has beauty been synonymous with looking young?


AR: Looking and staying young has always been the Holy Grail of beauty and of cosmetics, but the brave new world of the French Revolution speeded up the process, as it did with so much else in the world of fashion and appearance.

KCC: Facing Beauty represents a rare foray into the twentieth and even the twenty-first century for you. In the book, you talk about the difficulty of making generalizations about this fragmented period. Did it challenge you in other ways?

AR: The historian of dress cannot refuse to engage with the contemporary. But the more modern the period, the more difficult it is to assess what will be important in the wider cultural history of dress. So I probably felt happier with the early twentieth century–I love the art and literature of this period, which helped.

KCC: Some other good books on the history of beauty and cosmetics have appeared in the past few years–I’m thinking of the work of Catherine Lanoë, Morag Martin, and Rosemarie Gerken. What do you think is behind this trend in scholarship?

AR: The subject of beauty and cosmetics has until recently been avoided as a serious topic of research, attacked–like fashion–as frivolous. But historians have belatedly begun to appreciate the significance of adornment in women’s history, at all levels of society. The study of beauty is crucial in any discussion of culture and taste; it’s an aspect of the visual arts of which art historians need to be aware. The history of cosmetics is also an integral part of the narratives of women’s lives. It has important implications for gender studies, economics, and theatre history.

KCC: Since the nineteenth century, some progressive authors have promoted cosmetics as a path to confidence and social success, while others predicted that women would eventually discard the crutch of cosmetics.

AR: In the past, many women used cosmetics to create self-confidence and to deal with the results of illness and the ravages of time. But just as many wore makeup to promote their own beauty and physical desirability. I now see increasing numbers of women of all ages without makeup, whether out of a dislike of artifice or worries that wearing makeup every day isn’t good for the skin. But without a detailed and extensive survey of women’s use of cosmetics–which would be an interesting study–we can’t know whether women are discarding or will in the future discard cosmetics.

KCC: Increasingly, beauty could be attained by anyone–it became the product of artifice, rather than genetics and good health.

AR: I wonder if the traditional Renaissance concept of beauty has vanished forever, replaced by beauty that can be bought from the beauty counter of any department store. We might see the growth in aesthetic surgery as an attempt to put the clock back and create pre-democraticized notions of beauty: ideal faces with perfectly harmonious features. The problem is, of course, that cosmetics only ever temporarily changed the surface of the face and didn’t alter its configuration, as surgery does; the artifice was only skin deep. So while I think cosmetics are harmless and even enjoyable provided we don’t obsess too much with our appearance, I have reservations about aesthetic surgery because so much has emotionally been invested by those who undergo it that it may cause more problems than it solves.

Many thanks to Dr. Ribeiro–I’m looking forward to trying that white wine and rosemary flower recipe, too!

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman Campbell is an independent fashion and textile historian and occasional contributor to Worn Through. Her work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French fashion has also appeared in Costume, Textile History, PieceWork, and Dress, as well as in several books and exhibition catalogs, most recently Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, May 17, 2011).

William Etty, Mlle Rachel, 1840.York Art Gallery

Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art book jacket

Alonso Cano (attr.), Unknown Woman, Possibly as a Saint, late 1640s.York Art Gallery

Marc Quinn, Siren, 2008. Private collection, © Marc Quinn

School of Fontainebleau, Woman at her Toilette, c.1555–65. Worcester Art Museum,

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  • New Title: Facing Beauty, Painted Women and Cosmetic Art « Enfilade
    February 19, 2012 - 2:04 am

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