Teresa Riordan rarely wears makeup, fusses with her hair, or tries to wrangle her feet into high heels. But she did recently purchase an eyeliner—a big step for someone who, as a teenager, removed half of each eyebrow with the help of a women’s magazine and her mother’s tweezers.
“I’m basically a beauty failure,” concedes the 44-year-old Silver Spring resident, who says that her brows have never really grown back to their former thickness.
But even bald brows don’t come close to some of the malfunctions documented in Riordan’s new book, Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful! Organized by body part into such chapters as “Eyes,” “Lips,” and “Breasts,” the book looks at beauty trends from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th—and, just as important, at the contraptions created to achieve these short-lived ideals.
There is, for example, the case of one Mrs. Brown, who in 1933 lost her corneas to a product called Lash Lure, created in the days before cosmetics regulation. And the beauty-counter flameout of inventor Kora M. Lublin, who began marketing her depilatory Koremlu in 1930. In addition to making users fuzz-free, the rat-poison-laced product also left them disfigured, paralyzed, and toothless.
“There are a lot of stories that are horrible,” Riordan says. “But also a lot that are fun and interesting and hadn’t been told.”
Although Riordan began to stumble across such stories while working as a patent columnist for the New York Times, most of what she discovered wasn’t suitable for the paper.
“Because the column I wrote was about current or recent inventions, [these were] too old to include,” she says. “So I started collecting them. I have a huge collection of old patents.”
One of Riordan’s favorite outdated patents was earned by a woman named Hazel Mann Montealegre, who hailed from the author’s home state of Kansas. Montealegre’s flapper-era invention, a long, painful-looking clamp that attached to a woman’s lips, was designed to help women achieve, without surgery, a permanent Clara Bow pout.
“The idea was that you would, just by exercising, end up with lips like this,” Riordan says, squishing her mouth into a tiny pucker. “The idea that you could manually transform your mouth is interesting. It’s also interesting, when I look at these inventions, that people have been trying to manipulate their appearances forever.”
Even so, Riordan notes, beauty-related inventions are often regarded not as carefully planned innovations but as frivolous novelties. She hopes her book will not only chronicle the evolution of products we now consider beauty standards, but also help give forgotten inventors such as Mann Montealegre and ’50s lipstick maven Hazel Bishop credit for their work.
“The bra is not an inevitable invention; it took a lot of people thinking in different ways for it to finally evolve into a two-strap, two-cup thing,” she says. “The bra is a piece of engineering as sophisticated as any bridge.”
Riordan doesn’t pretend to be a patent junkie from way back. “I wish I could say that I’ve wanted to write about patents ever since I was a little girl,” she jokes. “But that’s not true.” A 10-year career at the Times, however, was enough to convince Riordan that she could use patents as a way to explore just about any subject.
“It seems like a very narrow focus, but it’s quite broad,” she says. “You can write about every aspect of culture through technology.”
In fact, the book Riordan set out to write was to be an extensive look at inventions marketed to women. She began her research seven years ago, digging for material in, among other places, the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City, and the Frederick’s of Hollywood flagship store in Los Angeles. After two years of work, she dismissed the overambitious project as “ridiculous” and, while at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, she narrowed her focus.
But Riordan wanted to do more than give readers a freak-show glimpse into the beauty rituals of the past. So in addition to evaluating the usefulness of fat-rolling machines and springform falsies, Inventing Beauty also tackles issues of femininity and feminism.
She says that she began the project with “very ’90s, Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf ideas that women were just catering to male tastes.” But she changed her thinking after she discovered that a large number of beauty products were invented by females.
Looking at certain inventions as they were perceived when they first emerged, rather than judging them with a modern perspective, also altered her viewpoint. “You have this ’90s idea that lipstick is oppressive,” she says. “But when lipstick became widely used by women, at least in America, it was an emblem of liberation. Women were bobbing their hair, wearing short skirts—it was really an act of defiance and independence to wear lipstick.”
Riordan offers the bra as a similar example. In Inventing Beauty, she explains that as women began engaging in recreational activities such as tennis, they demanded a less restrictive undergarment than the corset. And when corset makers tried to prevent the popularization of the progressive brassiere, women voted with their pocketbooks—corset manufacturers had to either change with the times or risk going out of business.
“When I was 13, the bra was a symbol of oppression,” Riordan says. “When it was invented, it was liberty itself.” But when she ran that idea by a tribunal of Takoma Park discussion-group members last month, not everyone bought her defense of the over-the-shoulder boulder holder.
Riordan, who lives just across the Takoma Park line with her husband and three children, once belonged to the club, known as the Provocatives, but dropped out to focus on Inventing Beauty. After the book was published this past October, she was invited by club leader Jan Goldstein to speak about her work. Her friends ended up taking her to task on some of her conclusions.
Goldstein says there was “heated discussion” about corsets and the nature of men, and notes that the group was glad to have a former member’s work bring about interesting discussion. “It was a treat,” she says. “And Teresa was so nonplussed by anybody who wanted to pick [the book] apart. She really is a provocative, deep thinker, and she always has a unique perspective on things.”
Riordan describes the “friendly, civilized” criticism of the group as “very traditionally liberal, in exactly the way you think of Takoma Park.” But she’s also been taken to task by audiences on the other end of the political spectrum. “I was going to Los Angeles to speak to a very conservative group of women,” she recalls. “They were very gracious, but when I pulled out the antique vibrator, they were shocked. I’m very selective now about when I pull it out.”
But whether naysayers attack her theories or her contraptions, Riordan hears them out. She even says that some of the less-than-positive feedback she got in the early stages of her research proved helpful.
“I was talking to Debbie Warner, a curator at the Smithsonian, and she was horrified at my idea that these inventions could be seen as empowering for women, but she also really challenged me,” Riordan says. “She pointed to her tennis shoes and said, ‘To me, these are feminine, so how do you define what’s feminine and what’s not?’”
After the conversation with Warner, Riordan decided that the term, for her purposes, would apply to “something that, at least in our culture, transsexuals or transvestites have to do to make themselves be seen as women.”
Her next step was to add a chapter on the bane of drag queens everywhere: hair removal. “I was really surprised to learn, if you’re crossing over,” Riordan says, “that the hardest thing is not getting rid of sexual organs but getting rid of excess hair.”
Riordan doesn’t like to bash current beauty products—even when they attempt to make women conform to unnatural standards. She speaks ill of neither Spanx derrière shapers nor the torture device known as the Epilady. After all, both are more reasonable than Evangeline Gilbert’s “dimple producing appliance,” filed at the patent office on July 11, 1921, which was meant to dig small round balls into the cheeks to create permanent indentations in the face.
“Something people are always surprised at is, it doesn’t have to actually work,” Riordan says of such proposed products. “It’s the same today. It has to be novel, something no one else thought about, and it has to be plausible. But you don’t have to have a refined, working model” to get a patent.
“There are lots of things today being granted [patents] all the time that, I’m sure, in 100 years, will look just as ridiculous as the Hazel Mann Montealegre thing,” she says. “It’s hard to know which those will be….The only sure thing is that there will be change.”
With this in mind, Riordan maintains a file of recent advertisements for products she has deemed “interesting.” Over the past couple of years, she says, she’s collected plenty of paper.
“There’s one with a woman lying on her side, covered with all of these round things,” she says. “Basically, [the device] is supposed to electrically make you lose weight and get rid of cellulite. Entrepreneurs are still trying to figure out how to harness the wonders of electricity so we can effortlessly lose wrinkles and weight, but I don’t think anybody’s come up with that—not yet. That’s not to say it won’t happen.”
And despite her refusal to look too closely at the future, Riordan thinks she knows what beauty trends will define the ’90s and ’00s in the same way that dark lips typify the ’30s and peacock eye makeup is quintessentially ’80s. Present-day beauty, she says, is all about full lips and big asses.
“When people look at our era,” she suggests, “the silicone, big, puffy artificial lips actresses have will be emblematic. Along with the rear end, it’s very much a hallmark of beauty now.” And though an overstuffed kisser wouldn’t be possible without the advances in technology that enable women to get their lips shot full of fattening agents, those looking to achieve a curvy backside are actually looking to past inventions for inspiration.
“I think it’s a revival of the bustle,” Riordan says. “There are all sorts of inventions….An inventor recently contacted me about these new jeans with a built-in butt lift. There’s the buttkini. And buttock implants are on the rise on the more extreme end—so to speak.”CP