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on November 29, 1999
The author asks the question "Why are many women so interested in makeup?" and tries to answer it, while also telling you a history of the cosmetics industry. (It goes back further than I thought.) I don't think she fully answers the question, but the information and ideas she gives are thought-provoking. Maybe the point is that we're each supposed to come up with our own answers. I've been thinking about mine since reading this book two months ago.
What's really cool to me is that the author doesn't think there's necessarily anything evil or anti-feminist about enjoying cosmetics. She doesn't try to say that women who buy makeup have given into their oppression. I've always loved makeup, yet considered myself an independent, modern person, and I don't think these ideas conflict.
This is not a political book. It's more sociological. The author shows her fascination with this subject without passing judgement on anyone involved (although some of the industry people were ruthless and shady, and she lets you see that without hitting you over the head with it).
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on October 27, 1999
Kathy Peiss' work is always exhaustively researched and engagingly written, with clear arguments and structures. In this, it already stands head and shoulders above the bulk of cultural history written. In addition, this book, *as a straight history text* is also interesting and accessible to the lay reader. Some might argue that Peiss gives too much credence to the community-building possibilities of makeup culture, but I believe this is not the case. Rather, Peiss is taking on a time-honored and by now orthodox view of the history of women. You know the drill: women are victims; women inhabit a world made by men; women have had no pure means by which to just _be women_. To put it crudely.
Peiss' history on the other hand focuses on this industry, makeup, which has been decried by many as a tool of patriarchy, and shows that in fact women made the world of makeup, even if they may have done so for the sake of looking better for men (and that's not the whole story either.) EVEN IF the community of fashion doesn't have the historical pedigree of the WWW or UAW, ILGWU, etcetera, it may well be because Labor was a self-consciously political movement, with a bent for public promotion. Makeup, by these standards, is just makeup.
Give the historians a break. They (we) can't exist in some ideologicial vacuum. Peiss' work does a service for the discipline of history in that her ideological stance is healthily skeptical of many (though by no means all) orthodoxies, and her careful writing and exhaustive research are great examples of how to write good history about heretofore ignored subjects.
Bottom line, folks. Peiss is never a surprising read, because her research and writing make each point seem glaringly obvious. But the strength of her observations and the clarity of her argument make this a solid piece of work indeed.
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on November 16, 2013
A delightful history of cosmetics, I very much enjoy the connections the author draws between feminine agency and the usage of cosmetics. As a feminist who wears makeup, adores makeup and researching the history of makeup, I am charmed and delighted, I was expecting something far less agreeable in tone.

I do believe that we claim cosmetics, artifice as an outlet for expression, a demonstration of strength. I do think that self expression through cosmetics and attire is a wonderful thing (one I believe men are beginning more and more to participate in, following very much the pattern laid out in this book, beginning with creams, and eventually leading to being able to sell them blue eyeshadow, lord knows my husband is a loyal Max Factor customer... which is frankly one of the reasons I married him).

It's engagingly written and generally quite a delight to read, not mention impeccably researched, and written without the writer doing very much in the way of stating her own opinions as facts. I can say the research is excellent with some authority as I very much enjoy reading primary sources on vintage and historical beauty recipes and rituals, from translated Latin cosmetics recipes to 1970s hairdressing manuals, and this book nails it all, a fun, and informative read.
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on July 26, 1999
Like Piess's previous work (Cheap Amusements) this is a meticulously, even exhaustively, researched book. In simple technical terms, it is an unimpeachable history. Her reconstruction of a now obscure tradition of small, women-run local beauty businesses and of African American responses to dominant "white" aesthetic standards is revealing and valuable. However, as in her previous work, the problem with Piess's work lies in the interpretive spin on the evidence. She writes that "these little jars tell a rich history of women's ambition, pleasure, and community." Yes, but surely without denying any of this, it might have been possible to present an unsentimental analysis of the real limitations of "community" and "pleasure." Personal agency and power (political, economic or social) are not identical attributes; the mere fact of one (agency) does not signify the acquisition of the other. That the "community" working women found in the practice of beauty in the workplace -- whatever emotional benefits may have accrued -- is "community" of the same substance, or consequence, of say, a union, is a difficult case to make. I'm not sure if Piess intends to lead readers to this conclusion, but the text leaves impression she does. If so, I'm hardly persuaded. More individualistic dress codes in the business districts of America is no substitute for paid maternity leave, and endemic anorexia is hardly liberating or pleasurable. Excellent research is limited by an overly optimistic analysis of the costs (in addition to the benefits) American women's participation in the contemporary culture of "beauty."
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