Mahurin Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects



Additional Departmental Affiliation

Political Science

Document Type



The 1950s were an influential decade for cosmetics in terms of sales and social impact yet have received little consideration from historians. This paper explores how cosmetics companies reflected and directed ideas about American women, femininity, beauty, consumerism, and race in the 1950s. Using cosmetics advertisements in magazines, business newspapers, cosmetics packaging, employee manuals, and secondary literature, this paper analyzes tone and content of messaging published by cosmetics companies and reactions to the sale and use of cosmetics by public commentators. Analysis shows cosmetics were marketed as a necessity for achieving ideal femininity, yet women were largely criticized or belittled for using cosmetics or participating in sales due to the opposition to its frivolous nature. While cosmetics offered spaces for both Black and white women to build community and economic independence, companies urged women in general to fulfill American beauty standards to be feminine and both women employees and businesswomen in cosmetics adhered to strict requirements for femininity. These conclusions show how useful cosmetics as an industry is for analyzing historical social issues. They also illustrate the impact of intersections between gender, consumerism, and race and how American identity was embedded in the sale of everyday products in the 1950s.

Advisor(s) or Committee Chair

Tamara Van Dyken, Ph.D.


Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History | Women's Studies