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Style and Status

Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975

Susannah Walker
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 264
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    Style and Status
    Book Description:

    Between the 1920s and the 1970s, American economic culture began to emphasize the value of consumption over production. At the same time, the rise of new mass media such as radio and television facilitated the advertising and sales of consumer goods on an unprecedented scale. In Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920--1975, Susannah Walker analyzes an often-overlooked facet of twentieth-century consumer society as she explores the political, social, and racial implications of the business devoted to producing and marketing beauty products for African American women. Walker examines African American beauty culture as a significant component of twentieth-century consumerism, and she links both subjects to the complex racial politics of the era. The efforts of black entrepreneurs to participate in the American economy and to achieve self-determination of black beauty standards often caused conflict within the African American community. Additionally, a prevalence of white-owned firms in the African American beauty industry sparked widespread resentment, even among advocates of full integration in other areas of the American economy and culture. Concerned African Americans argued that whites had too much influence over black beauty culture and were invading the market, complicating matters of physical appearance with questions of race and power. Based on a wide variety of documentary and archival evidence, Walker concludes that African American beauty standards were shaped within black society as much as they were formed in reaction to, let alone imposed by, the majority culture. Style and Status challenges the notion that the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s through the 1970s represents the first period in which African Americans wielded considerable influence over standards of appearance and beauty. Walker explores how beauty culture affected black women's racial and feminine identities, the role of black-owned businesses in African American communities, differences between black-owned and white-owned manufacturers of beauty products, and the concept of racial progress in the post--World War II era. Through the story of the development of black beauty culture, Walker examines the interplay of race, class, and gender in twentieth-century America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7219-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction Why Hair Is Political
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1988, Andrea Benton Rushing, professor of English and black studies at Amherst College, wrote an essay forFeminist Studiesthat deftly wove together personal stories about hair, race, femininity, and family, while illuminating the cultural significance of hair in African American history. Rushing recalled that, before having children, “back in the glory days of black being beautiful, I’d vowed that no daughter of mine would have her hair straightened.” Rushing described past mother-daughter trips to New York City to get their Afros shaped and styled, and present reactions to her and her girls’ African-style braids, before revealing her own...

  6. Chapter 1 “The Beauty Industry Is Ours” Developing African American Consumer Citizenship in the 1920s and 1930s
    (pp. 11-46)

    Early in 1929, Claude Barnett, an African American newspaperman and founder of the first black-owned advertising agency, wrote letters to two of the most successful female-headed African American beauty product companies in the United States. To Freeman B. Ransom, general manager of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Barnett pitched his advertising services and closed by asking whether Ransom thought “it possible to get together on a program of occupying enough space in the papers to overshadow the white firms, gradually excluding them?” Writing to his client Annie Malone of the Poro Company, Barnett warned, “Competition from white firms...

  7. Chapter 2 “Everyone Admires the Woman Who Has Beautiful Hair” Mediating African American Beauty Standards in the 1920s and 1930s
    (pp. 47-84)

    In a 1920s Madam C. J. Walker Company advertisement, a dreamy woman clad in an evening gown sits at her dressing table applying cosmetics. She is a light-complexioned black woman with wavy hair pinned up in an elaborate style. “You, too, may be a fascinating beauty,” promises the caption. “Perhaps you envy the girl with irresistible beauty, whose skin is flawless and velvety, whose hair has a beautiful silky sheen, the girl who receives glances of undoubted admiration. You need not envy her. Create new beauty for yourself by using Madam C. J. Walker’s famous preparations.” In 1929, a young...

  8. Chapter 3 “An ‘Export’ Market at Home” Expanding African American Consumer Culture in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s
    (pp. 85-114)

    In the 1920s and 1930s, as mass consumer culture gained prominence in American life, African American marketing professionals worked to promote black consumers to national-brand-name advertisers. At the same time, they sought to protect the African American beauty industry from further encroachment by white product manufacturers. This strategy continued in the 1940s and intensified after World War II, when postwar prosperity and new marketing methods spurred greater interest in African American consumerism. Innovations in consumer research and the launch of several new magazines aimed at African Americans created fresh incentives and appealing venues for national advertisers. More nationally circulating publications...

  9. Chapter 4 “Beauty Services Offered from Head to Toe” Promoting Beauty to African American Women in the 1940s and 1950s
    (pp. 115-142)

    In 1946, the new Rose-Meta House of Beauty opened in Harlem. Co-owners Rose Morgan and Olivia Clarke, who had run a smaller shop together for several years, bought the property for $20,000 and spent $28,000 on lavish renovations. At its height, this beauty salon would employ sixty operators and style the hair of three thousand women a week. Less than a decade earlier, in Washington, D.C., three sisters founded the Cardozo shop, a smaller salon that nevertheless saw hundreds of customers a week in 1947. By the early 1950s, several beauty emporiums were located in big northern cities, including New...

  10. Chapter 5 “All Hair Is Good Hair” Integrating Beauty in the 1950s and 1960s
    (pp. 143-168)

    In the twenty years following the end of World War II, the African American beauty culture industry was in most respects bigger, better organized, and more affluent than ever before. These developments were reflected not only in larger salons and the expanding cosmetics industry, but also in the growth of professional organizations, in the responses of beauty culturists to state regulation, and in the coverage of women and beauty by the black media. African American commercial beauty culture focused intensely in these years on promoting beauty, glamour, and style to black women. The commodification of beauty, which had developed extensively...

  11. Chapter 6 “Black Is Beautiful” Redefining Beauty in the 1960s and 1970s
    (pp. 169-204)

    In a 1998 article, the black activist and scholar Angela Davis complained that the Afro had recently been reduced to a merely nostalgic hairdo. This development, she argued, served to reduce “a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” Davis cited, for example, a 1994 fashion spread from the urban music and lifestyle magazineVibethat featured an actress dressed as a “revolutionary” Angela Davis, circa 1969. Davis decried the use of her image as a “commodified backdrop for advertising” without reference to the historical and political context that gave wearing an Afro meaning and power in the 1960s....

  12. Conclusion Why African American Beauty Culture Is Still Contested
    (pp. 205-210)

    In a 1987 speech at her alma mater, Spelman College, Alice Walker told a part of her own hair history. Placing the story in the context of her spiritual and intellectual growth as she reached forty, Walker told her audience that it took considerable contemplation and soul searching before she realized “in my physical self there remained one last barrier to my spiritual liberation, at least in the present phase: my hair.” It was, she asserted, her “oppressed hair” that was holding her back. Walker recalled her hair’s beleaguered history: “I remembered years of enduring hairdressers—from my mother onward—...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 211-228)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 229-238)
  15. Index
    (pp. 239-250)