The 2020 Lisa Jardine Lecture with Professor Amanda Vickery: "What Women Wanted: Beauty, 1946-c1970"
The post-war beauty contest was not a bizarre spectacle remote from ordinary people’s lives. It was interwoven in the leisure and parochial culture of the working and middle classes, an unexceptional part of a vibrant post-war competition culture – from dog and flower shows to fancy dress, bonniest baby and knobbly knees contests – expressed at fetes, fairs and tournaments, in church and town halls, staff canteens, school playing fields, provincial ballrooms and holiday camps nationwide. However sexist the parades were not that sexy. One councillor remembered ‘in truth the contests were closer to glammed up Rose Queen coronations than soft porn spectacles for voyeurs.’ The goal was seaside glamour with a dash of cheek.
Miss Great Britain was a commercial brand not a formal qualification. There was no national authority, no British Beauty Board, regimenting rival contests. It was down to the organizers to sustain their claim. In 1949, the council established a relationship with Mecca Ltd who staged heats in their ballrooms nationwide – from the Palais in Ilford, to the Ritz in Manchester, the Kennard rooms in Cardiff, the Locarno in Glasgow, and the Plaza in Belfast. Six heat winners from competitions at Butlin’s holiday camps in Skegness, Pwlheli, Filey, Ayr, Clacton and Dublin also converged on Morecambe.In parallel, The Sunday Dispatchran a photographic competition to find Miss England, Miss Scotland, Miss Wales and Miss Ireland to go forward to the final. Any opportunity to stress the regional and national reach was taken. As the judges foreword smirked in 1949. ‘I doubt whether members of Morecambe and Heysham Corporation… will ever forget the first of these heats held in Belfast last January. Crossing the Irish Sea in an 80-miles-an-hour gale is no joke: it tends to take one’s mind off beautiful girls.’
The Miss Great Britain contest was a highly visible performance of ideal femininity, hall-marking that which was desirable and normal for post-war women in every country in Great Britain. The contest spotlights national and provincial attitudes to physical appearance, sexuality and sensuality, as well as women and men’s accepted roles. The very title ‘Miss Great Britain’ raises a key issue for this project – that of national identity, ethnicity and race. Against a back drop of anti-Jewish riots in the north-west in 1947 and successive waves of immigration from the Caribbean from 1948 and Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s, Miss Great Britain sustained highly specific conventions of femininity: white, Anglo-Saxon and ladylike in the 1940s and 50s, graduating to white, Anglo-Saxon dolly birds in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the presence of black musical celebrities and Jewish variety performers on the judges’ bench, the acknowledgement of non-WASP ideals of attractiveness was very late and grudging.The consistent feature was the universal acceptance of an extreme gender asymmetry. ‘Mr Modern England’, a muscle competition on the central pier, did not catch on. The contests expose just how thoroughly accepted and unproblematic was the transaction between female beauty and male power – even in its banal local council manifestation.
Amanda Vickery is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London. She has also held the Kratter Professorship at Stanford University and the Eleanor Searle Professorship at the California Institute of Technology and the Huntington Library. She holds an honorary doctorate form the University of Uppsala.
Her first bookThe Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England(Yale University Press, 1998) won the Whitfield prize, the Wolfson prize and the Longman-History Today prize. She has written and presented for Radio 4, in particular ‘A History of Private Life’, in 30 parts, and the popular returning series ‘Voices from the Old Bailey’. Her documentaries for BBC2 include the three part series ‘At Home with the Georgians’, ‘Suffragettes Forever’, and ‘The Story of Women and Art’ which was shortlisted for a Bafta.
Amanda Vickery's lecture is part of a series in memory of Lisa Jardine (1944-2015). Lisa made a huge contribution across a wide area as a Professor of Renaissance Studies, author, broadcaster, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency and more.
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