Soft Rejuvenation: Cosmetics, Idealized White Femininity, and Young Women’s Bodies, 1880–1930

Michelle Smith, Jane Nicholas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


In this article we draw together the histories of rejuvenation and cosmetic use in
order to examine discourses of “soft rejuvenation” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While rejuvenation has typically been considered in relation to transnational medicalized attempts to restore youthful vitality and virility, we suggest that the logic of rejuvenation was feminized through the promotion of cosmetic and daily self-care regimens in this period. Drawing on material from
British, American, and Canadian contexts relating to beauty and hygiene, we
suggest that daily practices of caring for and disciplining the white female body,
especially through cosmetic use, were legitimated, in part, using the rhetoric of rejuvenation. The article considers how the transnational, the modern, and the
propagation of whiteness in the early twentieth century were mobilized in these
ideas of how daily bodily work could preserve the (white) youthful face and body,
which was understood to embody health and vigor. This discourse was significant for young women, who were subject to male control over their bodies as they began to be employed in nontraditional workplaces; however, we also argue that these cosmetic practices can be understood as a component of girls’ and women’s own self-fashioning of modern identities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)906-921
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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