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Permanent Waves: The making of the American beauty shop. (Reviews).

Permanent Waves: The Making of the American Beauty Shop. By Julie A. Willett (New York and London: New York University Press, 2000. xii plus 249 pp. $55.00).

Both a female institution and a commercial business, the beauty shop in the United States cuts across lines of class and race to illustrate multiple connections between work force participation, entrepreneurship, professionalization, and the creation of fashions in appearance as these factors relate to gender. In her history of the beauty shop in the United States from its appearance in the late nineteenth century to the present, Julie A. Willett has focused on these up-to-date topics to craft a lively and well-researched study of an overlooked subject that is part of the lives of most women (and increasing numbers of men) in this country. Her work joins other that of other scholars of industries marketing products to female consumers across class lines, such as Susan Porter Benson on department stores, Wendy Gambier on dressmaking, and Kathy Peiss on cosmetics. (1)

What strikes the reader is the ubiquity of the beauty shop throughout the nation's history-especially since the 1920s-and its embedding in a local culture of women's entrepreneurship and neighborhood friendship networks. That culture has been so powerful that, in contrast to other industries marketing "beaury,, (such as the cosmetics industry) which didn't have such a powerful local base, it was able to block the attempted "masculinization" of the industry. That challenge occurred in the late 1920s and the 1930s, when upscale male beauticians and trade organizations dominated by men attempted to take over control of the industry through state and national regulatory codes that would have put local female beauty shop owners out of business.

As a female space and an avenue to entrepreneurship, the beauty shop was as important to black as to white women. Given racial segregation, however, the history of black and white shops intersects only in similar issues of professionalization and work force participation, until in the 1970s the white industry tried to reach the large black market. Admirably, Willett gives equal space to the development of the black industry, beginning with her interesting argument that black beauty shops appeared before white ones. Yet while foregrounding race, she fails to discuss possible ethnic and regional variations in her subject.

Willett's analysis is strong when she deals with labor and business issues, but it weakens when she takes up fashion. Here the oral history and industry sources she has used for her study seem to lack sufficient depth. I am not convinced by her argument that peroxided hair came into vogue in the early 1920s, nor that the national fascination with blondes was strong in that decade. Nor am I convinced that permanent waving came into vogue among whites because of a fascination with black hair. These fashion matters were Euro-American phenomena, and no definitive statement about them can be made until the evidence for Paris, the center for styles of dress in this period, is fully examined.

Yet it is refreshing to read a history so firmly historicized and grounded in working-class and Afro-American history, although more attention to a theoretical perspective and to the elites might have enriched the analysis. After all, the beauty shop has been a major institution of consumer culture. As such, it has been a Foucaultian site of power that has played a central role in homogenizing women within a sexist culture and teaching them how to consume. In liberating women to be entrepreneurs and beautiful subjects, it has functioned in the service of oppression.


(1.) Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998).
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Author:Banner, Lois W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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