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Coming to a precise definition of "American beauty" has never been a simple task. Perhaps that's because both beauty and Americanness are constructs — malleable, highly subjective and sometimes fleeting. To boil down that famed melting pot (more than 300 million people with more than 300 million different backgrounds and tastes) and distill it into one single aesthetic is nigh impossible. Nonetheless, throughout modern American history, certain trends have, on occasion, bubbled up to the surface and helped to shape what entire generations have considered beautiful.
With that in mind — and in honor of the USA's birthday — we decided to take a look back at 13 defining American beauty trends from the past century. Linda Wells, the Chief Creative Officer of Revlon and founding editor of Allure, who has spent decades analyzing and writing about beauty in America, serves as our guide as we explore some of the most formative, most essential, most American of beauty trends.
1920s: Dramatic and Defiant
In the '20s, stars like Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks and Clara Bow used short hair, sleek styling and highly theatrical makeup (That eyeliner! Those needle-thin brows! Those bold lips!) to claim their own style. It was one that rejected conventions of long hair and minimal makeup, which "proper" young ladies were wearing at the time. "It was shocking," says Wells. "It was revealing and bold. There was a kind of declaration of independence in each of their looks."
1940s: Hollywood Waves
Before there were bombshell waves, there was Veronica Lake, whose wavy flaxen hair played peekaboo with her famously beautiful face in a way that became a must-have for women of the 1940s. "That, to me, was the sexiest hair going," says Wells. "The hair almost undulated like a body. It covered one eye and she peeked out behind it, which is always sort of erotic. There's an intimacy to it."
1950s: The Girl Next Door
Yes, we know, Audrey Hepburn was Belgian, but when it comes to defining American beauty, there aren't many stars who can claim their signature looks have had the kind of mental impact on the American psyche that Hepburn's iconic baby bangs, pink lips and winged liner have had. Wells describes her look as "both innocent and knowing... The baby bangs look very innocent, but then the winged eyes had a sexiness to them. It had a sophistication to that that made it interesting."
1950s: The Blonde Bombshell
Try defining American beauty without mentioning Marilyn Monro, we dare you. While her winged liner was similar to the style that Hepburn used to bring effortless beauty to the forefront, Monroe wielded glamour like a weapon. No coquettish innocence here. Every facet of her style evoked sexuality, from her iconic red lips and artfully undone platinum coif to her bedroomy eyes. At the bleeding edge of the women's lib movement that would arrive in the coming decades, Monroe's style was sensuality turned outward; both an agreement to play by the rules — her platinum blonde hair was always coiffed to perfection, her lipstick precise, her heavy-lashed eyes never smudging or smearing — and all of the things that a proper woman of the '50s would be expected to care about and maintain. But it was also a subversive warning that she would use the tools at her disposal as she saw fit; a woman to be both desired and feared.
1960s: Jackie O
Often seen as the flip side to the Monroe coin, Jackie Kennedy was American style in the 1960s. "Her beauty was the beauty of control. It was precise, everything was in place," says Wells. The minimal eye makeup, the perfect lips, hair curled just so — Kennedy had what Wells refers to as "an American sophistication," that wasn't flashy, but conveyed careful attention to the duties of a First Lady. "She thought very much about how she would be perceived. [Her look] appealed to the American public, but also looked very international."
1970s: Natural Woman
As the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s gave way to a more progressive and inclusive decade, the landscape of beauty also saw a notable shift. Where women of color had long been expected to hide their hair's natural texture, disco queens and stars like Pam Grier and Diana Ross began embracing their natural curls, and the era of the Afro was born. "The strength of that, the taking-up-space of it, it said 'Look at me, I am here, I am important, and you need to acknowledge that.' It was really her claiming her look in her own way," says Wells.
1970s: Feathered and Flipped
Farrah Fawcett's iconic hairstyle was revered by plenty of Americans — and dreaded by many hairstylists. "Of course it took tons of work to make that happen," Wells recalls. "It was feathered, and it was flipped, and it was frosted; trying to duplicate that style was complete torture, but it looked loose and free. The abundance of it made it so sexy."
1980s: Hail to the Diva
Speaking of maximum effort, the '80s ushered in an era of high-maintenance hair that honestly made a lot of sense in the "Greed is good" decade. Bleached a sunny California blonde, Whitney Houston's Rapunzel-esque ringlets were cropped on top for the requisite '80s bangs, while her eyeshadow (in no fewer than three colors) progressively encroached on the bridge of her nose for an intensely sculpted effect. "It was sort of supermodel-y," Wells points out. "She really came around in the time of the supermodel, and this had this larger-than-life quality in a different way. High-maintenance and proud of it. It's diva hair."
1980s: More is More
In keeping with the decade's over-the-top theme, largess became a way of life for American beauty buffs in the '80s. Case in point: everyone who walked around with the teased-tall, hairspray-shellacked crops and "this was everything in my kit" makeup that had all eyes on Dynasty. "Everything was exaggerated, flamboyant and opulent. You wanted people to know everything you spent," says Wells.
1990s: Street Style Explosion
"Street style" may not have become a household name for another 15 years, but the infusion of hip-hop into the mainstream music scene had a serious effect on American beauty. "There's a kind of rawness and a different kind of self expression," Wells says of Salt 'N' Pepa's famed asymmetrical styles and bright red pouts. "There's a kind of defiance in asymmetry, like the half shaved head that was everywhere at this time."
1990s: The Rachel
Let's be honest: you know this hair. You loved this hair. You may have even had this hair and spent far too long struggling to get it to look half as good as it did on Jennifer Aniston. It was also part of a larger cultural shift toward more approachable beauty (though most of us probably didn't notice that amidst all of the fights with our round brushes). "It looked kind of casual at the time. It was such a friendly haircut, very girl next door. It was all about bringing out the face and highlighting your features," says Wells of the now-iconic cut by Chris McMillan, who remains Aniston's hairstylist to this day. If only it hadn't taken so damn long to perfect.
2000s: Hella Straight Hair
For reasons that we're still trying to remember, after decade of huge hair, we all collectively decided in the 2000s to follow Avril Lavigne's lead and straighten our strands into oblivion (with bonus points for a zig-zag part) or maybe a butterfly clip. The look was long, sleek and layered, calling back to the bygone days of long hippie hair, only much much worse for your split ends.
2010s: You Do You
"I feel like this is a moment of individualism," Wells says of the modern beauty scene. Alicia Keys is choosing to go bare-faced while the Kardashians lean fully into their contour and lip kits, and both camps have legions of fans applauding them for it. Men are landing big-name beauty contracts and Hijabi models are appearing on major magazine covers. Plenty of people are rejecting longstanding societal conventions, like removing body hair. Some are drawing on their own freckles. No shade is off limits when it comes to hair color, and experimentation — with one's signature look, with one's eye color, with one's hair length (or lack thereof) — is what it's all about. It's a time of inclusivity, of rejecting stereotypes of who can or "should" wear makeup and of turning to beauty as a means of self-expression, activism or even good, old-fashioned escapism. The current beauty era is one of doing whatever the hell you want to adorn your own body (or not!) as you see fit. And that's what makes America beautiful, indeed.