A lot can change in a century. Just 100 years ago, cars were still a new invention. Women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote. Jim Crow laws, which segregated people by race, were still in effect. In many ways, it was a much simpler time, free of the trappings of modern technology, but it was also an oppressive time for anyone who wasn’t a white male.
Beauty standards were also quite different. If a man from a century ago saw a modern woman in 21st century clothing, there’s a good chance he’d find her completely unappealing. Many of the things men found attractive in the late 1910s were not simply different from what they find attractive today, but also rather shocking. Quite a few of the characteristics that made up the "ideal" women are considerably sexist, and even racist, by modern standards. Looking back at some of the most surprising things men found attractive 100 years ago isn’t just eye-opening, but also a reminder of how far women have come.
One of the biggest battles women fought in the early 20th century was for the right to vote. The movement was particularly strong in the United States and the United Kingdom. Women who marched for women’s rights were initially considered to be unladylike and militant, but began to use their femininity to win men over to their cause. These stylish suffragists garnered sympathy with men by upending the trope that women who wanted to vote were "frumps." Just a few years earlier, being politically active might damage a woman’s marriage prospects, but by re-packaging the suffragist as a respectable, fashionable, middle-class women, suffragists began to be seen as attractive and clever rather than unrefined.
Suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst said (via The Guardian): "Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause." The U.S. Congress finally passed an amendment allowing women to vote in 1919, and it was ratified in 1920. In the U.K., women had to wait a bit longer for universal voting rights, which were finally granted with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.
College-educated women who didn’t use their degrees
In 1918, 41 percent of all college graduates were women. In spite of changing attitudes about women and education, women still faced discrimination in academia, and many of the nation’s top universities only admitted men. Women seeking higher education mostly attended women-only institutions.
While many men liked the idea of a woman who had a college education, most of them didn’t want their future wives to actually put those educations to good use. Most people a century ago still believed that a woman’s primary place was in the home, and men were looking for wives and mothers rather than career women. In 1910, just 12 percent of professional women were married. Working before marriage was one thing, but the vast majority of women did not have life-long careers. They were expected to stop working after marriage or, at the very latest, once they had children. Women who were forced to work outside of the home due to economic hardship were pitied for being separated from their families.
Women capable of doing "men’s" work
While most men wanted women to stay at home with their families, the advent of World War I in 1914 meant many women had to work outside of the home. This was justified because it was considered necessary to support men. During the war, many "canteens," were set up to serve as recreation centers for men stationed abroad. "Although the plan was not uncontested, the military’s unprecedented decision to allow women to staff canteens abroad reflected a belief that such service was crucial to their men’s welfare," wrote Lynn Dumenil in The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I. It was a woman’s responsibility to take care of men and children, and American women working in canteens were meant to keep men’s spirits up by serving as "symbols of home and family."
Other women advanced the war effort by enlisting in the military, where they were primarily in clerical positions, freeing up men for combat. Others joined the war as nurses, or took on traditional "men’s" work in fields such as construction and transportation, which were left understaffed after many of the men who worked in them went to war.
Being pure on the wedding night, but not ignorant
A century ago, brides were expected to be virgins on their wedding night. Keeping "pure" for their husbands was one thing, but women were also expected to have enough knowledge to know how to keep their husbands happy. Women were supposed to know just enough about their bodies and about lovemaking to know how everything worked. "An adolescent girl of fourteen or sixteen should know the general plan of her own sexual structure," wrote Maurice Alpheus Bigelow in the 1916 book Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life. Too much information, however, might render a woman unladylike and therefore unattractive to potential husbands.
In 1918, Walter Matthew Gallichan wrote in The Psychology of Marriage that a woman who didn’t know enough about sex risked alienating her husband: "The irresponsiveness of the wife may bewilder and pain the ardent bridegroom, and disharmony may result from these early experiences of connubial life."
Women who removed their armpit hair
Shaved armpits are pretty standard today, but a hundred years ago the removal of women’s body hair was just coming into vogue in the United States. Before this, body hair on women was not only considered attractive, but even erotic. Nina Edwards wrote in Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings 1914-1918 that "armpit hair in particular" was considered enticing as it made men think of "other more hidden parts."
How did American culture change from celebrating body hair on women to reviling it? Advertising. In 1915, companies began to recognize that women who didn’t typically use razors or hair removal products were an untapped market. That same year, Gilette began marketing safety razors to women. It would still be several years before it was considered mandatory for a well-groomed woman to remove her body hair, but by the end of the decade shaved women were already seen as glamorous and fashionable.
Long, flowing hair was the height of femininity
Women these days have the freedom to choose a variety of hair styles, but a century ago, those looking to be attractive to men were expected to have long hair. The bob started to slowly come into fashion in 1910, and would soon become the trademark hairstyle of the flapper generation of the 1920s, but only the most daring women of the late 1910s were chopping off their locks.
Shorter hair, while liberating, was viewed as boyish. According to Cultural Encyclopedia of the Body, "Critics of the bob accused women who wore their hair in such a fashion of being too masculine and too wild. Short hair on women symbolized immoral lifestyles." Long hair, on the other hand, "was conflated with traditional roles for women." While there were no doubt forward-thinking men a century ago who didn’t care how women wore their hair, the mainstream still looked upon long, flowing hair as the feminine ideal.
Women who didn’t smoke
World War I ended in 1918, and with the end of the war came the beginning of a new era with more freedoms for women. The transition was gradual, however. Smoking among men was quite common, but women who smoked were looked down upon by society. "Women who smoked were widely considered to be of low character and loose morals," wrote Ann Malaspina in False Images, Deadly Promises: Smoking and the Media. In 1904, a New York mother was sentenced to 30 days in jail for smoking in front of her children on the grounds that it corrupted their morals.
By 1918, more and more women were smoking but it was still considered to be a somewhat unrefined pastime. Cigarette ads featuring women never depicted them actually smoking. Some Broadway theaters opened women’s smoking rooms, but it would still be another decade before female smokers would shake the stigma that had long existed. Traditional men in the late 1910s were still seeking women who didn’t light up.
Skin bleached as white as possible
Pale skin, whether natural or not, was the fashion in the early 20th century. Until the 1920s, skin lightening products were marketed to both white and African American women, and companies often employed racist marketing tactics to get women to buy their lightening products. Some ads urged white women to lighten their skin so as not to be mistaken for a light-skinned black woman.
The ramifications of being mistaken for African American could be serious in the 1910s as African Americans didn’t have the same rights as white people and, in many states, were prohibited from marrying outside their race. Being mistaken for a black women could therefore damage a white woman’s marriage prospects. African American women, on the other hand, often felt the pressure to lighten their skin in order to be considered beautiful, or even to potentially pass as white and therefore receive better treatment in a nation that was segregated by skin color.
Athletic — but not competitive — women
By the 1910s, many women had abandoned the corset because of the health hazards the undergarment posed. Tiny waists were still fashionable, however, leading to a rise in diet and exercise regimes. Women were encouraged to participate in sports, especially gymnastics, as a way to stay fit and slim. During this time, the idea that a woman could be both athletic and feminine was one that challenged traditional gender norms.
In the 19th century, it was believed that women who were too physically active could render themselves infertile, so encouraging women to exercise was itself a sign of progress. Women weren’t completely liberated in that regard by the end of the 1910s, though. Men might have wanted women who stayed fit through physical activity, but it would still be a while before female athletes were accepted in the competitive arena. In 1900, just 2.2 percent of Olympic athletes were women. By 1928, that number had risen to nearly 10 percent. This is a huge difference from the modern era where women make up nearly half of Olympic athletes.
Women born in America to American parents
In the early 20th century, the Ziegfeld girl was the epitome of the beautiful American woman. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., a theater producer, had very strict requirements for the girls he allowed in his musical revues. A Ziegfeld girl was supposed to be an all-American female, wholesome and beautiful both on and off the stage. Her ideal measurements were a 36 inch bust, a 26 inch waist, and 39 inch hips.
While Ziegfeld himself was the child of immigrants, this didn’t stop him from joining in the rampant anti-immigrant attitudes of the early 20th century. A Ziegfeld girl was expected to come from American stock. "The ideal American woman was white," wrote Catherine Gourley in Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918. "She was a true American, a woman born in the United States to parents who were also born in the United States. In other words, she was not an immigrant. …There were no women of color on Ziegfeld’s stage."