Beauty Contestant in the Photographic Scene

By Conor, Liz | Journal of Australian Studies, December 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

Beauty Contestant in the Photographic Scene


Conor, Liz, Journal of Australian Studies


From April to May 1922, the Sydney Evening News invited women readers to send in their photographic portraits to be judged by a panel appointed by the newspaper. It was the first newspaper in the 1920s that adopted the beauty competition as a means to expand its readership. The judging panel selected the stage actress, Miss Eve Grey, from over 2,000 entrants. The Victorian Herald ran a competition from May 1922, asking 'Can a Victorian Girl be found to match her?', (1) and finally selected Mrs Betty Tyrrell in August, from 3,300 entrants. From July to October of 1922, the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail also conducted a beauty competition, questing, like their interstate competitors, to discover the representative beauty of their state. They judged Miss Gladys Gard to be the rightful owner of that title. These competitions were followed in 1926 by the Daily Guardian's quest for Miss Australia. In 1927 the Miss Australia quest transferred to Smith's Weekly and Union Theatres.

Prior to the rash of popular Australian beauty competitions in the 1920s, the beauty contest had generally been run as a local fundraiser for charity. The smaller Mildura Grand Carnival 1923 beauty contest in northwest Victoria, ran along these lines. It took place after the larger state newspapers had searched for and announced their representative beauties. But it combined some of the older stipulations of popularity and district charity fundraising with the newer ideals of photographed beauty. It judged girls who had been selected through eight district committees. Votes were collected through penny contributions and the 3,200 [pounds sterling] raised was divided between district hospitals. The entrants had to be nominated by a 'lady or gentleman'. While this competition was organised around the local carnival, entrants submitted for approval their photographs to the local newspaper.

In an era in which 'every' woman seemingly possessed a 'birth right' and a 'duty to beauty', competitions inspired the 'most cheering of modern discoveries'--that 'hopeless plainness' was a thing of the past. (2) It reinforced the claims of commodified beauty culture: that comparing oneself and measuring up to an ideal of feminine beauty through diligent self-scrutiny were indispensable techniques in the quest to become a truly modern woman. The large-scale promotion of both the competitions and beauty aids persistently guided women toward the correct techniques of appearing to be modern.

The shift from district fundraisers at social events to state and national newspaper run competitions offering monetary prizes and celebrity status to the winner, could not have taken place without the by now commonplace photographic portrait. That judgements should initially be based upon this visual fragment, meant that beauty had to be redefined as evident in visual and measurable qualities, such as facial proportions, bodily measurement, shape of the head and its placement on the shoulders. Notably, 'colouring' was less a concern for black and white reproduction. This may have worked to down play cultural difference but whiteness operated as an invisible but defining category. Women 'of colour' were not present in the competitions. Expression, however, remained important to the lingering ideal of feminine beauty as the manifestation of the inner-self and virtue. The face became a meaningful zone, a complex interplay of plains, angles, form, shape and expression. But in each case, once the field of competitors had been narrowed, they were asked to present themselves to the judges in the flesh.

As she appeared in the pictorial print media, the 1920s beauty contestant was marked by many of the meanings of visibility that accrued to other types of modern appearing woman. [Fig 1] (3) The linkage to the screen star was reinforced by competitions for the most beautiful screen type (4) and screen star double (5) and best figure competitions were mn as publicity 'stunts' through major picture palaces.

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