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Why is it so rare to see women in photos from before the mid-20th century who were attractive by today's standards?

“Attractive” is in the eye of the beholder.

Every guy has probably had the following experience.

“DUDE! Check out that hot girl over there!”

Your friend looks over, turns around again, and says: “You’re kidding, right? She’s not hot at all.”

“Whatever dude. Cool. Glad we’re not competing. You really wouldn't get with her?"

The other dude pauses.

"Not even on a desert island."

Take the same face, do the hair differently, and you’ll get wildly different levels of attraction. Total Makeover, What Not to Wear — that’s the entire gist of those shows. “The babe” is hiding out in the frumpy girl. It’s all in how you bring her out. (Or him. Same difference.)

A lot of people before the 1950s would have considered us unbelievably bizarre-looking, probably even kind of scary. Every generation has its standards. My dad grew up in the ’50s and ‘60s. He talks about his dad just losing his mind, almost throwing a fist through the TV screen when The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Those g*@#*)mN shaggy beatniks! Why don’t they cut their hair?!”

But seriously. Look back on the ’60s and ’70s today and I’m thinking “Uh, Grandpa was right. Those guys were strange.”

A hundred years from now, people will look back on the botox lips and weird Kardashian butt obsession of some of today’s women and ask “What were they thinking? Did they have a mental illness?” (I actually wonder this already.)

Victorian, Edwardian and WWII-era hairstyles don’t do much for us any more.

But don’t assume that those women were trying to look “sexy” or even “attractive.” They wanted to look respectable. And they weren't on Bumble.

And anyway, if you look at the faces, these are not unattractive women.

Definitely not the actress Ellen Terry, photographed at age 17 in 1864. Terry was only a decade younger than photography itself:

Definitely not Evelyn Nesbit, a huge heart-throb in the early 1900s:

Not every woman back then was “gorgeous” (or is now.) But the hairdo is the big issue here. This is just weird to us. Is that a bird's nest?

Even when they cropped their hair shorter (1940s here), most of us cringe at these dos. There's nothing wrong with their faces, though. I think a couple of these women are pretty cute:

But honestly, I don’t think any decade was as smokin’ as the ‘20s. (All right, maybe women’s fashion in the ‘60s.)

Your average woman in the ’20s wasn’t a Ziegfeld Follies girl. But a lot of that’s just in the packaging.

These aren’t vintage re-creations. These are real photos from the Roaring Twenties. Looking back on the frumpy Edwardian hairdos, suddenly you understand exactly why “Berniece Bobbed Her Hair” (F. Scott Fitzgerald story.) Thank you, Berniece.

Doris Eaton here lived to be 106. Hey, girl.

Sometimes a photograph lets you see right through time and realize how much somebody’s appearance was just an accident of fate.

Olive Oatman was a pioneer woman from Illinois who went out to Arizona with her family in 1851, when she was 14. Indians killed her family and took her into the Mojave Desert, where she got a blue facial tattoo. When she got back to “civilization,” Oatman got a Victorian haircut and went to see a photographer. But that tattoo speaks volumes.

Culture, not physiognomy, determines a lot of your appearance. Oatman just happened to be born at a time when Mojave Indians were tattooing women’s faces and Victorian women were getting that hairdo. That’s all.

Go back even farther in time and people thought that big Marge Simpson-style pompadours and white powdered wigs were attractive. We don’t. But they’d consider some of us bizarre to an extreme.

Honestly, Olive Oatman wasn’t half as weird as this:


Quick addition: diet and living conditions are probably some factor, too.

While early Americans, for example, had access to good food — better than ours, in some ways, because it was less processed — if you lived in Cincinnati in 1800 (or in Stockholm), you couldn’t just pull an orange off a tree. Fruit boats from Cuba came up the East Coast of the US, and there were trade networks all over the world, but tropical fruits were naturally harder to come by in inland areas and northern climates. You couldn’t just walk down to the supermarket and buy a lemon. There were orchards, but your supply was more limited, and it was seasonal.

And I don’t know if there’s actually any scientific basis to it, but people at the time believed that eating a lot of pork and corn affected your complexion.

Regardless, people just spent a lot more time outdoors than we do. Not many people had cushy office jobs in 1849. Most were farmers, sailors, etc. Women spent more time indoors than men back did in the 1800s, but on average they still spent more time working outdoors than women do today. Exposure to wind and sun will age your skin. It’s entirely natural. As usual, we’re the abnormal exceptions to human history.

Look at President Zachary Taylor in 1849, the year before he died. Taylor died when he was 65.

That’s a picture of a man who spend a lot of time outdoors in the army, in the West, in the wind and the sun, before he sat in the Oval Office.

Are there men today who look that shrivelled up at 65? Sure. But they don’t tend to be office workers. For most American men today, this is what you look like when you’re closer to 80. (I even know some 80-year-olds who don’t look this shriveled up yet.)

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