Inventing the Makeover

Posted inCreative Voices

Back in 1936, Barbara Phillips was a 21-year-old nurse who longed to change her life. She’d gone to nursing school not because she had any great desire to help the sick, she admitted, but because she thought “nurses had only to lift one languid figure to have fabulous salaries forced upon them.” Instead, she found herself working long hours for “a rather small pittance” and dreaming of a new career.

Phillips wanted to be an actress. But she’d had no luck at auditions, and she realized she had a huge problem. She was, by her own description, “as homely as a hedgehog.”

Then she had an inspiration. That summer, she had read a series of articles in Mademoiselle magazine about how Paramount Studios makeup artist Eddie Senz (“a Michaelangelo of makeup”) and other beauty experts made Hollywood stars look their best. Called the “Make the Most of Yourself campaign,” the series was supposed to give readers “a complete course” they could follow at home.

Phillips had a better idea.

She wrote a letter to Mademoiselle and begged for personal attention. Fearing a future as “a frigid old maid with a two-room apartment,” she appealed to the editors’ sympathy and pride. “Don’t you think it would be a feather in your cap if you could be the one who changed this very ugly duckling into even a pale pink swan?” she wrote. “If you have any sort of Pygmalion in you, please be a sport and help me out.”

Her audacious proposal worked. In the November 1936 issue of Mademoiselle, Phillips appeared as the first-ever subject of a before-and-after magazine makeover.

Styles have evolved, and waistlines have grown, but the glamour of those before-and-after shots hasn’t changed significantly in three-quarters of a century. You can be instantly beautiful, a makeover promises, and truer to your inner ideal. An outer change can lead to a better life. All you have to do is trust specialists who can see your unique potential, know the right tricks, and devote their skills to revealing or creating the new you.

That’s the difference between getting a makeover and just having a bunch of beauty treatments at the same time. On a normal trip to the hairdresser or the cosmetics counter, the experts ask you what you want. With a makeover, they tell you what you need. Their expertise makes the new look seem effortless, like magic, especially when you just see before-and-after photos in a magazine or the “reveal” scene on a TV show and miss the angst, pain, or complicated preparations.

Glamour always contains an element of illusion; the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made things look better than they really were. In the case of makeovers, what’s hidden are all the conflicts created by trusting your appearance to someone else.

For most people, a makeover isn’t a real-life experience but rather an escapist fantasy enjoyed while reading magazines or watching movies or reality shows. Most of us don’t really want to radically transform our appearance. Our identities are too wrapped up in how we look.

But Phillips yearned for some bossy beauty instruction. On a hot summer Saturday, she met with the editors of Mademoiselle in New York and agreed to serve as a “human guinea pig, a laboratory specimen to be analyzed, dissected, polished up piece by piece and reassembled.” The goal was to prove that the magazine’s beauty tips really worked. “If Barbara Phillips could be transformed,” she explained in an article about her experience, “so could anyone.”

A squadron of specialists spent the following week remolding her appearance. “We’ll do a job on you, all right,” promised Senz, the makeup artist. (At the end of World War II, this master of transformation would advise the U.S. government on how Hitler might disguise himself to elude capture). After brusquely diagnosing Phillips’s flaws, Senz resculpted the planes of her long face with cosmetics, plucked away her eyebrows and drew in new ones, and gave her enormous false eyelashes. Since there wasn’t time to grow out her scraggly bob, she also got a custom-made wig in a stylish perm, adding fullness to her narrow head.

A dentist capped her crooked overbite, and she abandoned her glasses. Designer Marie de Narde (who later left fashion after marrying actor Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-O fame) created an evening gown that, with “some miraculous foundation work by Best and Company,” a Fifth Avenue retailer, disguised Phillips’s lack of curves. She even had speech lessons to improve her high-pitched, “smothered” voice.

At the end of the week, Phillips emerged looking less like a gawky farm girl and more like an elegant star. “A stranger was gazing at me out of the mirror,” she wrote. “Her face was full and rounded, her lips full and wide, her even, straight teeth gleamed….I didn’t feel like Barbara Phillips, and certainly, I didn’t look like her.”

Her article ended with a resolution to keep up her new look. “No midnight bell, I hope, for this Cinderella,” she wrote.

As it turned out, however, her adventures as a glamour girl were merely an enjoyable moment of imagination and escape. Phillips didn’t become a star of stage or screen. In fact, as the Mademoiselle issue hit newsstands, Time reported that “last week Miss Phillips was back in Boston, looking once more the way God made her.” (Confirming the Time report, the 1940 Census records a 25-year-old Barbara E. Phillips living in Boston.)

The makeover may not have changed Phillips’s life, but it did alter Mademoiselle’s fate. The story was a phenomenal success, drawing enough new readers to turn around the struggling magazine, which was barely a year old when Phillips wrote her letter.

Senz started writing regular columns, each featuring before-and-after photos of a woman with a common appearance problem. In January 1937, for instance, Senz transformed an unnamed woman whom he described, accurately but tactlessly, as “short, fat, stocky, and missing in attractive feminine curves.” He reworked her “round, moonlike face” with makeup and a new hairstyle, gave her a corset that took two inches off her hips, and put her in a dress with wide shoulders and a V-neck to elongate her shape. How she reacted to the makeover—or to Senz’s blunt comments—we don’t know.

Mademoiselle also turned Phillips’s idea into an annual contest. By 1938, Mademoiselle’s circulation had quintupled and some 5,000 young women sent in letters and photos, vying for the chance to win a trip to New York and a complete beauty overhaul. Kallie Foutz, a 26-year-old fashion copywriter from Salt Lake City and one of Brigham Young’s great-granddaughters, was especially determined. To make her “before” photo as ugly as possible, she washed her hair in harsh soap to remove all the curl and body, stuck her newly lank locks behind her ears, plucked out her eyebrows and drew new ones in an unflattering shape, and, recalls her younger brother, “carefully assembled a wardrobe that was wildly out of fashion.”

In her contest entry, Foutz referenced the same transformative fairy tale Phillips had, writing about how she’d loved The Ugly Duckling when she was a child “because I was an ugly duckling and, with the incorrigible optimism and blind hope of extreme youth, dreamed of the day when I too would become a beautiful swan.” Unlike Phillips, she didn’t emphasize changing her life, just her looks. She wanted her appearance to match her inner self. “My soul fairly glitters,” she wrote, “and yet I am hastily passed by for the glamour girls who know how to make the most of their looks.”

As the contest winner, Foutz got six weeks in New York and makeover treatments that included plastic surgery and speech lessons, along with a new hairstyle, makeup, and a whole new wardrobe. When she returned home, her little brother didn’t recognize her. “Hoping they were returning my sister,” he recalls, “I was disappointed as one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen stepped out of the car.”

Unlike Phillips, Foutz kept her new look and the show-business ambitions it furthered. She worked for a while as a radio and TV host, then went on to become a magazine writer and ghostwriter for celebrity memoirs. She married a screenwriter and lived in Hollywood and New York City. “My great-grandfather went west in 1847 to change the map,” she said of her makeover. “I’ve come east in 1938 to change my map.” It worked. In Foutz’s case, the “ugly duckling” really was a swan inside.

My 2013 book The Power of Glamour is not about fashion or beauty per se but rather about glamour in many different forms, varying with the audience. Researching it took me down a number of historical byways, including early aviation and the striking similarities between 17th-century Edo (now Tokyo) and 18th-century Paris, despite their lack of contact. The topic of this article, which originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Allure, came out of that research, although this historical detail does not appear in the book. All glamour includes the promise of escape and transformation.

Virginia Postrel is a writer with a particular interest in the intersection of commerce, culture, and technology. Author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style,” “The Power of Glamour,” and, most recently, “The Fabric of Civilization.” This essay was originally published on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.

Photo by Sujeeth Potla on Unsplash.