The book chronicles some of beauty's best (and worst) inventions over the years.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Women once stuffed sacks full of antelope hair into their shirts to make their breasts seem bigger, were blinded by mascara and sickened by poisons used in hair removal creams. Not only is beauty pain, it's also bizarre.
"Inventing Beauty," by Teresa Riordan, longtime columnist with the New York Times, traces the history of beauty inventions like corsets, lipstick and bustles. One thing is certain: women will try anything to "improve" their looks.
"Women used these inventions to level the playing field," she says. "Whether it's a corset to change your shape or lipstick to draw attention to your mouth, it gives ordinary people like me the ability to level the field with congenitally beautiful people."
Riordan, 44, hopped a train from her home outside of Washington for a day of beauty New York style. She arrives at the Fashion Institute of New York wearing a fur-lined black leather jacket and is pleasantly free of most of the things she writes about in her book. Her dark curly hair is pulled back to reveal striking green eyes, and the only visible sign of makeup is reddish lipstick.
"My friends said it was a strange topic for me to write about," she says. "I really don't wear a lot of makeup and I certainly don't buy a lot of the products."
In the eyes of most others, Riordan is seen as attractive, but she is still self-conscious about her looks. And she's self-deprecating: She says her mother and sister are the pretty ones in the family, and she is visibly nervous when a photographer shoots her picture.
She blushes when she's asked if her husband of 16 years thinks she's beautiful. "I'm sure my husband would love for me to use more of the products I write about," she jokes again. "I'm sure, though, he thinks I'm beautiful sometimes."
About the book
"Inventing Beauty" is divided into nine sections, according to parts of the body: hair, eyes, waist, derriere, hands, hips, etc. In each section, she traces both successful beauty ideas and some that, thankfully, have never made it to the mainstream.
The world can live without a fat-roller where people would be strapped into a metal contraption and huge rolling pins would mush and roll their naked bodies, or a diathermy massage machine that uses electricity. Many of these not-so-brilliant ideas came from women eager to enhance their finer points and play down their imperfections.
"The impulse is to make ourselves look younger, to transform ourselves," Riordan says. "And people will go to great lengths to do so, they want to believe anything."
The book cites some unsafe products found their way to the market, including Lash Lure, a primitive form of mascara that caused blindness in some users. A woman in the 1920s, Kora M. Lubin, developed a hair removal cream that included rat poison which sickened many women, and a few went blind.
And still other products, like a bust-enhancing cream, were just plan hoaxes.
The flip side are the beauty products that have evolved to become part of everyday life, including electric razors and eyebrow wax.
One of Riordan's favorite industry stories is that of the Hazel Bishop lipstick company. In the 1950s, the company sold half of all lipsticks bought by American women. Bishop pioneered the first "no smear" lipsticks that wouldn't "eat off, bite off or kiss off." The company faded after Revlon and Max Factor started mimicking her products.
"I think the idea that she could be so well known, famous even, and then because of poor management by her company disappear is fascinating," Riordan says. "Her ideas really moved lipstick into a new era."
At the Fashion Institute of New York's museum, wide rows of voluptuous gowns in sparkling reds and pinks are displayed in a cavernous room. Some designs are vintage, others contemporary, but Riordan is walking through picking out common styles to them all: bustles, corsages, and boning.
Riordan says these products were available at first to the elite, but that has changed.
"For the long time that was the case but fashion and beauty was really democratized during the late 19th century, and has become more available to everyone," she says.