The history of beauty pageants isn’t nearly as pretty as their participants. Taking cues from the ancient Greeks (who had beauty competitions for men as well as women), modern beauty pageants were spearheaded by notoriously problematic showman P.T. Barnum, although they only started to take off in the the U.S.A. several decades later. The first Miss America pageant took place in Atlantic City in 1922.  Women of color weren’t allowed to participate until many decades later. Since the 60s, many groups have protested pageants - citing (rightly) racism and sexism in the structure of the shows. These days, beauty pageants call to mind associations with the current president of the United States (Trump was the owner of the Miss Universe pageant) and such reality TV classics as TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, which features the truly terrifying world of child beauty pageants. Beauty pagents are relics of an age where female worth was measured in terms of normative beauty and agreeability, which some people are still into. The Beauty Pageants folder in the SVA Pictures Collection is slim, but its contents provide a fruitful look into the glossy, rhinestone-encrusted world of beauty pageantry. Photographic relics ranging from the first ever Miss America to more recent hairspray-soaked iterations offer opportunities for meditations on artifice, gender, performance and Camp.  

Ms. Magazine September 1972

December 1943
still from "The $1.98 Beauty Show"
Atlantic City 1921
Life Magazine April 1938
September 1959
1990