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.  

Blonde woman wearing a one-piece bathing suit and a Miss U.S.A sash an holding a helmet poses on a tropical beach, a sunset in the background.
Ms. Magazine September 1972
Images of former Miss U.S.A winners at the time of their win, juxtaposed with images of them a few years later, doing things like playing guitar or painting.
Miss Moscow wears a white dress with pouffy sleeves, a tiara, and a Miss Moscow sash. She is surrounded by mostly children ad some adults.
Two portraits side by side of two women competing for the title of Miss America 1943.
December 1943
A large group of women in bikinis pose and wave to a crowd off camera.
Still from the game show "The $1.98 Beauty Show" featuring three women in bathing suits posing.
still from "The $1.98 Beauty Show"
Seven women line up on a beach for a 1921 Atlantic City beauty contest.
Atlantic City 1921
A young girl wearing a long embellished pink dress smiles at the crowd as she descends a set of stairs offstage.
Three women in evening gowns pose and smile for the camera.
Life Magazine April 1938
Two beauty queens smile at one another and hold hands. Both are wearing evening gowns and tiaras.
September 1959
A young girl wearing a long pink dress, a crown, and a sash that reads "Queen of Queens" is embraced by an adult wearing an orage blazer.
A beauty queen holds her face in glee presumably upon being declared the winner of a contest.