In the spring of 1928, France and America went to war on the beaches of Galveston, Texas. Combatants were not solemn men outfitted in uniforms and equipped with modern weapons but exuberant young women adorned in colorful bathing suits and armed only with the chief weapon in the coquette’s arsenal – a dazzling smile. Indeed, that June, France and America did not encounter one another in the theater of war but battled it out on stage at the Third Annual “International Pageant of Pulchritude,” the official predecessor of the “Miss Universe Pageant.” This lecture examines the beauty contest as a register for shifting definitions of femininity in the 1920s, exploring specifically how the 1928 Miss Universe competition engendered transnational debates about feminine beauty, identity, and visibility. Envisioning beauty contests as value–laden cultural enterprises and as popular commercial entertainments, I examine how, by putting women’s bodies on display, pageants fashioned models of modern womanhood that were simultaneously respectable and risqué; national and international; ordinary and exceptional.
The talk is sponsored by the Department of History, the Department of French, the Lectures Committee, the University Wellness Center, and the Wick.