Vintage beauty ads are telling: You can learn a lot about past fashion and hair trends, and track the shift beauty standards.
In 1945, Ebony was founded by John H. Johnson as the go-to lifestyle magazine for black people, and it remains an important resource and asset for black culture. Before other mainstream magazines included people of color in their featured advertisements, ads for brands like Gillette, Lucky Strike, Sears, Revlon, and Avon were featured exclusively in Ebony—with black models. The publication was also where black people could find ads for products made specifically for them, from hair products like Ultra Sheen to makeup lines like Fashion Fair.
We flipped through vintage Ebony magazines from four decades (1949, 1962, 1974, 1977, and 1984) and took note of the hair through the years (voluminous curls, big Afros, clip-on wigs and Jheri curls) and the shift from promoting bleaching creams and straight hair to representing a host of skin tones and hair textures.
1949 (the dawn of the Fifties)
Published four years after Ebony's first issue, and this June 1949 cover features Joe Louis and his family four months after he retired as an undefeated heavyweight boxer. The late 40s, style- and beauty-wise, were all about practical, ladylike glamour: Floral cinched-waist full skirts and tightly pinned-back hair. The beauty ads in this issue feature fair-skinned black models with a heavy focus on wigs, silky curls and waves in "Page Boy," "Glamourous Bobs," and "Feather Curls" styles. Skin treatments include bleaching cream advertisements from companies like Black & White Bleaching Cream and Nadinola.
Diahann Carroll graced the cover of the July 1962 issue of Ebony, the same year she became the first black actress to a Tony award for her performance in the musical "No Strings." The early 1960s carried over many of the hair and fashion trends from the '50s: A heavy presence of wigs—as well as chemically straightening relaxers, creams and greases that supposedly made hair (for both men and women) as soft and straight as a wig. In this issue of Ebony, the beauty advertising was from brands like Super Groom, Madame CJ Walker's Glossine, Dixie Peach, Ultra Sheen, and Lustrasilk—all claiming to make your hair straight and smooth.
The content of the August 1974 issue of Ebony shone a spotlight on "The Black Child," with everything from teaching your kids about sex to saving for college. The August 1977 issue focused on "The Black Woman," with stories on her relationship with the black man and profiles of successful black women in various industries. There was a shift in beauty standards: Instead of trying to fit in with mainstream hair and fashion trends, the look was more about pride and versatility. No longer was just one hairstyle or one skin-tone a representation of black beauty. In the ads in both of these issues, there's a huge focus on Afros and how to manage them—from hot picks and blow-out combs to shampoos and conditioners. There were still ads for relaxers and wigs, but they weren't the only options offered, as in previous decades. We also saw a lot more ads for women's makeup (Maybelline and Fashion Fair) and men's grooming (Gillette).
The February 1982 issue of Ebony featured Stephanie Mills—the Grammy-winning R&B singer who played the first Dorothy in the Broadway musical The Wiz—at the height of her career and right before she released her 6th album, Tantalizingly Hot. The style and beauty of the early '80s (before hip hop influenced everything) involved brighter colors, black supermodels (Grace and Beverly Johnson) and new, beloved hair trend: The Jheri curl. A lot of the beauty ads in this issue of Ebony were featured both men and women, using the same product to obtain similar hairstyles.
It's worth noting that there were lots of grooming ads specifically tailored for black men in the '60s, '70s, and '80s—something you don't see much of today. And while there were years in which we felt it was important to change our hair and skin, another thing is certain: Black people are trailblazers when it comes to creating a style—and making an existing trend better. Looking at decades of beauty advertisements is to look at the complexities of blackness on display.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.