Hollywood's Changing Face of Beauty

From Greta Garbo to Kate Hudson, how beauty has changed in America.

ByABC News
May 9, 2008, 1:32 PM

May 12, 2008 — -- Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but over the years there have been some beauties that almost all beholders and critics have been able to agree on.

Grace Kelly in the 1950s, Cindy Crawford in the 1990s and these days it's Angelina Jolie or perhaps Kate Hudson, People magazine's "Most Beautiful" cover girl.

"Kate Hudson embodies beauty right now, she's adorable but she has flaws, her ears stick out a little . . . she's not a classic beauty like Michelle Pfeiffer," said Galina Espinoza, senior editor at People magazine.

It just so happens that Michelle Pfeiffer graced the cover of People's first Most Beautiful issue way back in 1990 when classic beauties and so-called "glamazons" such as Crawford were the hot "faces" of the day.

Fast-forward 18 years and women are gravitating to a more "accessible" kind of beauty, such as Hudson's features, according to Espinoza. And the list of accessible beauties is a long one -- think Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Anniston.

And if the standards of beauty have changed from classic to accessible in just 18 years, imagine the difference if you go all the way back to the 1700s.

Although fashion magazines had traditionally set the standard for what was beautiful, around the turn of the 20th century along came vaudeville performers and film stars to define the trends. Mary Pickford was one of the first silent-era film stars. Known as "America's Sweetheart" at the height of her popularity, Pickford's curly brown hair was widely copied by women around the country.

Then in the late 1920s along came two actresses whose looks defined an era, even though they could not have been more different.

"Joan Crawford was kind of a 'chick,' with her roguish eyes and rebellious ways," Banner said. Crawford's dark-haired beauty contrasted with Greta Garbo's angular features and thin physique.

"The word glamorous came in to use right about that time," Banner said, "and it was perfect to describe Greta Garbo."

At the same time, the boyish attractiveness of Katharine Hepburn also was in vogue. "It was a straight up and down slim look. She was that way and so was Ginger Rogers," Hanson said.

World War II prompted a fashion change -- shorter skirts came into style because there just wasn't a lot of fabric to go around. War-weary GI's clamored for pretty girls and the "pinup" look was born.  The more popular actresses were curvaceous women with big hips and big busts, a la Lana Turner and Betty Grable.

"They were gorgeous women, but they also had a distinctly American look. They looked much more American than European," Hanson said. The iconic photograph of the time showed Grable with her hands on her hips in a bathing suit looking over her shoulder.

"When I was in high school, we all wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn. When 'Charade' came out [in 1963] everyone wanted to own the little trench coat and look like her," Hanson said.

Although it seems like our concept of beauty changes radically from generation to generation, there are some consistent features, according to research done by Randy Thornhill, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico.

"People with symmetric faces are rated more attractive and always have been," Thornhill said.

"The power of looks in social life has never changed from our evolutionary ancestors. If you look at cross cultures and traditional societies, you see the same sort of patterns. Attractive women get rewarded with more attractive husbands, husbands who are better providers," Thornhill said. Perhaps that explains Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

These days, of course, many people try to "fool" Mother Nature with a little help from modern medicine.

"The only way you can change the symmetry of your face is through plastic surgery. You can trick the brains of others," Thornhill said.

At the beginning of the 20th century, beauty icons were almost exclusively Caucasian women. But by the 1980s, the Somalian-born model Iman captured the attention of fashion designers.

By the 1990s, a "most beautiful" list wouldn't be complete without Salma Hayek and Halle Berry.

The power of pop culture also has spawned a whole new genre of nontraditional beauties who vaulted to prominence by the sheer power of their fame.

And the American Film Institute's Hanson points out that actress Molly Ringwald starred in some of the most popular movies of the '80s, "Sixteen Candles" and "Pretty in Pink," sporting her trademark short red hair and freckles.

"She was not a great beauty, but she was very, very, popular in the 1980s and her looks were very attainable. You didn't have to think, 'I have to be look like somebody who is so perfect,' " Hanson said.

Not unlike Kate Hudson today.