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PARIS — How has the notion of human beauty evolved through the ages? That’s the subject examined in “100,000 Years of Beauty,” a new book sponsored by the L’Oréal Foundation.
The idea behind it, explained Béatrice Dautresme, L’Oréal’s executive vice president of communications and external relations, is to show how beauty has been inexorably linked to humanity’s development and to give a historical and sociological viewpoint on the phenomenon.
“Such a wide perspective on the subject has never existed [before],” said Dautresme.
“Most of the books — and there are very few — speak of beauty in general and not specifically of human beauty,” explained Elisabeth Azoulay, editorial director of “100,000 Years of Beauty,” adding the others have generally focused on the Western world and cover a relatively short time span.
For approximately the past decade, L’Oréal has been delving into the meaning of beauty with, for instance, philosophers and historians. Among related activities was the collaboration eight years ago with several museums, including the Louvre, which involved the analysis of contents of an Egyptian vanity case, dating from 4,000 years ago.
“We understood the scope of the research was going to be huge,” said Dautresme, referring to the book.
L’Oréal gave Azoulay carte blanche to contact researchers from around the world to cover subjects spanning prehistory to the 21st century.
“What we said was that it could not be Eurocentric, or even Occidental-centric; it had to include visions of body appearance over the years that included far away civilizations — whether geographically or in terms of length of time,” said Dautresme. The vision would be broader than Egypt, Rome and Greece, which have been heavily documented, for instance. Cultures touched upon include some that no longer exist today.
Another stipulation was that the information be accessible to the general public.
Azoulay tapped a wide variety of specialists, including pre-historians, archeologists and art historians. The result is a 1,300-page work including articles by more than 300 people of 35 nationalities and 20 different disciplines. “100,000 Years of Beauty” is also chockablock with visual elements.
Azoulay explained the book is divided into key times for humanity, including prehistory, antiquity, the classical age, modernity and the future.
The volume focusing on modernity, for instance, includes a section on the Victorian ideal, another about 400 portraits of the Countess of Castiglione and one on the democratization of fragrance.
For the volume about the future, explained Dautresme, “We started thinking that it would be wonderful to try to imagine what human appearance would be when so many of the new paradigms of human evolution mixed with all those incredible changes in society that are completely supported by new technologies, new machines, new developments in medicine….All of that is going to have an enormous impact on appearance.
“‘Beauty’ is not necessarily a word that exists in every culture,” continued Dautresme, adding what does exist everywhere is the idea of modifying one’s appearance.
“There are a lot of words to say beauty,” said Azoulay, discussing one of the book project’s complications. She explained definitions of “beauty” have changed over time, as well.
The volumes of “100,000 Years of Beauty” are of different sizes and stack in sleeves making a pyramid. The book was published by Gallimard in France and launched in the U.S. on Amazon.com in December, starting for $295. That followed its introduction in France in late 2009 (the same year as L’Oréal’s centenary celebration).
L’Oréal demonstrated the global nature of the concept by holding a panel discussion at the Fashion Institute of Technology as part of the Master’s Degree Program in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management. The discussion of the book was led by Stephan Kanlian, program chairman. The panelists included Azoulay; Michael Bisson, an anthropology professor at McGill University in Montreal; Maxine Craig, an associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of California, and Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine, which, like WWD, is part of Condé Nast Publications Inc.
“Beauty has been at the heart of every civilization,” said Dautresme by way of summary, explaining it’s a key way people communicate among themselves. “It is part of the human DNA.”