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Beauty Queens: Birth of the pageant



As much as we love giving AND receiving gifts, sometimes getting something right for someone can be a real pain. Enter our cute new gifting tins! Inside each tin is a pair of panties, in sizes small, medium and large (which makes sizing SO much easier). Each tin is Beauty Queen themed, with a gorgeous illustration by Katie Woodger.


But for many of us, especially us Brits, beauty pageants are a strange, unknown world. Are they really as shallow as they seem to first glance? We looked into the history of the most famous beauty pageants and how they came to be!


The four largest and most famous international beauty contests are Miss World (founded in 1951), Miss Universe (founded in 1952), Miss International (founded in 1960) and Miss Earth (founded in 2001 with environmental awareness as its concern), however it is Miss America that has been going (in one form or another) the longest.


Beauty pageants are generally multi-tiered with local competitions feeding into larger competitions. The worldwide pageants often require hundreds, sometimes thousands, of local competitions to slim down the hopeful entrants!



Although contests to determine who/what are the most beautiful have been around since Ancient Greek myths, there is no evidence of beauty contests for women having existed at this time. Instead there were “contests of physique” known as euandria, which were exclusively for men.


Beauty pageants may in fact be traced back to European festivals, in particular, the English May Day celebrations that involved the crowning of a Queen.


The first of the modern form of pageant was staged in America by P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame), who had been holding dog, bird and even baby beauty contests in his dime museum in New York City. While his baby contest proved to be a hit, a similar event for women in 1854 was a flop. The prize of a dowry or a diamond tiara if the winner was married was not enough encouragement for Victorian women to display themselves.


Instead Barnum came up with the great idea of using daguerreotypes of the entrants instead. Unfortunately he sold off his museum before organising these alternative pageants, but the idea of using modern technology was a pioneering new form of entertainment and his idea was taken up by newspapers across the nation.



Gradually the discomfort of displaying women in public began to fade, and in 1880 the first “Bathing Beauty Pageant” took place as part of a summer festival to promote business in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However it was not until the 20th century when beauty pageants began to become a regular occurrence.


In 1921, the businessmen of Atlantic City faced a predicament; how to keep tourists past Labor Day? They decided to hold a fall festival, which included a “National Beauty Tournament”, soon dubbed “Miss America” by the press. The pageant was a great success, running each year until 1929 when the effects of the Great Depression and bad press put a hold on the event.


Miss America was revived in 1933, under a new name and management as The Variety Showman’s Jubilee. The pageant was a shambles, with one judge oversleeping, Miss New York State collapsing on stage from an abscessed tooth, Miss Oklahoma rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy, Miss New York City dropping out, Miss Arkansas revealed to be married and three contestants disqualified for living in other states!


Marian Bergeron, a dead-ringer for Jean Harlow, eventually wins, however is nearly disqualified when judges discover she is only 15. Despite being underage, she is allowed to keep her crown and earns the nickname “baby vamp”. Unfortunately the crown was stolen from her hotel suite hours later...


Despite the setbacks of that year, Miss America continued to hold their contest each year. During World War II, thought is given to discontinuing, however the decision is made that it helped strengthen the American spirit.



In 1945 Lenora Slaughter became the first female director of the pageant, making changes that would put the contest on the map for decades to come. She created a scholarship program to help young women attend college; however as the public focused on soldiers returning from the war, she faced a challenge to raise funds. Unsurprisingly, considering the time, the businessmen she approached were uninterested in the idea of scholarships for women. Despite this, Lenora eventually raised enough money to set up the scholarship, which is still in place today!


Lenora also caused controversy in 1948 when she announced that the winner would be crowned in a gown rather than the traditional swimsuit. Reporters are furious and attempt a boycott, before their editors called them off. Three years later in 1951 Miss America winner, Yolande Betbeze, refused to pose in a swimsuit, insisting she was a classical singer, not a pin-up. Her decision was supported by judges, much to the distaste of sponsor, Catalina swimwear, who promptly pulled their sponsorship and began to plan its own pageants, Miss USA and Miss Universe.



Make sure you tune in next week for part two of beauty pageant history!