I have just spent the weekend with two independent, accomplished, and beautiful young women–twenty-somethings, like Emilie Loring’s characters–and they set me to thinking about attitudes toward competence and beauty.
As a child, I strove to earn A’s at school, and although I had school clothes, church clothes and play clothes, I don’t remember ever having to scale myself back. The nicer I looked, the better; the better I did in school, the better. But somewhere in my teens, I learned a new set of rules: be cute on a date; be smart at school. Somehow, looks aren’t “serious;” competence isn’t “attractive.” As a professional woman, it got trickier. In the workplace, it’s important to be fashionable but not sexy, confident but not pushy, competent but not arrogant.
Thank heaven for Emilie Loring’s books in my life! Nearly one hundred years ago, she struck the most useful balance between competence and beauty: she went all-in for both.
“The Lady and the Looker” (1919) took on the issues directly. Anne Otis is one of only a few main characters whose appearance needs tweaking, but the problem isn’t fashion.
“It’s not often that I intrude upon the affairs of my employees, Miss Otis, but I hate to see nature blocked. She designed your face for happiness; you’re fast coating it with gloom. You have the making of an exceptional secretary. You are unselfish and considerate of those about you, but you lack faith in yourself; you’re sloppy in appearance. That’s what carries on–faith in oneself. The workers here call you ‘The Lady.’ They call Miss Delaney ‘The Looker.’ Why can’t you be both?”
Both, indeed. What a healthy outlook, and so far ahead of her time!
To put this in some historical context, the phrase “beautiful but dumb” was popularized several years later and discussed throughout the 1920s. In a movie called exactly that, “Beautiful But Dumb” (1928), a stenographer attracts her boss by exchanging serious office wear for sexy, flapper outfits and flirtatious behavior. A 1931 song crooned,
Some men crave beautiful women, but in my life it’s not worthwhile
After all they’re just beautiful, ain’t got sense of a newborn child
Emilie Loring wasn’t having it. Her counter-heroines are beautiful but definitely not dumb–more like scheming. They are dainty and blonde, with green eyes and pouting red lips. Dressed to the nines, not a hair out of place, they simper, purr, and gaze up with a “what a big man you are” look. And those girls get left behind.
Emilie’s advice to the teen I was when I first read her books, and to the mother and professional woman I became, was solid: thrive and excel in every way possible. Emilie lived several generations ago, but I can imagine her being fun company on an all-girls night. She got it.
“One touch of lipstick makes all women kin,” Gay Courage
For women and men, the attractiveness that mattered included excellent health:
How lovely she was. How vivid. Radiant health was the answer to that.
It’s a Great World!
He was tall and lean and lithe, not an ounce of superfluous flesh on him.
The Trail of Conflict
“How I adore frillies!” Here Comes the Sun!
“Clothes go to my head like laughing gas.” Keepers of the Faith
“Appear in dress, manner, and spirit like the conqueror you want to be.” The Yellow Hat
Character and spiritual strength were absolute musts:
There was innocent coquetry in the depths of her dark eyes but, he would be willing to wager that not one man in a hundred would presume carelessly to touch even her soft hair. No shop-worn emotions there but vividness, fresh and sparkling charm and depths of passion yet unplumbed. ‘She is a law unto herself,’ Sylvester summed up mentally.
His features were those of a Greek god. But no Greek god’s face radiated such spiritual beauty… Gay Courage
as was a sense of purpose:
A chance to be of use had changed her from a pepless, unhappy old woman to an efficient person with courage, belief in her power to achieve, and with sparkle, definitely with sparkle. Beckoning Trails
He had so much to do. Life was sweet when one lived in a world packed with possibilities of achievement. Swift Water
Beauty was, indeed, physical, but it encompassed so much more.
She was beautiful. Her short, silvery hair curled close at the back of her neck; her skin was flawless; her eyes were brilliantly blue, as blue as Guy Farr’s, but, where his were cruel, hers seemed gaily amused at the human comedy as the pageant passed. A woman with a keen sense of values, a woman who in her conversation was pungent and distinctly modern. She was in love with life, that was evident. Her pearls were exquisite. We Ride the Gale!
I love the addition of the pearls. They were elegant; they were feminine, and Emilie adored them. It reminds me of a moment this past weekend when my daughter was trying on wedding dresses, and we had the inspiration to add a tiara. Instant sparkle and delight! Her maid of honor was right, “Life is better in a tiara.” And for Emilie, in pearls.
As the mom in the room, I got a vicarious thrill from the fluffy dresses. It wasn’t my day, but I do take them for myself. Emilie attended fashion shows to dress her characters in the latest fashions, and she, too, took time for herself.
“I won’t have photographs show an old-fashioned hair-do,” she declares. “It is no use having smart heroines if their creator is dowdy.”
“Do you think that I don’t care for lovely frocks? That I don’t care when a man’s eyes flash into interest when he looks at me? When I cease to care the real me will be gone though this body of mine lives on.” The Solitary Horseman
But that’s not the end of the story. Emilie Loring became a writer through study, hard work, and discipline. She worked on her craft and took great pride in it. Not only competence but excellence was important to her. This description of Mrs. Shaw could easily have been Emilie (although her eyes were brown).
Before it the hostess, a snowy-haired woman. Smart coiffure. Brilliant blue eyes. Firm skin. Delicate make-up. Symmetrical figure. Not too slim. Black lace frock straight from a fashion flash. Pearls. A rope of them. Sparkling rings. Not too many. Poise. Charm. Indubitably. Mrs. Shaw was a woman who had known what she wanted and had gone after it through the years. As Long As I Live
Emilie Loring’s hundred-year-old advice is still good, and I am glad that my daughter’s generation seems poised to live into it. There is no need to make a choice; do everything as well as possible. Let your life be full–beautiful and competent.
“To me the most interesting thing in life is trying to do what I have to do superlatively well. Get a tremendous kick out of it.” Gay Courage