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The Evolution of Vietnamese Beauty Through Old Ads

Vintage cosmetic advertising and magazine covers depicting perceptions of Vietnamese beauty tell not only Saigon's, but Vietnam's feminine spirit in years gone by. Whether plain or in full color, each serves as a time capsule for the women of their era.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, cosmetics have played a quiet, yet revealing role in expressing the lives of women across the world. Vietnamese women are no exception, having experienced dizzying changes in beauty trends throughout past decades. And two signs of these changes are advertisements and magazine covers, as they are a conscious effort to appeal to the demographics of their era. We must start over a century ago, back in the days when Vietnam was under French administration leading up to the roaring 1920s.

Traditions and colonialism

There were very few advertisements during this stretch of the colonial period, a reflection of both the social conservatism spearheaded by French President Patrice de MacMahon in the late 1870s and a desire to expand the French empire by Emile Loubet in the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, the contemporary Latin motto for Saigon — “Paulatim Crescam,” or “Little by little we grow” — was an assertion of a colonist’s view of the city: rural, exotic and less-developed.

Left: Exposition de Hanoi's November 1902 cover. Image courtesy of Flickr user manhhai. Right: An advertisement for Creme Siamoise by Lucien Berthet & Cie.
Image courtesy of Phụ Nữ Tân Văn via the National Library of Vietnam.

An example of the period can be found in a 1902 cover of Exposition de Hanoi, a catalog advertising a world fair of the same name. Here was the fashion of the time for ordinary Vietnamese women: a plain complexion paired with áo ngũ thân, one of áo dài’s  ancestors. Its background setting of an idyllic river filled and the occasional banana tree depicts life in the countryside. Once again, a familiar setting for the majority of Vietnamese citizens in the early 1900s, given the country's population at the time was merely 13 million, as according to Populstat.

Another fine specimen of the era is a skincare ad from Lucien Berthet & Cie in an issue of Phu Nu Tan Van. The store’s namesake founder created Crème Siamoise. This cream was intended to create an unblemished and fairer face. One thing was clear: well-off women in Vietnam cherished good, fair skin over any painted visage. It’s important to stress the use of "fair," as lily-white skin was, and continues to be, an enduring trend in the nation.

Fair skin has been endorsed since medieval years and is abundant in feminist Vietnamese poetry, such as in 'Khúc hát hái sen' (Lotus-gathering song) by Ngo Chi Lan, a 15th-century feudal court poet:

Liên hoa viễn cận hương,
Thái thái tổng sơn nương.
Mạc khiển phong xuy mấn,
Băng cơ nguyên tự hương.


Lotus perfume wafts near and far,
How bucolic the girl among the abundant flowers,
Her hair beautiful in the breeze,
Her snowy skin emitting its own alluring fragrance.

The incentives behind such construction are both social and practical, according to research by Elysia Pan of Duke University, titled Beautiful White: an illumination of Asian skin-whitening culture.

“The ruling class stayed indoors conducting business and enjoying leisure, and thus was less exposed to the sun’s darkening rays,” she writes of the intimate ties between lily-white skin and socio-economic concerns. “This Chinese projection onto the pale-skinned outsiders who came to visit their country is a type of curious Occidentalism where Western bodies were fetishized.”

Which leads us to explore the period between 1930 and 1945, a pivotal moment for Vietnam as a whole.

An elegance amidst global turbulence

As the whole world became embroiled in constitutional questions, identity and the Second World War, it was clear this period did not favor elaborate makeup. Yet simultaneously, for Vietnam, it signaled an increasing saturation of cosmetic brands from outside of France, as well as local brands like xà bông Cô Ba, or Co Ba soap. Famous names such as Elizabeth Arden set up shop in Saigon during this period, according to a 1940 ad in French Vogue.

The page reads in French: “Pour accompagner les gris soutenus, le bleu noir, le noir pur, Elizabeth recommande STOP RED,” or “To accompany a strong grey, dark blue or a simple black, Elizabeth Arden recommends STOP RED.”

Left: Elizabeth Arden advert for Stop Red lipstick. Right: An Elizabeth Arden ad for the "Matin au soir" skincare range. Images courtesy of the National Library of France.

This means that Saigon was no stranger to contemporary red lipstick, which was not featured before the 1930s unless one were acting in Vietnamese opera.

While the world was trimming back to more plain forms, most Vietnamese women did not experience significant changes in their makeup routine. The war years in Continental Europe and elsewhere would have severely restricted access to cosmetics globally after 1940, a phenomenon detailed in Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day by Madeleine Marsh, a British historian:

“Cosmetic ads, when they did appear, were often apologetic – ‘Peggy Sage hopes that her nail polishes will become available in the not too distant future’; ‘Elizabeth Arden is anxious as always to help the women of today with their wartime problems, but her salon is strictly rationed’,” Marsh wrote of the commercial headlines of makeup manufacturers of the 1940s. It would not have been strange for Vietnamese women to be affected by the shortages.

Even wealthier women were lucky if they got their hands on a compact of any sort. Less expensive brands like Bourjois often sold their iconic blushes with a simple message, as noted by the Darnell Collection: “We regret owing to wartime restrictions puffs are unobtainable.”

As such, although there were marked changes in Saigon, notably the proliferation of Art Deco architecture during this period, beauty trends largely remained traditional.

However, the coming battle for independence would split the plights of Vietnamese women in the north and south for two decades.

A 20-year partition in beauty

Vietnam faced many challenges after its partition in 1954. Life for Vietnamese women similarly underwent a key divergence between a more pared-down, rustic north and an economically buoyant, colorful south.

Left: A Cotab cigarettes ad. Image courtesy of Pinterest. Right: A Thanh Xuan cover in 1951 in Saigon. Image courtesy of Thanh Niên.

Ads from Saigon at the time demonstrate this dichotomy vividly. While the majority were identical to their western counterparts, those that depicted locals showed a turn towards an elegant, ‘ladylike’ demeanor. For instance, one promoting Cotab cigarettes used the impression of a confident woman with a bouffant and darker Marlene Dietrich eyebrows. She also bears a resemblance to Saigon’s iconic sugarcane lady.

Together, these formed Saigon’s look in the 1950s. Another 1951 ad from a cover of Việt Thanh Xuân not only corroborates these trends but also alludes to a fondness for bold red lips and healthy blush across the region.

In many ways, Saigon’s tastes reflected western influences available through a huge boom of international cinema in the city, when local businesses opened new screens like the former Rex Cinema, Long Van Cinema or Dakao. 1950s Saigoneers were certain to have savored Hollywood blockbusters of the age. This decade is regarded by historians as an important recovery period after the ravages of two world wars, which ultimately saw women experimenting with cosmetics at unprecedented speed.

“During the war women had done male jobs and worn masculine style uniforms. Once their men were demobbed women were back into the kitchen to await the end of rationing, back into the bedroom to create the baby boom,” Marsh, the historian, observes in her book, acknowledging the impending wave of glamorous makeup, coinciding with the rise of Hollywood, as emblematic of the baby boomer generation. “As well as being beautifully presented, make-up itself became increasingly luxurious.”

If 1950s Saigon were elegant, then the swinging 1960s that powered into the early 1970s saw younger women do away with ever-more rules. Increasingly, hair became the focus if a woman who wanted to be received as 'chic.' Unlike the popular bouffant that graced the preceding decade, the 1960s modern banded updo was all the rage, as in a Bireley Soda ad in the pages of Saigon Roundup, a magazine for tourists visiting the metropolis. 

On the other hand, northern Vietnam saw few ads concerning cosmetics. This can be attributed to the ongoing revolutionary ideals of the time. A 1961 article from Báo Nhân Dân titled “On Unlocking the Potential and Improving Cultural Awareness of Women,” was a standard rallying call for increased female participation in the reunification campaign. As a result, the lives of northern women became distinct from their southern counterparts.

Although one might think that the north’s circumstances did not fit any trends, there is evidence to the contrary, according to Le Minh Khai, a blog by Liam Kelley, associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Many covers have pictures of young women, but the way young women are represented are very different,” Kelley writes when comparing depictions of Vietnamese women across the DMZ during the war years. “In contrast to the images presented in the North’s Viet Nam, the South’s Viet Nam Magazine does not give the sense that there was a war going on. You also do not see any working-class people.”


The war years leading up to Đổi Mới

An ad promoting three different hairstyles popular in the Soviet Union in a 1985 issue of Báo Phụ Nữ Sài Gòn.
Image courtesy of Tâm Minh, librarian at the General Sciences Library, Saigon.

After reunification in 1975 and during the build-up toward major economic reforms in 1986, Vietnam became a manufacturing and textile hub. This period saw many Vietnamese women return to a more pared-down look, with a strong focus on a natural, unmade look.

Yet the intervening years before Đổi Mới saw publications geared towards women, such as Báo Phụ Nữ Sài Gòn, take beauty inspirations from the Soviet Union. A 1985 newspaper issue kept in the archives of Saigon's General Sciences Library featured an advice section that stated: "Vài lời khuyên về mái tóc của bạn," or "A few suggestions for your hairstyle."

Inscribed in the advert were three Russian ladies, each with their own striking 1980s hairdo with its exhaustive curls and heavy bangs. While most Vietnamese women of the decade wore an austere look, those who could afford more time experimented with their hair. 

However, after 1986 the doors swung open, enabling Vietnamese women to develop and follow both regional and international trends.

Cantopop, Romance in the Rain and earthen colors

Fast forward to the 1990s, and the currents of cultural change once again began to move. Vietnam now welcomed music, films and other products in volumes that were unseen just ten years before. Across the border in China, a coinciding wave of Cantonese/Mandarin music and cinema was cresting; for example, the endless re-runs of My Fair Princess (1998-1999) or Romance in the Rain (2001) at the turn of the millennium.

An instance of this influence on Vietnamese fashion can be found in an ad promoting wedding dresses in Bao Phu Nu Sai Gon dating January 1996. Gone are the excessive curls of the 1980s or bouffant of bygone days; in were sleek, straightened hair, often with a Vivian Chow bang. 

Another subtle development for Vietnamese women in the 1990s was the arrival of an earthen-nude palette of lip colors, as a column giving color suggestions illustrated in Bao Phu Nu Sai Gon. Its headline reads: "Khuynh hướng trang điểm hiện nay: nâu chocolate!" or "Today's latest trend: Brown chocolate!" 

These colors were important, not only for Vietnamese women but for every beauty aficionado. The turn of the century saw international talents pioneer the first lipsticks that were designed to complement natural lip hues, according to Lisa Eldridge in her book Face Paint: The Story of Makeup.

"At that time, makeup was pretty extreme with lots of unsubtle eighties contouring and red lips. Bobbi was more drawn to healthy, natural looks. Which was very different from what was on the market." She wrote from her experience as an industry insider. When previous eras preferred bolder pigments, the nineties and early 2000s saw women in Vietnam and around the world embrace an ideal of nude makeup, that is, to be oneself, but slightly better. 

Perhaps the most significant details from the same Bao Phu Nu column on brown chocolate colors are recommendations of brands where women can buy the shades: "Maybelline (Mỹ): son bóng 75.000VND/cây; son bột 83.000VND/cây" or converting to "Maybelline (USA): gloss VND75,000VND (US$3.29)/each; powder lipstick VND83,000 (US$3.64)/each."

For many Vietnamese women, this meant it was easier to afford lipstick, kick-starting an era of cosmetics for the masses in Vietnam.

Left: An ad for a wedding dress store. Right: A column sharing advice on the latest color trends of the 1990s.
Images courtesy of Tâm Minh, librarian at the General Sciences Library, Saigon.

[Top photos: Left image courtesy of Pinterest. Right image courtesy of Thanh Niên.]

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