Cheekbones: A brief history

Until about a century ago women, depicted in painting and other visual media, had cheeks, but, you’ll  notice, not cheek bones. There’s rouge and skin, but the cheekbones aren’t a feature. A look at virtually any magazine shoot today shows that a woman’s cheekbones are a prominent part of her elegance. Why the change?

Judith by Gustav Klimt.

Judith by Gustav Klimt

During the Meiji era, Japan was attempting to catch up with the West in terms of entertainment and popular culture, and it, like the West, began thinking of female beauty differently. One of the Japanese buzz words was Shan, from the German schon, says Toby Slade in Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History, which referred to a masculine type of female beauty.

Because of economic developments women were able to make their own decisions about clothing and cosmetics. Smoking became fashionable, and female movie stars both began to be shown with cigarettes and, sometimes, wearing male cloths. Because of this, women came to be regarded as aggressive, and, in a sense, masculine. Boyish beauty was born.

But it wasn’t just women’s behavior that was changing. The image of woman also, I suggest, became more masculine in one sense in particular: the cheekbones began to be emphasized — or reemphasized. In preceding centuries, the ideal female figure was what, today, we would regard as overweight. Until relatively recent, the larger, rounded, “rubinesque” female figure signified that this was a member of the elite. It was the poor, emaciated through poor diet, that had protruding cheekbones.

Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger

Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger.

With the Vienna Secssionist painters of the late 19th century, we begin to see the return of the cheekbones, and, in some cases — e.g., with the painter Gustav Klimt — we also find the female figures surrounded by architecture and patterns that refer back to ancient Greek tradition. In a certain sense, this type of female face is the ancient Greek archetype — or has become so through the Western visual tradition.

From the beginning of this more “masculine” — for want of a better word — female figure in the modern era, she is imbued with the idea of culture and antiquity. She is in some way against or above modernity. To this, is added a sexual component, or a fetishizing of this type of woman as sexually mysterious; alluring but aloof. She is part goddess and part woman. As a “masculine” woman, she appears to have united male and female in an expression of the androgyne, the primordial, of what stands outside of time.

In the 1983 movie, The Hunger, the main female character — played by Catherine Deneuve — is a vampire who has lived for thousands of years. She has seduced men across time, and now leaves them decaying in the attic of her New York apartment. David Bowie also stars. His cheekbones were part of his mysterious image, and, in effect, his appearance enhances Deneuve’s equally striking facial features, by reminding the viewer that this type of face represents the otherworldly. The opening scene, in which Peter Murphy, singer of the Goth band Bauhaus — also famous for his cheekbones — sings in a cage, contorting his body into vampiric poses, does, of course, the same.

Illustration by Patrick Nagel.

Illustration by Patrick Nagel.

Not long before this, Patrick Nagel had won recognition “for his portraits of a striking woman with high cheekbones and long dark hair.” Nagel, too, depicts this type of face as that of the mysterious, aloof, sexual, woman. This more masculine type of female face not only became the ideal in the Goth subculture which also emerged during the early 80s, but later came to represent the ideal model face, especially in the form of Kate Moss.

Today, it might seem self evident that many top models will have this kind of look. But it would have seemed impossible even a couple of centuries ago. In conclusion, the reemergence of this kind of female face indicates that, as a society, we have returned to the ancient Greeks, the source of our history of aesthetics.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.
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Vampire fashion lives on.