Complexions, Night and Noon

This particular ad—for Palmolive soap, printed in 1921—caught my attention for the sheer number of overlapping narratives and images it relies on to sell its product, almost all of which we have mentioned in class.  The ad skillfully weaves in historical associations ranging from the immorality of makeup to the whitewashing and exoticizing of Cleopatra, all to make a case for Palmolive soap.

The ad leads with two contrasting images.  The first depicts a woman in full glammed-out garb, makeup, bejeweled circlet and all, out at a party at night.  The second shows the same woman in her daytime getup looking sweet and modest.  The captions of the two are as follows: “Will the impression you made last night…Endure the light of the sun today?”  These images immediately play on the traditional narrative of makeup as artifice, a deception hiding the true moral character of its wearer; the first image equates the made-up woman at night as “unclean, false, unwholesome”[1] in active pursuit of her male lover, while the text of the ad states “almost any woman can look pretty at night,” further characterizing her as common or desperate for attention.  Meanwhile, “only perfect, natural skins can face the glare of noon.”  Of course, here the ad fits neatly into what Peiss observes as “the idealization of the ‘natural’ face occur[ing], ironically, within a middle class beginning to define itself through consumption”[2]—the consumption here being the purchase and use of Palmolive soap, the “essential” to clean, beautiful skin.


Next, the ad ventures into a more scientific rationale for using Palmolive, now trafficking in the idea of medicalized beauty.  Palmolive soap is the antidote to things like “dirt, oil, and perspiration clog[ging] the skin,” and lets not the reader forget that as these things clog, “so does powder—so does rouge.”  The ad then launches into a description of the way the soap cleanses the skin, allowing it to occupy a privileged category combining what Peiss calls “the arts of beautifying [and] the science of bodily care.”[3]  To produce the perfect “balmy lather,” says Palmolive, “modern science has gone back to methods of 3,000 years ago,” using a “blend of palm and olive oils”—the “costliest and the best oils,” as it specifies later—used “not as Cleopatra used them, but prepared in modern ways.”  Here we see Palmolive using “modern science” to unify the exotic and exclusive association of Cleopatra and her oils with the advanced, technological approach appealing to the modern woman.

The Palmolive soap the modern woman now encounters


Cleopatra herself seems to appear in the ad, with the caption, “Egyptian beauties used palm and olive oils.”  Yet while Palmolive may have no problem co-opting ancient Egyptian beauty rituals, they have completely whitewashed the woman meant to demonstrate them.  With this depiction of Cleopatra Palmolive exposes its offer of clean, beautiful skin as implicitly race-coded.  As Maxine Leeds Craig explains, “Egypt [stands] for a civilized, distant, royal, and light-complexioned Africa” whose light-skinned (or in this case, white) Cleopatra is “compatible with the dominant discourse of beauty, which [has] long included a place for mysterious exotic beauties.”[4]  Palmolive can only invoke the exotic beauty of Cleopatra if she’s white; the ad as a whole, then, plays directly into the historical association with whiteness as wealth, cleanliness, power, modernity, and naturalness, all at once.

Another famous whitewashing: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra


The ad ends with the statement: “our effort for many years has been to place [Palmolive] within everybody’s reach,” coming full-circle to democratize (and, in turn, commodify) the previously-exclusive secrets of Egyptian beauty oils.  What’s unsettling is the world Palmolive would imagine if everyone had a hold of its miraculous soap.


Works Cited

[1] Kathy Lee Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 25.

[2] Peiss, 43.

[3] Peiss, 12.

[4] Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002),  50.


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