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The most beautiful women in the world

7 February, 2010

In 1920 the photographer Emil Otto Hoppé published his Book of Fair Women with Jonathan Cape in London and Alfred Knopf in New York. At the time, Hoppé was one of the most famous photographers in the world — portraitist to the stars — a little like Annie Leibovitz today. The celebrities of Europe lined up to be photographed in Hoppé’s London studio, from kings and queens to film stars and literary heroes.

The Book of Fair Women was meant as an anthology of the most beautiful women Hoppé had ever photographed. Most were British and American whites — some famous, others less well-known. But Hoppé also tried to make his selection international. So not only were there examples of Italian, Norwegian, and Spanish women etc., there were Cuban, Native American, Haitian, Native Hawaian, and Chinese and Japanese sitters too.

The reaction to the book was mixed — one reviewer in New York wondered how Hoppé could possibly think ‘dusky-skinned’ women are beautiful — but the book sold out quickly, and overnight Hoppé became known as the leading authority on feminine beauty. For example, nightclub owners would invite him to come to their clubs and choose the most beautiful woman in the room as a kind of parlor game. Considering all the powerful people Hoppé knew, excluding anyone from the ranks of the ‘most beautiful’ must have had consequences. But not only did Hoppé feel non-caucasian women had equal claim to being called beautiful (a pretty radical idea at the time), he also felt that women are most beautiful when they realize their intellectual potential.

In other words, the ultimate attractive woman is a thinking, striving, energetic individual. So he passed over candidates with merely pretty faces and figures in favor of women who were socially engaged, like novelists, actresses, philanthropists etc. (They had pretty faces and figures too – the portrait at the top of this post is of the actress Marion Davies, whom Hoppé included in the book.) It may seem patronizing now, but in 1920 nothing was taken for granted about women’s rights, and the book was a perfect complement to the powerful suffrage movements that rose up in Britain, the US, and other countries after the First World War. It is fascinating to think that Hoppé published his Fair Women at the same time German photographer August Sander was creating his encyclopedic People of the Twentieth Century, another project dedicated to photographing ideal ‘types.’

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