The Cult of Beauty
Captions and transcripts

Our major new exhibition explores notions of beauty across time and cultures.

Change exhibition

Introduction to access resources

The guide contains a highlight tour available in audio with audio description and as videos with British Sign Language (BSL). The guide has 17 stops, each around four minutes long, featuring the voices of curators, artists and subject specialists.

Please be advised:

This exhibition includes nudity, racist and misogynist materials.

It features some sensory elements, including scent and sound. 

If you would like further information, please speak to a member of staff.

Curator Janice Li introduces ‘The Cult of Beauty’ exhibition

Ideals of beauty have existed in every culture and era. Attaining and sustaining these qualities sometimes becomes a cult-like pursuit.

Philosophers look to define beauty, artists try to capture it, scientists innovate to achieve it.

While these definitions are not universal, our emotional connection to beauty is shared.

It inspires feelings ranging from desire to rejection, pain to pleasure, ecstasy to greed. Our inner relationship to beauty is an intrinsic part of life for many of us, directly linked to our sense of health and wellbeing.

The Cult of Beauty is an invitation to widen and complicate our understanding of beauty beyond the binaries of beautiful or ugly, natural or artificial, physical or digital. It is a space that allows for multiple polarities, seeing beauty at both ends and everywhere in between. Beauty is as scientific as it is poetic, as engineered as inherent.

The exhibition questions and celebrates what beauty means to different communities, particularly marginalised ones, in our world today. It encourages us to claim agency over our identities and to define beauty according to our own values.

The Ideals of Beauty

Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1990

Driven by an innate desire, we tend to believe the myth of an eternal hierarchy of beauty, despite its evolving nature. Notions of physical attractiveness shift, but our pursuit of them remains constant. 

How have these unattainable perceptions and beliefs developed? Here, instead of charting a chronology of beauty, we bring together historical objects and contemporary art to put morality, status, health, age, gender and race in dialogue. We investigate how beauty ideals are constructed through society, politics, religion and medicine across time and cultures. 

We visit the long history of self-imaging in an age of ‘selfies’, while reflecting on how the media portrays contemporary beauty standards. Is our understanding of beauty today truly becoming more inclusive?

Heavenly beauty

Bello e buono!

“Beautiful and virtuous!” is an Italian saying reflecting the belief that external beauty is associated with inner qualities. Connecting beauty with moral virtue has sometimes been used to justify the belief in physiognomy – that a person’s facial features reveal their character. 

Beautiful features have long been seen as a gateway to the spiritual in different belief systems. Transcending earthly order they offer glimpses of the divine. The pursuit of youthfulness and longevity has also been linked to godliness. This has had a long-lasting influence on a youth-focused culture around beauty.

The Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura

Unknown artist 
Oil on canvas
Wellcome Collection, 44828i

This is a highly revered image of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Statues of the Black Madonna were produced in Europe, the Middle East and Africa as early as the 14th century. They are often associated with the biblical verse from the Song of Songs: “I am black and beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” 

The Black Madonna is sometimes linked to pre-Christian worship of other female divinities and has been embraced as symbol of multicultural and multiethnic identities, especially in regions where different religious and cultural traditions intersect.

Krishna with Radha and three gopis

Calcutta Art Studio 
c. 1880s
Chromolithograph on paper 
Wellcome Collection, 26219i

A Hindu deity worshipped for his unparalleled beauty and charm, Krishna (meaning black or dark blue in Sanskrit) was named for his dark complexion. His physical appearance – and his mischief – are said to captivate the gopis, the cowherd girls. 

This print depicts the divine dance of Rasa Lila in the moonlit forests of Vrindavan. Contrary to conventional norms of morality, Krishna’s charm and playful nature leads the gopis away from day-to-day societal obligations and into the forests. The discarded pitchers symbolise their abandonment of duties, surrendering to Krishna’s divine beauty. 

Krishna with Radha and three gopis

Surdas, composed in oral format, early 16th century. Devanagari text edited by Nandadulare Vajpayee, 1930s

मेरौ मन गोपाल हर्यौ री ।

चितवतही उर पैठि नैनमग, ना जानतु धो कहा कर्यौ री ।।

मातु-पिता-पति-वधु सजन जन, सखि आंगन सव भवन भर्यौ री ।।

लोकवेद प्रतिहार, पहरुआ, तिनहूँ पै राख्यौ न पर्यौ री ।।

धर्म धीर कुलकानि कुँजी करि, तिहि तारौ दै, दूरि धर्यौ री ।।

पलककपाट कठिन उर अंतर, इतेहुँ जतन कछुवै न सर्यौ री ।।

वुधि विवेक वल सहित सँच्यौ पचि, सु धन अटल कवहूँ न टर्यौ री ।।

लियों चुराई चितै चित सजनी, ‘सूर’ सोच तनु जान जर्यौ री ।।

Krishna with Radha and three gopis

Calcutta Art Studio 
c. 1880s
Translation by Adrian Plau, Wellcome Collection, 2023

Krishna the cowherder has stolen my mind, girl.

I don’t know how he did it but he just looked at me

And next he’d entered through my eyes and taken my heart.

Mother, father, husband, brothers, all good people, They crowd around my courtyard and fill my entire world;

Society and scriptures place a guard on my door;

But no one could guard my heart.

Duty, virtue, and my family’s honour,

These were the three keys I’d used to lock it away

Behind eyelid gates and a hardened breast.

No one could overcome efforts such as mine.

Wisdom, intellect, wit; None could shift the firm treasure I’d lodged within.

But then, says Surdas, with just a look and a thought for his love, Krishna took it, and now my body is burnt by remorse.

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Clarke and Davies
c. 1351–34 BCE (original), Egypt, 
1912–28 CE (reproduction), United Kingdom
Paint, plaster and wood
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A78601

Queens of ancient Egypt held great spiritual authority for their connection with the divine. Nefertiti, alongside her husband, the Pharoah Akhenatan, was the link between humankind and the sun god Aten. Her full honorific name, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, translates to “Beautiful are the beauties of Aten: The beautiful one has come”. 

Since the discovery of the original bust in 1912, this representation of the Egyptian queen has been held up as an archetype of African feminine beauty and empowerment by European Egyptologists and Black feminists in various contexts. 

Saint Rose of Lima

Cornelis Galle II
Coloured engraving on vellum
Wellcome Collection, 11132i

Born in 1586 in Peru, Saint Rose was admired for her beauty. To demonstrate her humility and belief that Christ is the most beautiful of all, she disfigured herself by rubbing peppercorns onto her face. Becoming a nun renowned for her penances, she is shown here with shorn hair, flagellating herself and wearing a crown of thorns. She was made a saint by the Catholic church in 1671 and many cities in Latin America are named after her. 

Mayi’s Physiognomy

Printed paper 
Wellcome Collection, MS Chinese 158
Ch’iu Tsung-k’ung 

Physiognomiae et chiromantiae compendium

Woodcut on paper, bound in leather 
Wellcome Collection, EPB/A/1522
Bartolommeo della 
Rocca Cocles 


Physiognomy – interpreting a person’s character through their facial features – has been practised in different cultures across time. When this German compendium was published, physiognomy was widely accepted in Europe, even taught at university. Chinese physiognomic face-reading similarly linked beauty with good character and fortune (not to be mistaken with medical face-reading that correlates features with symptoms). 

Our brains are optimised to read faces. Evolutionists believe that being able to extract information through facial cues is key to survival. But the process can produce huge biases and inaccuracies – beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. 

Death and the devil attack two women who are looking in a hand-held mirror

Etching on paper 
Victoria and Albert Museum 
David Funck, after Daniel Hopfer 
Etched 1520, printed late 1600s

Wax vanitas depicting life and death, modelled on Queen Elizabeth I

Wax, cloth and hair 
Wellcome Collection / Science 
Museum Group, A99821
Unknown maker 


Vanitas, Latin for vanity, refers to a genre of artworks that conveys the inevitability of death and the emptiness of worldly pursuits, notably beauty. This 16th-century etching makes an overt moral judgement on the quest for beauty and wealth. The image reflects conflicting beliefs in Europe at the time, where beauty was seen as the outward expression of a virtuous character but cultivating personal beauty was condemned as hollow vanity.

Old woman at the mirror

Jeremiasz Falck, after Bernardo Strozzi 
The Netherlands
Etching on paper 
Wellcome Collection, 35207i

European visual culture has historically linked aging in women with diminishing beauty by juxtaposing their maturing features with symbols of youthfulness and fertility, such as fresh blooms and feathers. This tacit connection between ‘reproductive value’ and attractiveness continues today. 

The intended message of this imagery was likely to mock the central figure as a ‘lustful old woman’, inappropriately concerned with her appearance. However, we can alternatively read it as a self-assured woman taking pleasure in the beauty of her post-menopausal body.

Husbands bringing their ugly wives to a windmill, to be transformed into beautiful women

Paulus Fürst 
c. 1650
Engraving on paper 
Wellcome Collection, 26373i

A 1672 chapbook (much like a modern-day zine) tells the legend of a miller who “grinds” and transforms “old, ugly, scolding and adulterous” wives into young spouses “easier on the eye and to govern”. The image is emblematic of the association of age with ugliness in women. The story is also underpinned by the misogynistic idea that a woman’s physical appearance was her husband’s property and responsibility. 

The Ripley Scroll

Ink on paper, mounted on linen
Wellcome Collection, MS. 692
after George Ripley
c. 1400s (original), c. 1600 England (reproduction)

Historian Jennifer M. Rampling on the Ripley Scroll

Named after the British alchemist George Ripley (d. 1490), this is a 17th-century reproduction of a 15th-century scroll. It presents alchemy in a positive light, as an ancient, secret science worthy of the king’s support. Using allegorical verse and imagery, it shows alchemy improving upon nature by transforming crude prime matter (shown as a toad) into a subtle elixir (the dragon’s blood). This substance can turn base metals into valuable silver and gold and prolong human life. 

The scroll’s design translates obscure laboratory practices into an exquisite advertisement for alchemy’s transformative power. 

Jennifer Rampling, Associate Professor of History, Princeton University

Watercolour on paper 
Wellcome Collection, 38811i
Edith Annie Ibbs, after Salomon Trismosin1582, Germany (original), 1984, United Kingdom (reproduction) 

Splendor Solis

The Splendor of the Sun is one of the glories of 16th-century alchemical illumination. Beauty and rejuvenation are themes of an accompanying parable, which tells of an aged philosopher whose dismembered body is renewed through boiling. This is an allegory for alchemy’s use of heat to transform and perfect crude matter. In this late copy, the bearded philosopher waits in his cauldron while a “souffleur” pumps the bellows of the furnace below. Nearby, a frieze of the sculptor Pygmalion draws a mythological parallel with the alchemist’s quest to perfect metals and the human body. 

Jennifer Rampling, Associate Professor of History, Princeton University

Diane de Poitiers in her bedchamber

Lithograph on paper
Wellcome Collection, 31049i
Louis Hague, after William James Müller

24K Gold Serum Intense

Facial serum in glass bottle
Courtesy of Chantecaille


One goal of alchemy was to create Aurum Potabile or ‘drinkable gold’. This substance was supposed to help the drinker attain beauty and prolong their youth. The 16th-century French courtier Diane de Poitiers purportedly consumed vast quantities of Aurum Potabile over the course of her life to preserve her renowned beauty. Forensic examination of her hair suggests this was ultimately to the detriment of her health. As a precious metal, gold continues to be associated with everlasting beauty. It is an ingredient used in many present-day beauty products for its supposed anti-ageing properties.

Beauty at Gender’s Boundaries

…they were not two, but a two-fold form…could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8 CE 

Classical sculptures are typically presented as the epitome of human forms. This ideal ties beauty to narrow standards based on strict rules of proportion and gender. 

But ‘classical perfection’ does not have its roots in antiquity itself. Philosophers and artists of the modern era became fascinated by classical statues, particularly from the 500s BCE. Their work cemented the popular image of the singular perfect male and female body. In fact, sculptors constantly experimented with styles, forms and techniques throughout the classical period, much like trends we see today. 

Contemporary works by artists Carlos Motta and Cassils challenge the preconceptions of who is deemed beautiful based on centuries of categorising our bodies into rigid binaries.

The Esquiline Venus

Unknown maker, reproduced by Brucciani & Co. London 
1st century CE, Roman (original), 
1874, United Kingdom (reproduction)
Plaster cast, paint, internal metal structure 
Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, 464

This ‘Venus’ stands in a sculptural tradition that goes back to the fourth century BCE, when Athenian artist Praxiteles produced the first statue of the goddess of love and beauty without clothes. Like that statue, it blurs the boundary between goddess and girl. 19th-century painters were enamoured, bridging the gap between art and life by restoring the Esquiline Venus’s missing arms and colour (see exhibition guide). Suddenly she appeared real (indecently so for some of their audiences), even as she remained unreal, setting standards of female beauty that still demand women’s bodies be pert, hairless and eternally youthful. 

Caroline Vout, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge 

Idolino or ‘little idol’

Unknown maker (reproduction and original) 
1st century CE, Roman (original), 
19th century, France (reproduction) 
Plaster cast, metal-based paint, internal metal structure 
Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, 197

Unearthed in 1530, the Idolino was immediately described as ‘beautiful’. Its bodily proportions and relaxed nudity are of a kind prized since the fifth century BCE. For the fifth-century Greek sculptors who first represented men like this, physical beauty and moral goodness went hand in hand. In first-century CE Italy, when the Idolino was made, centuries of admiration had exaggerated the male nude’s sex-appeal. The Idolino was not a cult statue, as its modern name suggests, but a kitsch lampstand for a Roman dining-room. In the 18th century, plaster casts like this one graced grand homes and galleries. 
Caroline Vout, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge 

The Sleeping Hermaphroditus

Unknown maker 
2nd century CE, Roman (original), 
19th century CE, UK (reproduction) 
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A631380

Professor Caroline Vout on the Esquiline Venus and Sleeping Hermaphroditus

The sculpture this sleeping figure reproduces on a reduced scale has been coveted and copied since the Renaissance. 17th-century artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini increased its sensuality by adding the marble mattress. It is one of many ancient representations of Hermaphroditus, a god of male and female sex, whose creation story is most famously told by Latin poet Ovid. That such a lovely, languorous figure should have a penis has often unsettled modern viewers. Collector Henry Blundell (1724–1810) violently censored his Hermaphroditus. He writes: ‘By means of a little castration… it became a sleeping Venus’. This version too appears to have been deliberately made gender binary.

Caroline Vout, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge 

The Analysis of Beauty

Engraving on paper
Wellcome Collection, 38383i
William Hogarth

De symmetria partium humanorum corporum

Leatherbound book with woodcut illustrations
Wellcome Collection, EPB/D/1919
Albrecht Dürer

The analysis of beauty

Artists Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and William Hogarth (1697–1764) both turned to classical statues to glean some underlying principles of bodily beauty. 

For Dürer, human perfection was rooted in geometry. His prolific studies of human proportion, categorised by the binary of male and female, influenced the way Western artists and anatomists would think about bodily ideals for centuries to come. 

In The Analysis of Beauty, made two hundred years later, a figure holds up a Dürer study. Hogarth presents six defining principles of beauty – fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy and quantity – which he extends to include ideas of personal character and social responsibility. 

Hermaphrodite (8)

Carlos Motta
2016, United States (original), 
2023, United Kingdom (facsimile)
3D printed CJP powder, acrylic-based paint and varnishCourtesy of the artist and Mon Charpentier, Paris

Hermaphrodite (8) is one of ten sculptures in Carlos Motta’s Beloved Martina series, which explores the ways intersex bodies have long been subjected to the classifying gaze. 

It is modelled on what is thought to be one of the first photographs of an intersex person, taken in the late 19th century by French photographer Nadar as part of a medical study; the subject was unnamed. Such studies were regularly followed by ‘corrective’ and often non-consensual surgeries performed on intersex people to make their bodies fit within the sex and gender binary.

Cassils (artist), Robin Black (photographer)
United States
Chromogenic colour print
Wellcome Collection, 3162357i

For a durational performance about disciplined body sculpting, Cassils followed a strict bodybuilding routine, documenting their changing body. This photograph was taken on the 160th day. Cassils’s ripped, transmasculine physique disrupts the gender-policing gaze, like the historic feminist nude self-portrait Advertisement (1974) by Linda Benglis referenced in the title.

This image was used as posters for the exhibition Homosexualit_ies at Berlin’s Schwules Museum in 2016. They were subsequently banned by the government and removed on the charge that the image was “sexualised” and “pornographic”. Pasted around the photograph are press releases produced by the museum as a statement against homophobia, when in fact the censorship was an act of transphobia. 

Proportions of the human body: four figures of the Farnese Hercules and the Laocoon

Line engraving on paper
Wellcome Collection, 561911i
William Grainger, after Gérard Audran

Hygiene der Körperübungen ‘Hygiene and physical exercise’

Printed paper
Wellcome Collection
Ferdinand Hueppe

Hygiene and exercise

With a rising interest in hygiene and exercise in modern Europe, male and female bodies were often classified into aspiring ‘types’ based on statues of Greco-Roman heroes and deities. These were deemed to be achievable through bodybuilding. The classical statue of the Farnese Hercules was both described as ‘the beauty’ and made a ludicrous symbol of obsessive exercise. 

In his 1910 treatise on physical exercise, Ferdinand Hueppe, advocate of white supremacist ideas of ‘racial hygiene’, holds up the wrestler and bodybuilder George Hackenschmidt (1878–1968), shown on the right, as an example of the ‘Herculean type’ for masculine beauty. 

From medical origins to status markers

Many beauty tools were first developed as medical devices. As science advanced and older instruments lost their original functions, many were repurposed to adorn and modify facial and bodily features. 

Access to medicine and healthcare in modern Europe was inextricably linked to class and social status. Beauty trends were also influenced by who had access to them. Corsetry, male grooming practices and beauty patches are all examples of this. They show how changeable our taste in beauty can be. They also reveal how our perceptions are tied to social circumstances and the notion of good health.

Über die Wirkungen der Schnürbrüste ‘The effects of the corset on the spine’

Printed book with leather binding 
Wellcome Collection, EPB/P/48917
Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring 1793, Germany

Corset with rosebud design

Silk, baleen whalebone 
Fashion Museum Bath, BATMC I.27.16 
À La Couronne Paris
1900–5, France

Maternity corset

Cotton, metal boning 
Fashion Museum Bath, BATMC I.27.225 
Spencers of Banbury 
1950s, United Kingdom

Baby’s stay

Woven cotton
Fashion Museum Bath, BATMC V.26.8 
Unknown maker 
1800–25, England

A dandy being laced into a tight corset by two servants

Etching on paper 
Wellcome Collection, 35511i
1819, England, Thomas Tegg

The dandy says: 

“Fore Gad, ye wretches, you’ll never get my stays tight enough. Go brutes and call John, James & Thomas to help you. Take care you don’t spoil my breasts”. 

The hairdresser-valet says to his assistant “Vi don’t you pull, by Gar, if you no pull tight my Lor will have on d_n big John Bull belly”. 

Orthopaedic corset for bone or muscle realignment

Copper alloy, paint, ferrous metal 
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A158526
Unknown maker, 1800s, England

Colour illustration on paper 
Wellcome Collection, EPH131:5
The Medical Battery Co., Ltd., 1893, England 

Corsets and bodices

In Europe in the late 1500s, surgeons prescribed perforated iron breastplates for orthopaedic corrections. Under the influence of French queen Catherine de Medici (1519–1589), whalebone corsets became fashionable among the upper classes. Research in the late 18th century argued that overly tight corsets could be harmful, but they continued to be fashion staples, often accentuating a tightly cinched waist. 

Supportive bodices or ‘stays’ with purported health and comfort benefits also gained popularity in the late Victorian period. Electropathic belts were marketed as running a stimulating current through the wearer. Similar questionable claims promoted maternity corsets and stiffened bodices for infants.

Louis Le Grand

Engraving on paper
Victoria and Albert Museum, E.426-1965
Pierre Drevet, after Hyacinthe Rigaud
1712, France

Wigs classified in a parody of the orders of ancient Greek and Roman architecture

Etching on paper
Wellcome Collection, 3310001i
William Hogarth
1761, England

Teacup and saucer with beard protector

Ceramic porcelain
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 1856
Unknown maker
1870–80, Germany

Sculpture of a man being shaved

Glazed porcelain
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 387
Ernst Wahliss
1895–1900, Germany

Moustache bandage for beard grooming

Cardboard, leather, roll rubber, textiles
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1996/99 L
Unknown maker
1910, Germany

Original beard tonic by the court hairdresser, François Haby

Glass, plastic, cork
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 212
Françoise Haby
c. 1905, Germany

Printed paper
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2018/32
Unknown maker
1914, Germany

False Beards

Film, 3 mins
British Pathé, 191.04
Colour Pictorials
1962, United Kingdom

Male grooming trends in Europe were shaped by hygiene standards and social constructs of masculinity. During King Louis XIV’s reign (1638–1715), powdered wigs signified wealth and status, while also concealing lice and hair loss caused by diseases like syphilis. Beards were out of style for two centuries until British soldiers returning from the Crimean War (1853–56) made them symbolic of heroic masculinity. Products created for men to sculpt and manage facial hair swiftly followed.

As with all trends, these beard styles were not uniformly adopted by all men. Social status, age and lifestyle influenced variations in individual choices of styles.

A young woman greeted by a brothel keeper with prominent beauty patches

Etching on paper
Wellcome Collection, 38224i
A Harlot’s Progress series
William Hogarth
1732, England

Postcard of sea-side concert party entertainer Kemsley Scott-Barrie

Photographic print on paper
The James Gardiner Collection
Wellcome Collection, 2044847i
1910s, United Kingdom

1920s velvet beauty patches, used for 18th-century fancy dress

Velvet, card
Fashion Museum, Bath, BATMC 2020.14.22
O.G. & Co.
1920s, United Kingdom

Cosmetic kit, including two cheek plumpers, stick-on eyebrows, breast pads and beauty patches kit

Brass, cork, feather, felt, glass, lace, leather, paper and wood
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A158810
Unknown maker
1700s (cosmetic devices)
1880-1930 (display case)

Heart-shaped beauty patch box

Glass, gold, ivory and velvet
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A180036
Unknown maker
Unknown date, provenance unknown


Porcelain, diamond, mounted in gold
The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum (with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund), LOAN:GILBERT.497-2008
Unknown maker
c. 1760–65, England

Anthropometamorphosis, man transform’d, or, The artificial changeling

Woodcut illustration and engraving, printed on paper
Wellcome Collection, EPB/B/16118.1
J.B. Bulwer
1653, England

Beauty patches – or mouches (French for ‘flies’) – were commonly worn by men and women in Europe by the 1640s. Originally, they strategically covered smallpox or syphilis scars. Sex workers wore them to attract clientele. By the late 17th and into the 18th century, they had become elite fashion accessories, worn to enhance the radiance and whiteness of skin. There were social codes: where you wore your mouche could suggest anything from flirtation to political allegiance. The fashion for beauty patches waned with the invention of the smallpox vaccine in 1796, returning in the early 20th century as a popular fancy-dress accessory.

Racialised beauty

Conceived with author, academic and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, this display looks at the relationship between race and beauty. It probes the assumption that all preferences for light skin have their roots in Western colonisation. At the same time it acknowledges and explores how categorisations of racialised beauty have been a tool of colonial violence. Rejecting a singular understanding of race through skin colour, it looks at how whiteness is also manifested in the pursuit of beauty in relation to facial features.

This display also celebrates pioneers Josephine Baker and Rihanna who, a century apart, achieved more diverse and meaningful representation in the beauty industry.

Please be advised that this group display contains racist and misogynist materials.

Auxerre Goddess

Plaster cast
Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, 2
Unknown maker
c.640 BCE, Greece (original)
Eugène Arrondelle, Chef du Moulage, Musée du Louvre
purchased c. 1922 CE (reproduction)

Auxerre Goddess (restored and painted)

Plaster cast, paint
Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, 2a
Unknown maker
c.640 BCE, Greece (original)
purchased 1951 CE (reproduction)

Writer Emma Dabiri discusses ‘The Game of Goose’

Le jeu des nations principales de la terre universelle ou leurs moeurs, leur modes et leur coutumes ‘The game of goose applied to the countries of the world’

Engraving on paper
Wellcome Collection, 35129i
Antoine de Fer, after Louis Richer
1652–73, France

Recipe for pearl powder in 補遺雷公炮製便覽 ‘Master Lei’s Discourse on Processing of Chinese Materia Medica’

Printed paper
Wellcome Collection, Chinese 486 Vol. 8
Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, after Lei Xiaoc.
1591 (original), 2005 (reproduction), China

Writer Emma Dabiri on ‘Racialised whiteness’

Ancient Greek statues such as this are often assumed to represent idealised white, ‘natural’ beauty. This is a projection of modern biases. Scientific advances reveal its original appearance: a woman with an olive or light brown complexion and heavily made up, her hair possibly Afro-textured. 

The idea that light skin is more beautiful than dark skin is the consequence of colonisation and racist Western beauty norms in many contexts. But the example of pearl powder skin lightening from a Chinese medicinal book complicates this history. Published in 1591, it predates the introduction of Western notions of race. The French game is an early form of colonial propaganda. But the people listed as the lowest rung of humanity are not necessarily the darkest people, rather they are those whose land the French were in the process of appropriating. Coincidentally, the French just happen to be at the apex.  

Emma Dabiri, author, academic and broadcaster

Poster advertising the ‘Hottentot Venus’

Printed paper
Wellcome Collection, EPH499A:92
Chester: J. Fletcher (publisher)
1810, England

Portrait of Saartjie Baartman in Journal complémentaire du Dictionaire des sciences médicales

Colour lithograph on paper, book bound in leather
Wellcome Collection
C.L.F. Pancoucke after Jean-Baptiste Berré
1819, France

Toutes les femmes, études. Tome II. Orient et Afrique ‘All women, studies. Volume II. East and Africa’

Printed paper with photomechanical prints
Wellcome Collection, 542314i.2, 542314i.3
Toutes les femmes, études. Tome III. Extreme-Orient et Amerique ‘All women, studies. Volume III. Far East and America’Amédée Vignola
1901, France

The Book of Fair Women

Bound book, paper, cloth
Emil Otto Hoppé and Richard King
1922, United Kingdom

Princess Monchsa

Emil Otto Hoppé and Richard King
c. 1920, United Kingdom

‘Dutch West Indian woman’ (name unknown)

Emil Otto Hoppé and Richard King
1921, United Kingdom

Hebe (Constance Irene Vesselier)

Emil Otto Hoppé and Richard King
1917, United Kingdom

Colonialism has often used the idea of beauty to disguise racial fetishisation, scientific racism and ethnographic profiling. Saartjie Baartman (c. 1789–1815), a Khoikhoi woman from eastern South Africa, was illegally exhibited in the UK and France. Her exploiters sexualised and racialised her as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ while French journals of medical sciences ridiculed her sexual organs.

Toutes les femmes, a volume of illustrations of sensualised naked women, uses methods of classification to legitimise the exoticising gaze. Its ‘genealogical’ tables categorise the women into ‘black’, ‘yellow’ and ‘white’ branches. Even when praised for their beauty women were subject to racist treatment. In The Book of Fair Women, German photographer E.O. Hoppé presents named women with ‘fair skin’ in fashionable adornment; those of Asian heritage in ‘ethnic garments’; women with darker skin appear unnamed and topless.

Empress and court ladies

Otagawa Chikashige
1878, Japan
Colour woodcut on paper
Wellcome Collection, 36736i

The Rose of Versailles

Riyoko Ikeda
1973, Japan
Printed paper

The Rose of Versailles Lady Oscar liquid eyeliner

Bandai Co. Ltd.
2023, Japan
Plastic, cosmetics

Ebony Magazine, August 1995

Johnson Publishing Company
1995, United States
Printed paper

Glow and Lovely skin

Unilever Limited
2023, India
Plastic, cream

Fair & Lovely Max fairness cream for men

Hindustan Unilever Limited
2020, India
Plastic, cream

In India and Japan, for example, precolonial ideals about light skin were linked to ideas about status and/or spiritual purity. In many other cultures such as Nigeria, privileging light skin arrived with European domination via slavery, colonialism and globalisation. In 2021, the skin lightening industry was valued at US $9.96 billion. Economic advantages are often skewed towards lighter skinned people. The preference for lighter skin also operates interpersonally, in terms of favouritism and desirability.

But racialised whiteness is about more than complexion alone. Around 50% of Asian people are born without a visible eyelid crease above their lash line. In 1896, Japanese surgeon Mikamo developed ‘blepharoplasty’, a procedure to create the double eyelid he believed to be “more attractive”. Eyelid procedures remain the most commonly requested surgery in Asia.

Emma Dabiri, author, academic and broadcaster

Humanæ. Work in progress

Angélica Dass
2023 (edition), 2012–present (project)
Photographic print on card
Courtesy of the artist

Brazilian artist Angélica Dass’s ongoing photographic project demonstrates that race and identity cannot be pinned down to skin colour alone. She matches pixels from the nose of each subject to a Pantone colour that forms the background. Combining photography with sociological research and public participation, Dass aims to expose the absurdity of racism in the service of global human rights. With her own grandparents’ portraits embedded in every installation, this is the artist’s personal story as much as a reflection of the world we live in.

Josephine Baker in banana skirt

Lucien Waléry
1926–27, France
Photographic postcard print
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Josephine Baker

Madame d’Ora (Dora Philippine Kallmus)
1926, France
Silver bromide print
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Zouzou Josephine Baker Compact Cuff

Flamand Paris
c. 1934, France
Brass, Bakelite
Courtesy of Lisa Eldridge

Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundations – 59 shades

Fenty Beauty
Glass, plastic, cosmetics
Courtesy of Fenty Beauty

With its 40 foundation shades, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty set a new standard for inclusivity when it launched in 2017. Reaching millions of women previously uncatered to when it came to shade matching, it was also incredibly business savvy. Fenty Beauty is currently estimated to be worth US$2.8 billion.

Josephine Baker was another Black female performer who transformed the beauty industry, a century earlier. In the 1930s she launched a range including the skin darkening ‘Bakerskin’. Wealthy white Parisian women were desperate to achieve her iconic ‘Baker look’. Baker’s popularity contributed to a ‘trend for blackness’, instrumental in the tanning craze that started in France and would go on to transform Western beauty ideals.

Emma Dabiri, author, academic and broadcaster

Lupita Nyong'o on Lancôme Paris campaign

2014, France
Printed paper

Boy de Chanel Taiwan Poster with Lee Dong-wook

Chanel Taiwan
2019, Taiwan, (original)
2023, United Kingdom (reproduction)
Printed paper
Courtesy of Fenty Beauty

Until recently, Black women – particularly those with more African features, Afro-textured hair and darker complexions – were almost invisible in mainstream popular culture. Those who did appear were generally women seen as conforming more closely to Eurocentric beauty standards. But a long overdue increase in darker skinned women can now be seen on our screens and magazines. Their presence, as well as the broad range of characters they play, suggests things are finally starting to change.

Similarly, on the rare occasions East Asian men were represented in popular culture, they were stereotyped by racist tropes as effeminate. But factors including K-pop and the revolution in Asian American TV and film have led to a huge increase in visibility and breadth of roles.

Emma Dabiri, author, academic and broadcaster

Inclusive or othering?

Fashion and beauty magazines document how beauty standards change over time. In recent years, the media has made visible efforts to become more inclusive, working towards broader representation. But which of these efforts are truly inclusive? Which perpetuate a system of othering?

For over 60 years, Barbie has been one of many children’s earliest encounters with modern beauty standards. Her unrealistic proportions do not reflect the reality or diversity of human bodies. Scaled up to adult-size here, the Barbie and Oriol mannequins illustrate the impossible ideals we are sold. In contrast, Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm’s An Algorithimic Gaze II illuminates the beauty in the transient nature of our bodies.

Lifesize Barbie and Oriol

Adel Rootstein Ltd.
2009, Germany
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2011/131, DHMD 2011/132

Adel Roostein Ltd. has been making mannequins since the 1950s. This special edition scaled-up Barbie doll has a 21-inch waist, with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.65. Were she a living woman, her body would fall into the underweight range.

She is accompanied by a fashion mannequin named Oriol. Together with Barbie, he reflects the body shapes fashionable in the 2000s. Encountered at lifesize, the unrealistic nature of these aspirational bodies is impossible to ignore.

An Algorithmic Gaze II

Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm (artist), ARTificial Mind (technical development)
2023, Denmark
AI-generated animation
Courtesy of the artist

Curator Janice Li on An Algorithmic Gaze II by Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm and the ARTificial Mind studio

We are born with differently shaped and sized bodies. Across our lifetime, our bodies also change due to the natural process of ageing as well as unexpected accidents, illnesses and other body-altering events. Based on datasets assembled globally, this endlessly morphing human figure generated by AI through a 10-month-long learning process never repeats.

“AI doesn’t have the worldview and constructs we do. We are responsible for the biases it produces”, Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm reflects. Through the gaze of AI, she invites us to meditate on the transient beauty of the human form.

Vogue, May 1926

Condé Nast (publisher)
1926, France
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

The Studio, May 1929

Edward McKnight Kauffer (Cover design), The Studio Ltd. (publisher)
1929, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garnerer

Jean Patchett on Vogue Beauty Book, Spring 1950

Erwin Blumenfeld (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
1950, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Twiggy on Vogue UK, October 1967

Ronald Traeger (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
1967, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Colleen Saidman Yee on Cosmopolitan Zest, May 1986

Jean-Noël L'Harmeroult (photographer), National Magazine Company, London (publisher)
1986, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Luna, aka Peggy Ann Freeman on Vogue UK, March 1966

David Bailey (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
1966, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garnerer

Beverly Johnson on the cover of Vogue, August 1974

Francesco Scavullo (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
1974, United States
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford on Vogue, January 1990

Peter Lindbergh (photographer), Condè Nast (publisher)
1990, United States
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garner

Anarchy in the UK newspaper No. 1, 20 December 1976

Ray Stevenson (photographer), Jamie Reid, Sophie Richmond, and Vivienne Westwood (designers), Malcolm McLaren, Glitterbest Ltd. (publisher)
1976, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Philippe Garnerer

LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen on Vogue, April 2008

Annie Leibovitz (photographer) Condè Nast (publisher)
2008, United States
Printed paper

Michèle Lamy on System beauty No.1, December 2022

Juergen Teller (photographer),
System (published)
2022, United Kingdom
Printed paper

Kylie Jenner on Dazed Beauty inaugural issue, February 2019

Daniel Sannwald (photographer), Dazed Digital (publisher)
2019, United Kingdom
Printed paper

Stylist, June 2022

The Stylist Group Ltd (publisher)
2022, United Kingdom
Printed paper

Apo Whang-Od on Vogue Philippines, April 2023

Artu Nepomuceno (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
2023, Philippines
Printed paper

Aaron Rose Philip on Vogue UK, May 2023

Adama Jalloh (photographer), Condé Nast (publisher)
2023, United Kingdom
Printed paper

Fashion and beauty magazines not only capture ephemeral trends but also historical turning points through their representations of beauty. They chart early 20th-century images that follow western beauty ideals, through to the era-defining decade of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in Britain, to the first Black women appearing on Vogue covers.

In recent years, magazine editors have made visible efforts to introduce wider representation of ages, body types, ethnic backgrounds and sexualities. As consumers, we have to assess which of these efforts genuinely celebrate a broader spectrum of beauty, which are tokenistic, and which perpetuate othering practices.

Vogue UK, June 2023, Braille Edition

Condé Nast and RNIB
2023, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Courtesy of Condé Nast

“Some 16 million people in the UK are Disabled, with millions more Disabled-adjacent, whether visibly or invisibly,” writes Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief. “The time has come for us to get real about who we are as a society, and for fashion to build a better, more accessible and inclusive industry.” The first ever Braille and audio-described edition of the magazine launched in 2023.

You are welcome to touch this copy on display.

Hair and communities

Hair holds immense power to tell stories and form communities. It carries significant meaning as a symbol of heritage, traditions and identity in many cultures around the world. Different hairstyles, textures and adornments can speak to a shared sense of belonging, pride or solidarity as much as a liberating expression of individuality.

Jamaican-born British hairstylist and creative Cyndia Harvey explores how hairstyles can be a binding force for young people of the African diaspora growing up away from the land of their heritage. Chinese American artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk uses hair as a restorative medium, reconciling difficult histories within Asian American and Pacific Islanders communities in the US.

Writer Emma Dabiri on the ‘Hairstyles’ series by photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere

Untitled (Mkpuk Eba) Untitled (Adebe) Untitled (Onile Gogoro Or Akaba)

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere
1974–75, Nigeria, printed 2012
Gelatin silver print on paper
Tate: Purchased with funds provided by the Acquisitions Fund for African Art
Supported by Guaranty Trust Bank Plc 2013, P80255, P80256, P80252

Beginning in 1968, Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s Hairstyles project spanned more than 40 years and resulted in over 1,000 images. The huge range of intricate hairstyles in the series represents personal taste and style, geographic background and social status. With distinctive family hairstyles passed down through generations, they are also joyful markers of social events such as weddings and community gatherings. Ojeikere celebrated his culture’s richness and diversity through his lifelong appreciation of hairstyles.

This Hair of Mine

Cyndia Harvey (artist), Akinola Davies Jr (filmmaker)
2017, United Kingdom
Film, 6 mins 28 secs
Courtesy of the artist and filmaker

Jamaican-born British hairstylist and creative Cyndia Harvey grew up in her mother’s London salon. In This Hair of Mine, British young people of the African diaspora share how hairstyles thread them into a legacy of heritage, pride and belonging. Harvey explains: “I wanted to explore the heritage of these young women by looking into what parts of Africa they were from, tracing as far back as I could to find out how the women of each tribe wore their hair historically, then recreating those hairstyles in ways I imagined the styles could have evolved.” The film shares its title with Harvey’s own haircare brand.

We Climb

Jennifer Ling Datchuk
2021, United States
Human hair, synthetic hair, porcelain beads from Jingdezhen, China, hair ponies, acrylic
Courtesy of the artist

Throwing Down the Ladder by which they Rose

Thomas Nast
1870, United States, 2023 (reproduction)
Print on paper
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection New York Public Library, b17514010

Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s multimedia practice explores beauty at the intersection of her own layered identity as a Chinese American woman, a ‘third culture kid’. To Datchuk, hair is a rare domain where East Asian community care is on public display. This Rapunzel-like hair ladder is braided in dark brown hair instead of blonde, held together by porcelain beads that carry words of affirmation from the community. Created in the heat of the Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate movement in America, it reclaims the ladder imagery used in racist propaganda during the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Self-imaging and self-perception

Humans have an instinctual desire to see ourselves. But for millennia that meant only seeing silhouettes or dim and distorted reflections. It was not until the 14th century with the invention of glass-blowing that undistorted mirrors became available, and then only to the wealthy.

Today we see ourselves more than ever before. The way we understand and manipulate our self-image has changed drastically in the last two decades with the invention of the selfie camera on mobile devices.

Tracing the history of our mirror image, from ancient Egypt to the cosmetic compact mirror to selfie culture and its impact on mental health, we ask: can our relationship with self-perception be an empowering one?

The Old Beau in Ecstasy

John Dixon
1773, England
Mezzotint on paper
Victoria and Albert Museum, E.325-1959

Narcissus and Echo

Francesco Bartolozzi after Benedetto Luti
1791, England
Engraving on paper
Wellcome Collection, 11390i

In the Greek myth of Narcissus, the youth renowned for his beauty was cursed by the gods to fall in love with his own reflection, wasting away and dying as he gazed at himself in the water. Mirrors have long held an association with vanity, a stereotype that is often projected onto femininity. In the etching of The Old Beau in Ecstasy, the dandy admiring himself in the mirror is ridiculed for his effeminate behaviour and preoccupation with his appearance.

Ancient Egyptian bronze mirror

Unknown maker
800–100 BCE, Egypt
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A634859

Islamic glass convex mirror

Unknown maker
601–1000, Iraq
Glass, cement
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A101614

Powder compact with lipstick

Unknown maker
c.1925, Germany
Mirror glass, spinel/garnet
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 2581

Sony Ericsson Z1010

Sony Ericsson
2003, Japan
Plastic, lithium battery, electronics

The earliest known mirrors – dating to 4000 BCE in Iran – were made from copper. By 800–100 BCE, bronze was used, but as the ancient Egyptian mirror here shows, this still barely reflected a discernable sillhoutte. Hand-held glass convex mirrors were in use in Southwest Asia from 600 CE, giving intimate yet faint reflections.

By the early 1900s, the mirror compact was an affordable beauty symbol for the modern woman. The front-facing camera phone was a radical development in the long cultural history of mirror-making. This technology has opened up new ways to look at and think about our own faces and bodies.

Miniature showing Marcia before an easel, painting her self-portrait in Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes

Giovanni Boccaccio
c. 1450, France
Reproduction of illuminated manuscript with parchment binding
Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 12420


Kim Kardashian (author), Rizzoli (publisher)
2015, United States
Printed book

This medieval miniature shows ancient Roman artist Marcia. Boccaccio describes her making a self-portrait using a mirror in his De Mulierbus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), the first book in Western literature devoted to the achievements of women. The convex mirror in the illustration would not have been available during Marcia’s lifetime.

Most self-portraits now take a very different form. Celebrity Kim Kardashian’s autobiography consists solely of mobile phone ‘selfies’. The generation coming of age with easy access to selfies has been labelled as obsessed with their own image. How does the way we self-image affect how we perceive ourselves?

Steam, The Bully Pulpit

Haley Morris-Cafiero
2019, United States
Photographic print face-mounted on UV acrylic
Courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting

Sharing selfies on social media involves complex emotions including desire for attention and space for self-expression, battling one’s insecurities and the fear of being targeted. ‘Selfitis’ (obsessive selfie-taking) and ‘snapchat dysmorphia’ (wanting your body to resemble your filtered online appearance) have been classified as mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association.

US artist Haley Morris-Cafiero turns hate comments she’s received online into staged photographic works. Playing cyber bullies at their own game, she researches their identity and dresses up as them, integrating their comments into her work.

Artist Xu Yang on her painting ‘Perhaps We are all Fictions in the Eye of the Beholder’

Perhaps We are All Fictions in the Eye of the Beholder

Xu Yang
2021, United Kingdom
Oil on linen
Courtesy of the artist

This is the first in an ongoing series of self- portraits by London-based Chinese artist Xu Yang. It references the practice of female portrait painters, especially Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), whose works epitomised French beauty ideals of her day.

Yang identifies with women in history restricted by social circumstances, while finding liberation in contemporary drag culture. Combining her inspirations with heightened experiences of racism during the pandemic, she asserts her agency to reconstruct self-identity and redefine beauty continuously through therapeutic self-portrait-making.

The Industry of Beauty

The mass-marketing of beauty products permeated the 20th century, with adverts for lipsticks on billboards and mascara brushes on screen.

The use of innovative materials and technology in beauty aids has a much longer history. From ancient Egyptian powder compacts to Renaissance cosmetics to thermographic eyeshadow, this section investigates the business of beauty. It explores how commercialisation and design have transformed pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures into the full-blown beauty industry as we know it today.

The promotion of mainstream standards has cemented beauty as both cultural currency and commercial goldmine. This has had a huge influence on our relationship to our bodies and how we view one another. Increased availability of cosmetic applications and operations can be empowering and lifechanging. But it can also reinforce ableist ideas and sometimes cause physical and mental harm. With greater access to products and procedures both online and offline, how do we exercise our agency while prioritising our safety and wellbeing?

From pharmacies to department stores

Many off-the-shelf modern cosmetic products can be traced back to lab-made pharmaceuticals. The turn of the 20th century saw an explosion of pharmacy products packaged and sold as skincare and make-up. This was prompted by factors including industrialisation, the rising popularity of affordable cosmetics and women’s increasing purchasing power.

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.’s Hazeline Snow Cream benefitted from Wellcome’s global distributing channels to become available worldwide. With its decorative packaging, the cream was marketed with print advertisements selling the image of young women looking into the mirror, promoting ‘The Cult of Beauty’. Its enduring legacy influenced many similar pharmacies-turned-beauty-brands, including the Japanese conglomerate Shiseido.

Burroughs Wellcome & Co., Snow Hill shopfront

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1900s, United Kingdom
Paper, ink
Wellcome Collection, WF/M/GB/27/09

Burroughs Wellcome & Co., Wandsworth Factory & Laboratory

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1900s, United Kingdom
Paper, ink
Wellcome Collection, WF/M/GB/27/09

Hazeline Snow advertising pamphlet

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1930s, United Kingdom
Paper, ink
Wellcome Collection, WF/M/PB/144

‘The Cult of Beauty’ Advertisement for Hazeline Snow

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1929, United Kingdom
Paper, ink
Wellcome Collection

‘Gives Natural Charm’ Advertisement for Hazeline Snow

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1930s, United Kingdom
Paper, ink
Wellcome Collection

‘Gives added charm to your complexion’ Advertisement for Hazeline Snow

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1930s, Australia
Paper, ink
National Library of Australia,
Courtesy of the James Northfield Trust, obj-39257639

1928, Japan
Digital image
© Shiseido Corporate Museum

Kwong Sang Hong ‘Two Girls’ Poster

Kwan Wai-nung (designer), Kwong Sang Hong Ltd.
1931, Hong Kong
Paper, ink
The Collection of Hong Kong
Heritage Museum 香港文化博物館藏品, HM2001.32.14

Kwong Sang Hong ‘Two Girls’ Poster

Kwan Wai-nung (designer), Kwong Sang Hong Ltd.
1933, Hong Kong
Paper, ink
The Collection of Hong Kong
Heritage Museum 香港文化博物館藏品, HM2001.32.13

Calendar Poster: Hong Kong Cosmetics Company, Bakilly Co. Ltd.

Kwan Wai-nung (designer), Bakilly Co. Ltd.
1920s, Hong Kong
Paper, ink
The Collection of Hong Kong
Heritage Museum 香港文化博物館藏品, HM1999.82.15

‘Filmstar Shabnam prefers’ Advertisement for Hazeline Snow with Lusine

The Wellcome Foundation Ltd.
1970, Pakistan
Paper, ink

‘I use Hazeline Snow’ with Lucille Soong

The Wellcome Foundation Ltd,
1967, Singapore
Paper, ink
Advertising Archive Asia

Dummy tubes of Hazeline Snow

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1900–30, England
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, 1989-93/53

‘Enule’ Hazeline rectal suppositories

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1933, England
Tin, suppositories formed from zinc oxide and extract of hamamelis (Witch Hazel)
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, 1989-93/4

Leaflet advertising Hazeline Snow

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
c. 1900, England
Wellcome Collection, WF/M/GB/01/24

Hazeline Rose Frost produced for the Chinese market

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.
1900–30, England
Card, glass, cosmetics
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, 1989-93/2

Hazeline Snow Moisturising Cream

2022, Malaysia
Glass, plastic, card, cream

Rouge Framboise

Dorin Paris
1910s, France
Metal, paint, cosmetics
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

Oxzyn Natural Rouge

Oxzyn Co.
1910s, United States
Metal, paint, cosmetics
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

Venus Rouge

Ware Brothers
1910s, United States
Metal, paint, cosmetics
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

In the late 1890s, pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co. began producing a range of products including soaps, dentifrice and suppositories under the brand name Hazeline. Containing distilled witch hazel extract, they were marketed as having medicinal properties. Skin creams such as Hazeline Snow were the most popular.

By the 1920s, Hazeline Snow was being promoted as a beauty product. It was distributed globally with distinct localised marketing strategies for various parts of Europe, the Americas and East Asia. It marked a turning point when many pharmacies began to sell skincare and make-up products with highly decorative branding, a phenomenon observed internationally.

Cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, in her Long Island factory

Max Scheler
1950s, United States
Photograph, gelatin-silver print on paper
Victoria and Albert Museum, E.135-2003

Helena Rubinstein examines her schedule for an average day in New York

Max Scheler
1956, United States
Photograph, gelatin-silver print on paper
Victoria and Albert Museum, E.133-2003

Donning a lab coat and situating herself in male-centred laboratories, the Polish American entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein pioneered the use of pseudo-science in beauty product marketing, profitting hugely from it.

“When I first met her, [she] looked like a Russian tsarina, with ruby rings the size of bird’s eggs on her fluttering fingers,” Estée Lauder recalled. The contrast between this description and these photographs demonstrates Rubinstein’s canny manipulation of her public image. She became the first self-made female cosmetics millionaire.

Designing Beauty

The rich material culture of cosmetics is testament to the longstanding human endeavour in pursuit of beauty. Our desire to enhance and adorn our appearance has motivated innovation and creativity. Wide-ranging examples from ancient Egyptian make-up tools to LED face masks illustrate how much and, how little has changed.

The ways in which cosmetics are designed and applied often reflect collective social values. From make-up products and devices designed for blind and low-vision users, to algae-extracted ingredients and compostable packaging, this open, tactile display showcases the influence of accessibility and sustainability in the rapidly evolving cosmetics sector today.

Stone slab with wells for cosmetic ointments

Unknown maker
1991–1786 BCE, Egypt
Aragonite stone
Wellcome Collection/ Science Museum Group, A634883

Cosmetic grinding slab in form of a turtle

Unknown maker
1000–100 BCE, Egypt
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A26368

Wooden kohl eyeliner holder, decorated with the figure of a woman

Unknown maker
100 BCE–400 CE, Egypt
Complete and wood
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A634876

Toilet dish in form of an oxyrhynchus fish

Unknown maker
14 BCE–1000 CE, Egypt
Steatite soapstone
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A634879

Roman bronze oil or cosmetic container in shape of female head

Unknown maker
101–200 CE, Roman
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A656598

Powder compact

Gustav Lohse Berlin
1900s, Germany
Cardboard, foil
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2016/281

Face iron

Unknown maker
c. 1970, Hungary
Metal, wood, plastic
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1996/175 L

White and gold ‘skin iron’

Dear Pure Care (DPC)
2021, South Korea
Plastic, metal
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2022/239

‘Punkt-Roller’ massager with suction cups

L. M. Baginski, Factory of Orthopedic Apparatus
1925, Germany
Metal, wood, rubber
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1992/643

‘Punkt-Roller’ instructions

L. M. Baginski, Factory of Orthopedic Apparatus
1925, Germany
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1992/643.1

Cellulose roller for upper arm

2007, Japan
Cardboard, plastic
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2009/49

The first cosmetic palettes, mostly used to grind and hold coloured eye pigments, appear as early as Neolithic times. Initially regular geometric shapes, they were later made in the forms of animals or figures. They are surprisingly similar to modern-day eyeshadow palettes.

From head-shaped powder compacts to face irons and fat rolllers, beauty tools made centuries or even millennia apart have echoing forms and functions. They demonstrate the intuitive approaches humans have always had to make-up and skincare procedures.

High-frequency apparatus with 3 electrotherapy electrodes

Unknown maker
1930, Germany
Wood, metal, glass, textile fabric, cork, plastic
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1996/174L

Golden mask in red case

Rosel Heim, Cosmétique Sans Soucis
1953, Germany
Plastic, wood, rubber, metal
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 1996/170L

Rubber beauty masks, modelled by two women

Unknown maker
1921, United Kingdom (original), 2023, United Kingdom (reproduction)
Facsimile on paper
Wellcome Collection, 565924i

Skin rejuvenation photon mask with seven LED light colours

Project E Beauty
2018, United States
Plastic, silicone, cardboard
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2019/521

Many devices adopted by aestheticians have their origins in medicine. Electrotherapy targeting wrinkles and pimple prevention was first used to treat tuberculosis. Oxygen therapy to promote younger-looking skin was originally an asthma treatment. Devices were redesigned and rescaled, first to fit into salons, then into domestic spaces. Face masks with LED lights that have become popular in recent years have their roots in technology promoting wound healing by stimulating cell growth, first used on NASA astronauts in the 1990s.

Travel toiletry set

Unknown maker
1830, Germany
Mother-of-pearl, burl wood, glass, silver, metal, textile
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 458

Perfume mixing and make-up kit, 10 pieces

Unknown maker
1700, Germany
Ruby glass, agate, jasper, carnelian, silver
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 2050

Longquan ware cosmetic box from Zhejiang province

Unknown maker
1230–1350, China
Ceramics, porcelain
Victoria and Albert Museum, C.29&A-1935

Brass cosmetic container with five compartments

Unknown maker
1801–1900, India
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A639129

Mirror-case of barber-surgeon’s instruments from Qajar period

Unknown maker
1750–1850, Iran
Mother-of-pearl, mirror glass and papier mâché
Victoria and Albert Museum, W.87:29-1929

Cartier mirror lipstick

Louis Cartier
c. 1925, France
Glass, mirror, suede
Sammlung Schwarzkopf im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, SK 1971

Salvador Dalí ‘Bird-in-hand’ compact

Elgin American, designed by Salvador Dalí
1950s, United States
Gold-plated metal, mirror glass
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

British Overseas Airways Corporation compact

British Overseas Airways Corporation
1950s, United Kingdom
Metal, Plastic, Mirror
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

Pygmalion Globe compact

1950s, United Kingdom
Metal, plastic, mirror
Personal collection of Lisa Eldridge

These beauty tools and vessels demonstrate the significance people of different cultures have historically placed on cosmetics. They feature precious materials such as rubies, crystals, and Longquan celadon – a green-glazed Chinese ceramic – as well as the exquisite craft of marquetry and delicate metal-welding.

This was translated into the luxury beauty market of the 20th century. Limited edition products signed by artists or designed to reveal affluence were sought after as markers of social status.

Airbrush Flawless Foundation

Charlotte Tilbury
2019, United Kingdom
Plastic, glass, cosmetics

Hollywood Flawless Filter foundation

Charlotte Tilbury
2018, United Kingdom
Plastic, glass, cosmetics

Better Than Sex Waterproof Mascara

Too Faced
2016, United Kingdom
Plastic, cosmetics
Courtesy of Too Faced

Artist Kimberley Burrows and cosmetic scientist Gabriela Daniels discuss accessibility and beauty

Feast Your Eyes Brushes with a non-rolling cuboid handle and braille

Kohl Kreatives
2023, United Kingdom
Recycled plastic, synthetic fibre
Courtesy of Kohl Kreatives

Flex Collection brushes with bending handles

Kohl Kreatives
2021, United Kingdom
Rice waste, vegan fair fibre
Courtesy of Kohl Kreatives

Guide Eyeliner Duo

Guide Beauty
2023, United States
Plastic, rubber
Courtesy of Guide Beauty, LLC

Guide Fan Brush

Guide Beauty
2023, United States
Plastic, synthethic hair
Courtesy of Guide Beauty, LLC.

With increasing awareness and advocacy from disabled users, accessibility has become an active consideration in the development of beauty products. For example, Kohl Kreatives’ Flex Collection brush handles are designed to be easy-to-grip and bendable for people with limited dexterity. Feast Your Eyes Brushes gives blind and low-vision users information through braille and assistive technology, including audio descriptions.

Even products not designed with accessibility in mind can facilitate user experience. In the audio guide, blind artist Kimberly Burrows explains how tactile bumps and textured finishes allow her to distinguish products quickly by touch.

Vivomer’s initial stages of microbial development

2023, United Kingdom
Inactive microbes
Courtesy of Shellworks

Vivomer in pellet form

2023, United Kingdom
Courtesy of Shellworks

Shellworks catalogue products and custom forms

Shellworks and Sana Jardin
2023, United Kingdom
Courtesy of Shellworks

Eco Marine Cream Algae Plump Serum

2023, United Kingdom
Courtesy of Hæckels

Colour plaques in Vivomer

2023, United Kingdom
Vivomer, natural dyes
Courtesy of Shellworks

Partially decomposed product: 1 month in a home composter

2023, United Kingdom
Courtesy of Shellworks

120 billion units of packaging are discarded every year by the global cosmetics industry, making it the second largest source of plastic waste from packaging after the food industry.

Beauty packaging tends to have more complex mechanisms, making it challenging to recycle. In response, London-based Shellworks has brought together biology, engineering and design to create Vivomer. Derived from microbes, it is fully compostable, vegan and petroleum-free.

Packaging made of Vivomer has been taken up by like-minded brands like Sana Jardin and Hæckels, companies dedicated to the principles of circular economy and marine conservation respectively.

Curator Janice Li introduces the Beauty Sensorium

Beauty Sensorium

Beauty Sensorium features five ‘Renaissance Goos’ – reconstructed cosmetic recipes from a 1562 Italian text, The Ornaments of Women. This type of products was often made by Jewish women immigrants following the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Renaissance apothecaries organised vessels and recipe manuals in a similar way to contemporary soft matter scientists, according to their fluid properties. The women who made cosmetics at home had a sophisticated understanding of how to exploit the tactile properties of natural materials. This project highlights the historically overlooked role women played as pioneering chemists and botanists.

Inviting you to look, smell and touch, this installation brings together historical references with multisensory encounters, suggesting that much of our scientific knowledge is acquired through first-hand, sensory experiences.

Earthenware albarello for Egyptian ointment

Unknown maker
1585, Italy
Ceramic, tin-glazed
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A43260

Copper alembic (alchemical still)

Unknown Maker
1600–1800, provenance unknown
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A632095

Ivory mortar and pestle, carved with cherubs, alchemy scenes and a snake

Unknown maker
1501–1700, Europe
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A641078

Green glass alembic cap

Unknown maker
1501–1700, Europe
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A639720

The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery

Hannah Woolley
1675, England
Printed book
Wellcome Collection, EPB/A/61184

Collection of receipts for cordials, preserves, cookery

Multiple authors
c. 1690–1710, England
Paper, handwritten ink
Wellcome Collection, MS.4054

Delightes for Ladies to Adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories

Sir Hugh Plat
1602, England
Printed paper, leather
Wellcome Collection, EPB/A/5099.1

During the Renaissance, the home kitchen was a centre of production and experimentation for cosmetics and medicines. Printed recipe books were bestsellers all over Europe from the early 16th century, many explicitly directed at a female readership. Recipes were also passed down through the family. Raw materials would be purchased from apothecaries, gathered from gardens, or foraged from woods and fields. After grinding in mortars, or cutting on blocks, ingredients would be processed into waters, creams and balms. Distillation in copper or glass alembics was commonplace, especially in England, and associated particularly with women. Distilled ‘waters’ from plant and animal materials formed the basis of Renaissance beauty routines.

Jill Burke, Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, University of Edinburgh

A female apothecary mixing up a prescription for a child

Gustave-Marie Greux, after Quiringh van Brekelenkam
1870s, France, after original of c. 1650–70, Netherlands
Etching on paper
Wellcome Collection, 15964i

A woman in a pharmacy with a urine flask and a monkey

Willem Joseph Laquy, copy after Jacob Toorenvliet
1780, Germany, after original of 1677, Netherlands
Oil on canvas
Wellcome Collection, 47376i

Both images show the busy interiors of apothecary shops, jars of medical ingredients neatly arranged on shelves. In the painting, the female assistant has paused from making up a prescription to peer at a monkey holding up an upturned urine flask. As well as working as assistants, women in the early modern period sometimes ran apothecaries’ shops themselves. In the etching, a pharmacist pours medicine into a vessel held by a little girl. Many women made a living by selling medicines and cosmetics. Poorer women might sell homemade products to friends and neighbours or peddle them in markets.

Jill Burke, Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, University of Edinburgh

Reconstructing Renaissance Goo

Thomas S.G. Farnetti, Benjamin Gilbert, Steven Pocock
2023, United Kingdom
Film, 6 mins 59 secs
Thomas S.G. Farnetti, Benjamin Gilbert and Steven Pocock/Wellcome Collection

Rheology is the science that studies the flow of complex liquids or the deformation of soft solids. Scientists investigate the microstructure of these materials to understand how, for example, a lotion might spread on the skin. Jill Burke recreates early modern cosmetic recipes in her kitchen – squelching lamb fat in water and pouring oozing mixtures. Soft matter physicist Andreia Fonseca Da Silva prepares the same Renaissance recipes in the laboratory, where she observes, records and measures with precision.

Drawing parallels between their processes, the interdisciplinary research project proposes that Renaissance women experimenting with cosmetics and topical medicine at home were unacknowledged early scientists.

Beauty as currency

The concept of beauty is packaged, experienced and instrumentalised both as cultural currency and source of monetary value in modern societies. The myth of perfect beauty is a social fiction perpetuated by popular media; it reinforces capitalist, consumerist, misogynistic socioeconomic systems and power structures.

Artists Juno Calypso and Makeupbrutalism challenge deep-seated prejudices, unhealthy beliefs and invisible social pressure with incisive humour, staging themselves in striking photographic works.

The beauty pageant, a 20th-century phenomenon, speaks volumes about beauty standards and gendered roles and expectations. This display looks at contests ranging from West London’s Black beauty pageants in the 1960s to those held in Brazilian prisons today to ask: who do we really do it for?

Lipstick Kiss

Kate Moss, SHOWstudio
2001, United Kingdom
Imprint of lipstick-coated lips onto card
Victoria and Albert Museum, E.1097:41-2002n

The red lipstick kiss is perhaps one of the most iconic and ubiquitous beauty symbols of the 20th century. Influential British model Kate Moss auctioned a kiss for £60,000 to retail mogul Philip Green at a charity event in 2006. This limited-edition box set print with the model’s kiss pressed onto archive card materialises her beauty in commodified form.

Artist Eszter Magyar (Makeupbrutalism) on her commission 'It makes no sense to be beautiful if no one is ugly'

It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly

Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar)
2023, United Kingdom
Multi-media collage, sculptural objects
Courtesy of the artist

‘We cried so much our tears turned to salt…’

Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar) and Alice Potts
2022, United Kingdom
Synthetic lashes, human tears, resin
Courtesy of the artists

Needle lipstick

Cosmetics, plastic, metal, resin

Self-expression remover

Plastic, resin

False promise mascara

Cosmetics, plastic, resin

Bug lashes

Makeupbrutalism (Eszter Magyar)
2023, United Kingdom
Synthetic lashes, insects, resin
Courtesy of the artist

As Makeupbrutalism, former make-up artist Eszter Magyar began sharing provocative content mixing “social criticism with human aesthetics” on social media in 2018. This installation is a montage of her practice straddling cosmetics and artistic mediums. She categorises her close-up editorial photographs as “social commentary” and her diagrams as “pseudoscience”. In her hands, everyday beauty items become unfamiliar or uncanny, presented as sculptural objects cast in resin. Magyar prompts her viewers to question their beliefs, to confront their raw selves beneath social pressure and to peel back the layers of the beauty industry.

12 Reasons You’re Tired All the Time Slendertone II

Juno Calypso
2013 and 2015, United Kingdom
Archival pigment print photograph
Courtesy of the artist and T J Boulting

Juno Calypso reflects: “All of my work essentially boils down to two things: desire and disappointment… You’ve got the balloons and the cake is all there but inside you’re dying. It’s a universal horror.”

In two of Calypso’s early works, her fictional alter ego Joyce is daunted by the effort required to construct the conformist feminine image, driven by an obsession with anti-ageing and beauty preservation. Joyce is both suppressed by and comically assertive over the beauty tools on her body. Calypso places Joyce in hyperreal domestic spaces that ridicule the private, intimate yet mundane processes of home beauty routines.

Because you’re worth it

Film, 57 secs
Courtesy of L’Oréal

Translated into 40 languages, L’Oréal Paris’s tagline “because you’re worth it” has become one of the world’s most successful advertising campaigns, rendering a hair dye synonymous with success and self-esteem. The slogan was first performed by American model Joanne Dusseau in 1971, with the original wording, “because I’m worth it”.

While the intention may be to promote confidence, the campaign also speaks to women’s insecurities, and could be seen as tying their sense of self-worth to a certain beauty standard in order to sell cosmetic products.

Miss World Board Game

Denys Fisher
1972, United States
Paper, plastic
The Women’s Library at LSE, TWL.2003.664

Miss Great Britain judges’ scoresheet

Miss Great Britain National Bathing Beauty Contest
1976, United Kingdom
The Women’s Library at LSE, 5/MGB/3/2

Miss Great Britain 1972 Souvenir Programme

Miss Great Britain National Bathing Beauty Contest
1972, United Kingdom
Printed paper
The Women’s Library at LSE, 5/MGB/2/2

Miss Wellcome 1974 in Foundation News, June 1974, Issue 6

The Wellcome Foundation Ltd.
1974, United Kingdom
Printed paper
Wellcome Collection, WF/M/PB/01/01

The boom in beauty pageants in the 1970s coincided with greater access to television, reaching a large global audience. Beauty companies seized this opportunity to market their products through sponsorship. Their – mostly male – CEOs would sit on the judging panel, scoring contestants on their physical appearance.

Off stage, board games targeted at young girls glamourised the pageant world. Beauty competitions were also organised for female staff within companies. An internal magazine from the Wellcome Foundation shows the winner of Miss Wellcome in 1974: a senior technician in the chemical development laboratories at Dartford.

Miss Black & Beautiful Sybil McLean with fellow contestants, Hammersmith Palais, London

Raphael Albert
1972, United Kingdom
Gelatin silver print
RA Albert. Courtesy of Autograph, London

Miss Africa Maggie May, Blythe Road, London

Raphael Albert
1976, United Kingdom
Gelatin silver print
RA Albert. Courtesy of Autograph, London

Beauty Salon, London

Raphael Albert
1960s, United Kingdom
Gelatin silver print
RA Albert. Courtesy of Autograph, London

Raphael Albert’s documentation of Black beauty pageants in 1960s and 70s London depicts a vibrant community, against the backdrop of the racism prevalent in British mainstream media in which Black women were almost invisible. The photographs show how communities co-opted and refashioned beauty pageants to provide a space for African-Caribbean self-expression. They also celebrate Black beauty practices centred around the beauty salon. Albert’s personal involvement in establishing the Miss Black and Beautiful contest in 1970 helps to create an insider gaze into the world he depicts.

Belkis Estrella Maldonado, 31. Contestant number 9. ‘Miss Penitenciária’, prison beauty contest. Sentence: 4 years. Drug smuggling. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Zed Nelson  
2009 Brazil.  

Katie, age 9.  Winner. Universal Royalty Texas State Pageant. Texas, USA.

Zed Nelson 
2009 United States 
C-Type print dry-mounted onto aluminium 
Courtesy of the artist 

Photographer Zed Nelson’s project Love Me documents the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty. Over five years, Nelson visited 17 countries to capture what he saw as an increasingly narrow Western beauty ideal infiltrating different parts of the world. Through examining trends such as child pageantry, beauty contests held in prisons and cosmetic surgery, Nelson urges viewers to reflect on a culture that could perpetuate a sense of insecurity, low self-esteem and fear of ageing.

Bodily Autonomy

The act of body modification in the radical pursuit of pleasure is certainly about my transness, but more importantly, it is about body autonomy.
E-J Scott

Plastic surgical procedures have shifted from medical to cosmetic, becoming part of the beauty regime. Cosmetic surgeries provoke debates around values, ethics, safety, agency and power structures.

Access to safe body-modifying procedures holds very different meaning to people with distinct motivations and in different parts of the world. The fundamental question is about choice. When informed decisions are made, bodily transformation has the potential to be a source of empowerment and a process of self-actualisation.

The following display contains imagery depicting surgical procedures and human tissue. If you would like to avoid these materials, the next section, THEUNSEEN, is just behind this curtain. Please speak to a member of staff if you need any assistance.

Plated metal artificial nose

Unknown maker
1601–1800, Europe
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A641037

Ivory artificial nose

Unknown maker
1701–1800, Europe
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group, A641030

De curtorum chirurgia per Insitionem, ‘On the surgical restoration of defects

Gaspare Tagliacozzi
1597, Italy
Printed book
Wellcome Collection, EPB/D/6210

A treatise on operative surgery

Joseph Pancoast
1846, United States
Printed paper, leather binding
Wellcome Collection, EPB/C/39599

Rhinoplasty – nose reconstruction surgery – was part of a growing market for cosmetic operations in 1400s Europe. Using skin grafting to encourage nose growth, the ‘Italian method’ was popularised by Bolognese surgeon, Gaspare Tagliacozzi. It has roots in Byzantine medicine and techniques imported from the Indian subcontinent over 1,000 years ago. It was mostly used to treat disfigured soldiers and syphilis victims during the 1490s outbreak.

The pain and physical exertion involved in the surgery meant some looked for alternatives, such as wearing a prothetic nose made of wax, ivory or metal, tied to the face with ribbon.

Wrinkle treatment with Botox: before and after

Navena Widulin
2010, Germany
Wax mixture, wood, chipboard, metal
Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, DHMD 2011/13

Botulinum toxin injections were introduced to cosmetic wrinkle treatment in 1992 and have quickly become one of the most popular and affordable nonsurgical cosmetic interventions. Over 7.3 million injections were performed worldwide in 2021.

This pair of casts show a 69-year-old woman’s face before and after Botox treatment for wrinkles. But the results only last for months. Many become repeat users, striving to retain the desired results.

Artist Shirin Fathi on her work The Disobedient Nose

The Disobedient Nose is a series of photographic works about “a nose that doesn’t want to be tamed”. Iran sees the greatest number of rhinoplasties in the world. Many aspire to have the procedure, and this is often openly discussed across generations. The London-based Iranian artist Shirin Fathi uses her own face to explore the inherent defiance of women making their own choices against society’s biases.

Fathi experiments with the shifting nature of identity in relation to cosmetic surgery through roleplay, prostheses and make-up. In one portrait she mimics a male patient in Renaissance medical illustrations. Another references an early Indian technique of skin grafting.

دماغ نافرمان مجموعه عکس هایی است درباره یک بینی که نمی خواهد مهار شود. ایران یکی از بالاترین میزان جراحی بینی را در جهان دارا است. جراحی بینی بین نسل های مختلف همیشه مورد بحث بوده است. هنرمند ایرانی در این مجموعه با استفاده از صورت خود موضوع جراحی بینی را مورد چالش قرارداده است و سعی می کند درباره عضوی از بدن حرف بزند که تغییر را نمی پذیرد. این پرتره ها از طریق اجرا و نقش آفرینی، طراحی های پزشکی قرن شانزدهم را به تصویر می کشد. هنرمند در یک عکس خود را به یک مرد سفیدپوست دوره رنسانس مبدل کرده است. در عکسی دیگر با کشیدن خطی روی صورتش متاثر از تکنیک قدیمی جراحی بینی هندی با برداشتن پوست از بخش های مجاورصورت نحوه ساختن بینی را نشان می دهد. شیرین فتحی پروژه تحقیقاتی خود را این گونه آغاز کرد که خود را برای انجام عمل های زیبایی به پزشکان مشتاق نشان داد و به کلینیک های جراحی بسیاری مراجعه کرد. در مرحله بعد با استفاده از تکنیک های مجسمه سازی و ساختن قالب صورت خود و با استفاده از به کارگیری ترفند های پزشکی در زمینه جراحی نقش هنرمند و جراح را عوض کرد و این پرسش را طرح کرد که آیا یک جراح تخصص کافی را برای شناخت زیبایی همانند یک مجسمه ساز دارد؟ و مهم تر این که آیا او به عنوان یک هنرمند می تواند نقش یک جراح را بازی کند؟


Label translation by Shirin Fathi, artist and curator

The Disobedient Nose, دماغ نافرمان: Fig. 1. The reconstruction of a nose The Disobedient Nose, دماغ نافرمان: Fig. 2. Sketches of rhinoplasty performed by me

Shirin Fathi
2022, United Kingdom
Photographic print
Courtesy of the artist

The Disobedient Nose, دماغ نافرمان: The research tools

Shirin Fathi
2022, United Kingdom
Silicon, plaster, plastic, medical thread
Courtesy of the artist

Shirin Fathi undertook an embodied research process for The Disobedient Nose. She began by impersonating a patient, repeatedly visiting beauty clinics and recording her exchanges with cosmetic surgeons. She also investigated 16th-century medical drawings at Wellcome Collection to understand early facial modifications procedures.

This plastic surgery training toolkit and silicon prostheses modelled after her own face helped her reverse the role of artist and surgeon. Does a cosmetic surgeon have the artistic sensibility of a sculptor? Could she, as an artist, play the role of a surgeon?

Dr. Pitanguy is known in Brazil as ‘The Pope of Plastic Surgery’. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Zed Nelson
2009, Brazil
C-type print, dry mounted onto aluminium
Courtesy of the artist

Facelift. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Zed Nelson
2009, Brazil
C-type print, dry mounted onto aluminium
Courtesy of the artist

Ivo Pitanguy was a household name in Brazil, having performed over 40,000 operations over four decades and trained over 500 doctors from around the world. Here a volunteer is being examined topless in front of over a dozen of Pitanguy’s protégés in exchange for a free operation.

From his 5-year-long photography project, Love Me, Zed Nelson captures disconcerting moments in the clinic to confront us with the complex power dynamics of cosmetic surgeries. The photographs are also reminders that these are serious medical operations that come with their own risks.

Curator E-J Scott on the Museum of Transology

Ivo Pitanguy was a household name in Brazil, having performed over 40,000 operations over four decades and trained over 500 doctors from around the world. Here a volunteer is being examined topless in front of over a dozen of Pitanguy’s protégés in exchange for a free operation. Photographer Zed Nelson captures such disconcerting moments in the clinic to confront us with the complex power dynamics of cosmetic surgeries. The photographs are also reminders that these are serious medical operations that come with their own risks.

E-J Scott, founder of Museum of Transology

Prosthetic breasts 2

‘Softleaves’ UK (manufacturer)
2010s, United Kingdom
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000154

Jay’s Weave

2010s, United Kingdom
Synthetic hair
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000001

Strapping tape used for chest binding

Second Skin (manufacturer)
2010s, United Kingdom
Paper, tape
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000170

Silent Movie Red lipstick

2010s, United Kingdom
Plastic, glass, cosmetics
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000161


Rimmel (manufacturer)
2010s, United Kingdom
Plastic, cosmetics
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000174

Lynx Can

Lynx (manufacturer)
2010s, United Kingdom
Metal, plastic
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000164

Used Progynova Packet

Progynova (manufacturer)
2010s, United Kingdom
Cardboard, plastic
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000187

The everyday beauty and personal care objects donated by local trans, non-binary and intersex communities include handwritten notes by the donors sharing intimate stories of their journeys. They shine a light on how these seemingly mundane products carry meaningful memories and reflect the role beauty plays in the path towards self-actualisation.

E-J Scott holding chest tissue from top surgery

Bharat Sikka
2016, United Kingdom
Photograph on metal
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000200

Chest tissue from gender affirming top surgery

2014, United Kingdom
Human tissue, glass, alcohol
Museum of Transology / Bishopsgate Institute, MOT000001/1, MOT000001/2

In this photo, you can see me holding up a jar of my own chest tissue. In front of the photo, you can see the same artefact. A cis-gaze will inevitably try to piece the body and the person back together. But this optical exercise defies resolution: I have curated my gender with intentionality. My intention is that your inspection does not interrupt my self-reflection.

Trans people look at me differently: they know what it is they see, without needing to piece me back together, locating my gender phenomenology in an instant as a wholeness, not a decoupling. This is the difference between spectatorship and recognition.

E-J Scott, founder of Museum of Transology

Unwrapping (Hope springs eternal)

Victoria Cantons
2022, United Kingdom
Oil on linen
Lougher Contemporary

This is a self-portrait depicting a trans woman, looking at herself for the first time after feminising facial surgery. For me, this was a way to improve my sense of self and see a face in the mirror that was closer to my self-understanding. Such surgery is a speculative risk, but it can improve mental health and day-to-day life. Another benefit was that it changed how people perceived and treated me in public. But there is a social debate as to whether a trans woman should undergo such surgery to make others feel more relaxed. Is there an idea of what a woman ‘should’ look like?

Victoria Cantons, artist

The Unseen

Magic is science we don’t yet understand.
Arthur C. Clarke

When designer Lauren Bowker visited Wellcome Collection’s library in 2012 to research early uses of alchemy, she was inspired to found THEUNSEEN. Through research and innovation it sets out to apply material science “to reveal to the world what it cannot see for itself”.

Prompted by her interest in skin as the medium between our internal landscape and how we express ourselves, Bowker subsequently transformed her studio into a skin-based colour cosmetic brand. She believes that the ubiquitous nature of cosmetics has huge potential to drive real changes in the way we understand the world.

Incorporating two of their latest innovative pigments, THEUNSEEN BEAUTY has created two new interactive works for this exhibition, The Black Morphew and ĀTMA.

The Magick of Kirani, King of Persia, and of Harpocration; containing the magical and medicinal virtues of stones, herbs, fishes, beasts and birds.

Unknown maker
1685, England
Printed paper, bound in calfskin
Wellcome Collection, EPB/A/31169

Attributed to the fictitious Persian king Kuranos, this 1685 English translation is based on a fourth-century compilation of mythical treatises. It consists of 24 alchemical recipes that combine elements of earth, air, fire and water and claim to manifest energetic qualities or make healing potions. Its opening statement, “the skill of managing nature by art as to accomplish strange things”, inspired Bowker to create the THEUNSEEN.

Lauren Bowker, THEUNSEEN (artist), Masters & Munn (cast maker)
2023, United Kingdom
SPECTRA Eye Colour cream pigment in black, crystacal R plaster
Courtesy of the artist

The Black Morphew

To experience The Black Morphew, take a photo of this sculpture with the flash on your mobile phone.

Please do not touch the sculpture.

THEUNSEEN’s SPECTRA eye pigment changes colour on camera, playing with the boundary between physical and digital reality. It speaks to our obsession with instantly capturing images of ourselves and others on our mobile devices.

This interactive sculpture is inspired by an alchemical recipe in The Magick of Kirani (on display nearby), Lauren Bowker’s original catalyst to found THEUNSEEN. ‘The Black Morphew’ is a skin lotion said to turn dark scars silver, made by mixing Pelican gall bladders with wine under heat. The sculpture reveals the alternative digital reality SPECTRA make-up creates.


Lauren Bowker, THEUNSEEN (artist), James Stopforth (photographer), Michael Moon (model)
2023, United Kingdom
Photographic print on paper
Courtesy of the artist

ĀTMA comes from the Sanskrit word Ātman: the soul that resides in a person’s heart and can only be realised through self-discovery.

Michael Moon, the model in these photographs, has tattooed eyes that appear entirely black. These photographs mean we can’t see any facial muscle or eye movement, two main ways to read emotions. Instead, Moon’s face is covered in intelligent thermographic pigment which converts natural skin temperature fluctuations sparked by our emotions into colour patterns.

Capturing Moon in various emotional states, the series invites us to rethink our visual associations with emotions. Dynamic and everchanging, all internal states can be seen as beautiful.

ĀTMA – A conversation between Lauren Bowker, Michael Moon and Dr Daniel Glaser

THEUNSEEN Beauty and Wellcome Multimedia & Audiovisual Team
2023, United Kingdom
Film, 5 mins 43 secs
THEUNSEEN and Wellcome Collection

Subverting Beauty

In this third and final section, you are invited to immerse, reflect and connect. Experience three major new commissions and artworks – a short feature film, a towering anthropomorphic sculpture and a multi-screen installation.

Either through their own lived experiences or collaborative consultation, the artists each question long-standing constructs and initiate new conversations. They explore the joy of self-expression against racial and gender norms, the long road to self-knowledge and self-acceptance and the complications of existing in our increasingly digital world today. Together, they triumphantly mark the beauty that lives in us, individually and collectively.

Curator Janice Li introduces the film ‘Permissible Beauty’

Permissible Beauty

David McAlmont (writer and performer), Robert Taylor (photographer), Mark Thomas (filmmaker), Richard Sandell (producer), Afrodeutsche (composer)
2022, United Kingdom
Film, 22 mins 15 secs
Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester and Soup Co.

This film and portrait project responds to the absence of Black Queer visibility in British national history. It originates from art historian and musician, David McAlmont’s research of the Windsor Beauties – portraits of ladies at the court of Charles II (1630–85) who were celebrated for their appearance and elegance. The film is set in the stately homes Kenwood House, Petworth House and Park and Hampton Court Palace.

Interweaving grand manifestos, intimate interviews and short fictional scenes, it explores why some forms of beauty are more acceptable and highly valued than others. Through new portraits of six Black Queer Britons it offers up an expanded depiction of British beauty for the 21st century.

The Virgin of Guadalupe painting at the beginning of this exhibition was one of the key inspirations for the project.

Curator Janice Li introduces the sculpture ‘(Almost) all of my dead mother’s beautiful things’ by the artist Narcissister

This four-part commission centres on the crushing weight of beauty ideals that are passed from one generation to another. An autobiographical work, it explores the complex – at times fraught – relationship with beauty passed from a mother to her African American/Sephardic Jewish daughter. It was created by an anonymous New York-based artist as her masked persona ‘Narcissister’. The artist’s initial refusal to conform fundamentally shaped the creation of Narcissister as a personification of defiance.

A three-metre-tall anthropomorphic sculpture consisting of her late mother’s belongings acts as the focal point of the commission. It crystalises the tension between the beauty her mother embodied and the artist’s deconstructing of it, the paradox of accepting it and the transcendence of redefining it.

Narcissister masks

Narcissister and Verna Doran (Plasti Personalities)
1960s–90s, United States
Courtesy of the artist

Narcissister is never seen in public without her signature masks. Modelled after 1950s department store mannequin heads, these masks come in five different skin colours and make-up styles and are the face of the artist’s persona.

(Almost) all of my dead mother’s beautiful things

2023, United States / United Kingdom
Multimedia sculpture
Courtesy of the artist

Narcissister Organ Player excerpt

2018, United States
Film, 9 mins 56 secs
Courtesy of the artist

This is an excerpt of the feature film, Narcissister Organ Player, a hybrid of performance, documentary and memoir. In it Narcissister draws on her family history and reflects on how her mother’s relationship with beauty, her illness and death have shaped the artist’s life and her practice.

A selection of personal care and beauty objects that belonged to Narcissister’s late mother, Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin

Salmon pink blazer with ‘Narcissister’ brooch

Unknown date, United States
Courtesy of the artist

Gold bracelet

Unknown maker
1950s, Morocco
Courtesy of the artist

Portrait of Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin

Studio de France Tangier
1958, Morocco
Paper and photographic print
Courtesy of the artist

Blue hairbrush

Unknown maker
Unknown date, unknown origin
Plastic, human hair
Courtesy of the artist

Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin’s braids

c. 1970–71, United States
Human hair, elastic band
Courtesy of the artist

Reading glasses

Unknown makers
c. 1990–2012, United States
Glass, plastic, metal
Courtesy of the artist

Stones with faces

Collection of Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin
1970s, United States
Flint, acrylic paint
Courtesy of the artist

Pearl necklace

Unknown maker
Unknown date, unknown location
Amethyst, rose quartz, jade, glass
Courtesy of the artist

Portrait of Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin in the bathtub

2006, United States
Photographic print
Courtesy of the artist

Please be advised the following room contains fast moving visual content on a multiscreen installation and video projection.

If you’d like to avoid this work, there is an alternative exit next to the sculpture by the far end of the curtain.

Curator Janice Li introduces the installation ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, Beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll’ by Xcessive Aesthetics

This experiential multimedia installation explores contemporary beauty culture, especially the impact of social media and new digital technologies on global trends. It was created by Xcessive Aesthetics, an international, interdisciplinary all-female architecture collective.

The room is designed to evoke the sensory experience of a nightclub bathroom, a semi-public space where complete strangers might feel safe to connect with each other through shared experiences and a mutual affinity for beauty.

While some of the videos on mirrored screens speak to the potentially harmful nature of beauty ideals in the virtual world, the installation also highlights the opportunities digital spaces offer as platforms for experimentation and community-building.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Beauty unravelled in the virtual scroll

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Multimedia projection, video on screens, acrylic mirrors, steel structure
Courtesy of the artists

Duality of beauty in the digital space

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Digital content, 6 mins
Courtesy of the artists

Digital modification, augmentation and representation

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Digital content, 6 mins
Courtesy of the artists

Beauty subcultures and community building

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Digital content, 6 mins
Courtesy of the artists

The mirror selfie phenomenon

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Digital video, 3 mins
Courtesy of the artists

Fake deep

Divya Patel
2020, United Kingdom
Digital video, 4 mins 14 secs
Courtesy of the artist

Nightclub bathroom culture

Xcessive Aesthetics
2023, United Kingdom
Digital video, 3 mins
Courtesy of the artists

Let’s do a makeover

Marie Kolářová
2022, The Netherlands
Digital video, 3 mins 44 secs
Courtesy of the artist



Janice Li

Curatorial team

Adam Rose

Sophie Schneider

Exhibition Project Managers

Bryony Harris

Nelly Ekström

Matt Nightingale

Emma Smith


David Chan

Lisa Evans

Production Manager

Chris Kingham

Audio Visual

Ollie Isaac

Jeremy Bryans

Ricardo Barbosa

Joshua McCrow


Kath Knowles

Robert Spicer

Sarah Bird

Digital Guide production

Wellcome Collection Digital Engagement

Wellcome Multimedia & Audiovisual Team

Exhibition design

Pup Architects

Graphic design

Wolfe Hall


Seb McLauchlan

Lighting design

Satu Streatfield

Exhibition Technicians

Lawrence Corby

Lucy Woodhouse

Joseph Richards

Keith Martin

Alex Drew

Interpretation Advisor

Minnie Scott

Audio guide


Justin Margovan

Lewis Sellars

Antonina Stulova

BSL guide

Samuel Dore

Ahmed Mudawi

Alexandra Shaw

Louis Neethling

Ricardo Barbosa

Exhibition build

Sam Forster Associates

Graphic Production

Omni Colour

We would like to thank all of the artists, lenders, contributors, researchers and colleagues who have generously lent their works, expertise and ideas, and have contributed to the planning and the delivery of the exhibition.

Special thanks to exhibition consultants Emma Dabiri, Jill Burke, Caroline Vout, E-J Scott.

Our gratitude also goes to the following individuals whose contributions have been integral to the research, development and realisation of the exhibition.

Marcella Lagalante, Lydia Caston, Ruth Hibbard, Jennifer Rampling, William Schupbach, Ross MacFarlane, Adrian Plau, Gabriela Daniels, Kimberley Burrows, Natasha McEnroe, Julia Nurse, Angela Saward, Susan North, Elma Brenner, Geneviève Dumas, Edwina Ehrman, Zorian Clayton, Oriole Cullen, Daniel Glaser, Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, Bindi Vora, Karla Sanchez, Stephanie Blythman, Carlie Pendleton, Navjot Mangat, Neha Vyas, Sam Batstone, Yoojin Choi

Where no credit line is shown on object labels, items have been purchased as material for the exhibition. We are committed to respecting copyright for works on display but if you have reason to believe any content infringes yours or someone else’s rights please contact a member of staff.

A programme of live events will accompany the exhibition. During Light’s Up opening times the gallery will have increased light levels. For Relaxed Openings the gallery will be quieter and have more even lighting.

Please check or ask a member of staff for more details.