When you think modern beauty pageants, your first thought may go to Miss Congeniality or Miss America. Regardless of which springs first into your mind, you may not realize how far back this tradition of celebrating women goes. Beauty and strength are universally celebrated in our society. Only when you experience them truly do you stop and gladly allow your breath to be taken away. You cannot help but stare at this rarity. Creators from past and present recognize this, which is why teen beauty pageants exist. They know beauty must be admired and strong, intelligent minds celebrated.
Where did pageants start?
Our journey begins in the medieval era. Though there had been other celebrations of beauty prior to this era, the most direct link between modern beauty pageants and beauty pageants of old are European festivals from the medieval era, particularly the English May Day celebration during which a queen was selected. This contestant was chosen to represent the return of spring and summer. Clothed in a white gown and crowned with a tiara, she was responsible for beginning the May Day celebrations. Typically her role culminated in one glorious moment of being crowned by a wreathe of flowers and giving her speech. Following this, particular age groups will begin dancing around a Maypole to celebrate youth and spring. Many areas throughout Europe maintain this tradition today with some variance. Hayfield, Derbyshire leads the group in oldest unbroken May Day tradition.
Welcome to New York!
As we continue with May Day celebrations and how they helped forge the path toward modern day teen beauty pageants and beauty pageants in general, we see how they progress throughout the years, particularly in America. In walks Phineas T. Barnum (famously known by P.T. Barnum), co-founder of the widely known Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey traveling circus. You may be wondering how this famous showman plays into beauty pageants. Well, interestingly enough, Barnum originally owned a “dime museum” that catered toward a society becoming more enamored with commercial entertainment. Contests were some of his most popular attractions. These contestants included everything from animals to children and flowers. Given the rampant, misleading conservatism of the time, his competition to find “the handsomest ladies” failed miserably. Prizes for winners included a diamond tiara if the winner was married or a dowry if the winner was single. Oddly enough, his 1885 baby show drew huge crowds, reaching upwards of 61,000. This displayed the unfortunate societal stigma surrounding female empowerment of the time. Through a part of our history as women and the history of pageants, we can also see how this dark spot could have kept women of all ages from becoming what they should be: admired and celebrated for their beauty, intelligence and strength in society. Fortunately, we have progressed over the years and modern beauty for teens and women have become sources of pride and empowerment, combining respect of mind, beauty and talent. One perfect example of how broad reaching the effects of these can be is the scholarship pageant. Creating a future for girls is one of the driving forces behind Miss Teen Competitions.
We’re headed back to Europe, ladies!
Spa, Belgium, 1888 set the stage for the first woman to win the title of “beauty queen.” In order to qualify, contestants had to submit pictures of themselves along with a short description. The competition capped at 21 and possessed a level of glamour not formally associated with these competitions. Women and men donning their best, the crowd was a sea of tuxedos and formal gowns. Once selected these women had no interaction with the general public. Closed carriages and separate living quarters kept these gems in a treasure box of sorts until they were revealed to the public. The winner of the first “beauty queen” title was an 18-year-old Creole girl named Marthe Soucaret. Prizes for her included not only an astounding fund of 5,000 francs, but the envied opportunity of being a cover girl for L’Illustration, a popular French newspaper published in Paris from 1843-1944. Sadly, there aren’t any records beyond this of what happened to Soucaret. However, our heart will forever be inspired by this trailblazing woman who claimed the first title. From here the world took notice, and Belgium’s contest initiated the creation of international beauty pageants, particularly in Germany and the United States.
The US finally took note of how valuable these competitions were and crowned their own first “Miss America” in 1921. Margaret Gorman at just 16 years old claimed this title as her own. Interestingly enough this was result of a East Coast newspapers looking for ways to gain popularity and circulation. Their idea was sponsoring a photographic competition and award the selected winners with a trip to the Second Annual Fall Frolic. These lucky girls were then signed up for an “Inter-City-Beauty” contest which scored them based on three main factors: general appearance, personality and how they interacted with the judges and crowds. As part of their ongoing efforts to increase circulation of their paper, the women were included in the running for the Golden Mermaid trophy. This trophy was awarded to “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.” Our leading lady of the time easily won both events. These eventually led her to the path of being known as “Miss America.” Expected to defend her given title by returning to compete against Mary Katherine Campbell (“Miss Columbus”), Gorman was succeeded by Campbell as the reigning “Miss America.” Campbell’s second consecutive win brought up the question of whether or not a contestant should be able to win more than once. The rule was established that they should not. Other rules were established over the years regarding requirements, notably that a woman could not be married.
Carry the torch!
The path was becoming established from the state to universe. Statewide beauty pageants were a jumping off point for great opportunities, including Miss America, Miss Universe and several others. Our beloved Miss America will walk side-by-side with her sisters from around the world in the Miss Universe competition, which has been part of society since 1952.
From being shunned for participation to respected on stage, beauty pageants have evolved greatly over the years, and with them, our society as a whole. Girls and women and now encouraged to be great and be rewarded for their unstoppable passion for life and all forms of beauty. From teen beauty pageants to adult pageants for women of all types, we are sisters, daughters, mothers and most of all, strong and empowered women leading our society into even greater realms of appreciation for our talents and contribution to the world. Soldier, ladies, and remember how beautiful you truly are inside and out!