California Girls vs. the Venus de Medici: The Ideal Beauty: 1893

The silver statue for which Ada Rehan posed.

The silver statue for which Ada Rehan posed. From, which also has other images of the statue.

The suggestion made in the Argonaut that, as Miss Ada Rehan is to typify female beauty from the Montana standpoint, California ought to contribute to the fair a statue presenting the ideal beauty of this State, has led to discussion as to what is the ideal of feminine beauty in California. The standard of beauty is not immutable, like the standard of virtue. In some Oriental countries, obesity is the mark of loveliness; the fairest belle is she who tips the scale at the greatest number of pounds avoirdupois. In New York, at the present time, the prize of beauty is won by her whose slim, lithe figure most closely resembles a reed shaken by the wind. And as in Circassia, the maiden who is destined for a pasha’s harem is fed upon such viands as will fatten her, so the Paris modiste constructs for her New York customer a corset which shall, so far as possible, dissemble hips and bust, and distribute the concealed organs through the rest of the trunk. Thus the standard of beauty, like that of modesty, changes with meridians. It varies, also, with the ebb and flow of fashion. A few years ago, a belle was condemned if her shoulders were not sloping; then fashion required them to be square, like a man’s; and in both cases the milliner’s art was called into play to distort nature into the prescribed shape.

A sculptor’s ideal of beauty is evolved on mathematical principles. A perfect woman is seven, or seven and a half, or eight heads tall ; her shoulders are two heads wide; her legs are three and a half to three and three-quarter heads long ; her waist is three heads in circumference. But the size of heads varies in women who are equally perfect in shape; the head of the Venus of Medici is nearly one-eighth less in proportion than that of the Venus of Milo, or the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles, which was esteemed by the ancients the most perfect statue in existence. The Medici Venus is a slim, slender girl, whose proportions resemble the statues of Psyche. Living reproductions of her are more frequently seen in New York than here.

The Cnidus Venus (restored)

The Cnidus Venus (restored)

There fell into the Argonauts possession a list of measurements of the proportions of a young lady of San Francisco, who is looked upon as being beautiful and having a fine figure — in short, a typical Californian girl. With these we have compared a similar ground plan of a New York girl which we secured at the time Professor Sargent was collecting statistics concerning the young women in Eastern seminaries; likewise the measurements of Ballow’s well-known ideal beauty. They compare as follows:

Californian Girl     New York Girl      Ballow’s Ideal

Height 5 feet 6 12 inches  5 feet 5 1/2 inches  5 feet 6 inches


of head 8 ¾ inches              8 inches                   8 1/2 inches


of bust  35″                          30 1/2″                      32″


of hips.  35″                         30″                            32″


of waist   24″                        19 1/2″                      26″


of neck    12 1/2″                  12 1/2″                      13″

Width of

shoulders 17 1/2″                 15 1/2″                      16 1/2″

The weight of the first and the last are between 130 and 135 pounds, while the New York girl weighs about 126…

Referring to the above table, it will be observed that the waist of the New Yorker is much smaller than that of the other two. The fashion of small waists is the rage in the East, and the desired result is attained by tight lacing, which is carried to such an extent that the physiognomist is lost in amazement as to where the lady has bestowed her vital organs. No statue in existence exhibits such a disproportion between the waist and those portions of the trunk which lie above and below it. The compression of the girth is a mere fashionable fad which good taste must condemn. Our Californian girl wears a twenty-four-inch corset, which might easily be reduced to twenty-three inches if the wearer saw fit to sacrifice comfort to Eastern fashion. There are belles in New York who are not satisfied till they have squeezed themselves into a seventeen-inch corset. Such persons, it would seem, would have enjoyed the Scottish boot.

A copy of the Venus de Medici

A copy of the Venus de Medici

The bust and hips should, in a perfectly formed woman, be exactly the same in circumference. They are so in Ballow’s ideal, in the Venus of Milo, in the Cnidian Venus, and in the Californian girl. In the New Yorker, the circumference of the bust is half an inch greater than that of the hips, which is probably the work of art, not nature. The prevailing rage for svelte, lithe forms induces the Eastern belles to dissimulate their attractions.

Ballow does not give the dimensions of his ideal’s feet or hands. He merely says that they are “in proportion,” which is rather vague. The rule among sculptors is that the foot should measure one head, which is unsatisfactory, as some large women have small heads, and some small women large heads. The female foot is probably smaller in New York society than here, for the simple reason that it has less to carry. Shoemakers say here that they sell more four and four and a half shoes than any others, but many ladies in society buy three and a half, three, and even two and a half shoes. They — the Knights of St. Crispin — do not believe in the sculptors’ rule about feet; they say that small feet, like large wits, are a gift from heaven and may be found attached to persons of any dimensions. Everybody has observed that there is no necessary connection between the hands and the figure; that some slim girls have large hands, and some girls with opulent figures small dainty hands and fingers.


The Venus Kallipygos


Take all the measurements together, and the conclusion is forced that the Californian girl more closely resembles the Cnidian Venus than the Venus of Medici, and that the representative Californian statue should be cast after a study of that masterpiece as well as the Venus of Milo and the Venus Callipyge. It is probable that the exigencies of art would require liberties to be taken with the extremities. As a rule, the heads of our girls are too large in proportion to their bodies, and so are the hands and feet. Small, shapely hands and feet are rare in San Francisco, as the glovemakers and shoemakers can testify. Here and there, a beautiful foot or a taper hand may be seen; but the average foot was made for use, not ornament, and the hand which is clasped in the german very comfortably fills the masculine palm. This is not altogether a subject for lamentation. A woman who has a disproportionately small foot, like a man who has a small nose, is likely to be endowed with an intellect to match — it is odds that Sir John Suckling’s young lady, whose  “feet beneath her petticoat like little mice crept in and out,” did not know enough to repeat the multiplication table.

The Argonaut [San Francisco CA] 2 January 1893

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Miss Ada Rehan [1859-1916] was an American actress noted for her “perfect” figure. She posed as the model for a solid silver statue of Justice that was part of the state of Montana’s exhibition on mining at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.

A medal depicting the silver statue for which Ada Rehan posed.

A medal depicting the silver statue for which Ada Rehan posed.

How curious that the ideal female beauty is always nude and made of some hard substance such as silver or marble. It is always a matter of amusement to Mrs Daffodil to watch learned gentlemen run on about “ideal beauty.”  One of Mrs Daffodil’s loveliest mistresses had every physical perfection, yet she had no more conscience than a wax doll.  Beauty is as beauty does. One might wish to query the former Consuelo Vanderbilt on how much her ideal beauty contributed to a happy marriage to the Duke of Marlborough.


One thought on “California Girls vs. the Venus de Medici: The Ideal Beauty: 1893

  1. Pingback: A Mind Filled with Gloves, Silks, and Ribbons: 1710 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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