Indian women in saris. Black women with Afros. Iranian women in hijabs.
We make lots of assumptions about other people's cultures, particularly when it comes to clothing and beauty. And on the surface, the "100 Years of Beauty" video series might appear to double down on these simplistic assumptions. (Check them out here.)
But the videos, which have been going viral one by one since Cut Video started producing them in November, slyly demonstrate just how distinct and rooted in history those beauty trends are. Working with experts and delving into some of the brightest as well as darkest moments in history, the videos showcase the complicated reasons we wear what we wear — and, perhaps, why other women wear what they do.
Learning about other women miles away: The "100 Years" videos are wordless time-lapses that showcase one look from each decade, starting with 1910 through today. The first episode focused on the United States and showed a white brunette woman wearing the styles — from hair to makeup to headgear — we typically picture: a sassy bob in the 1920s, big hair in the 1980s, grunge makeup in the 1990s.
The reaction was so positive that the creators at Cut Video, part of an Internet marketing agency, decided to take on other cultures, ethnicities and countries, to track their beauty changes. But even just the second video proved what a challenge that can be.
"I think the toughest one we researched and made was [with model] Marshay, the '100 Years of Beauty: America Episode 2,'" Cut Video's Michael Gaston told Mic. Showing black style in America through the years, Gaston said, meant considering how society's white-influenced standards of beauty function for women of color. "Every choice we made was pregnant with uncertainty," said Gaston.
Tackling tough moments in history: Understanding those nuances means consulting with experts and real women from each culture they spotlight — something that's evident in the behind-the-scenes "Research Behind the Looks" videos that Cut Video started making to accompany each "100 Years" video.
"We consult with different guest experts and historians for each culture," Gaston said, with lead researcher Christopher Chan heading up on each project. Chan is a visual anthropologist pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, and is the only academic on Cut's team. Between Chan and the experts, each video requires a deep dive into history books and consulting with real women to get the looks — and their meanings — right.
All that effort, Gaston said, is working toward the biggest and toughest goal: authenticity.
"How can we be certain our work will be true to the experience of the people who identify with these cultures? How do we negotiate the complications and horrors in their histories in a way that is honest but still accessible?" said Gaston.
That means acknowledging poverty, imprisonment and repression, all of which impacts cultural standards of beauty. Take Iran, said Gaston: "Reza Shah bans the hijab in the 1930s, and suddenly women start wearing hats to meet the requirements of the law while trying to be true to their religious beliefs."
The same government influence can be seen in Russia, as the videos highlight, or in Germany. The team is currently at work on a German video, Gaston said, and is grappling with how best to showcase the Nazi era in an accurate, sensitive way, asking, "How do we acknowledge something like Nazi Germany without being reductive?"
At the end of the day, that means talking to as many people as possible and staying close to historical influences. Limiting the videos to one look per decade is inherently limiting, Gaston said. "We know that every video can only reflect ten looks plucked out of one hundred years."
The aim is to be as inclusive and honest as possible, all while giving viewers a taste of a culture they may think they're familiar with, but may be overlooking in some details. It also is a reminder that our beauty standards, as strong as they seem in the moment, are temporary. Trends are fleeting with changing governments, social climate, even real climate. That doesn't mean they're not important. It does mean they're ever-changing and adapted by the women they affect.
Watch the first video: