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The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection : Review

January 10, 2024

The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection – Review. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, this beholder wanted a beautiful show that most could agree on would light a damp December day. Just a couple of exhibits to lift the spirits, and please dissect their perceived attractiveness if you must. Long story short – I was disappointed, but belatedly realised that the Wellcome Collection is probably angled more as an introductory learning experience than a balm for the soul.


It started well enough with the reconstructed bust of Nefertiti, and a lovely Black Madonna. But from there on a sinking feeling, and rapid search for the exit. It’s a valiant effort, but to me it all feels tired, dated, over-earnest and already done. Even the title was used already from a major show at the V&A – “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900” – in 2011. The content covers hermaphroditism, transsexuality, skin colour, ageism, misogyny, sizeism, the role of magazines and media, and unrealistic body expectations spearheaded by Barbie. Oh, and body modifications in the forms of corsets, wigs, and false beards. 


To me it wasn’t a fresh discussion. However, perhaps these points need making and making again until we are rather tired of it all. Because if we are fed up of it that means it has entered the national consciousness enough that we agree wholeheartedly and don’t need telling again.

The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection – Review

Humanæ. Work in progress, 2023, Angélica Dass. Gallery Photo: Benjamin Gilbert. © Angélica Dass.

Humanæ. Work in progress, 2023, Angélica Dass. Gallery Photo: Benjamin Gilbert. © Angélica Dass.

It is easy to find humour or revulsion at previous generations’ beauty practices. And as the Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection exhibition points out, our own routines, or the more extreme practices of an Instagram minority, and going to look just as strange some years hence. Actually, they do now – the concept of filler and plastic surgery is quite bizarre to most. An apt example was the case full of a range of electrically charged beauty masks and photos of people using them. They go from about the 1930s onwards, and include the most recent, up-to-date LED masks. But these look odd now, never mind in the past or future – masks look odd. They probably work. But the adverts showing beautiful people relaxing on their phones with blank faced visages glowing red round the edges is uncanny.

What is the True Price of Beauty?

The flip side of beauty is always complicated. There is sadness and despair at its lack, or passing. Misogyny and ageism is at the core of the way that humour is derived from people’s – particularly older women’s – attempts to stay young and beautiful. At the same time, of course, the beauty industry is worth billions of pounds to the economy, so it’s really in society’s interests to keep people trying and failing constantly to live up to an impossible standard.


Of course, vanity applies to all genders and ages, and has done throughout time. A short black and white film plays about men having false beards made for them. In a cabinet nearby sits a range of corsets, with the reminder that men wore them too. In fact, this section of Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection contains something new to me that tickled me – a little “beauty kit”. I’m not even sure it is real, as there was something a bit arch about it. But it contained exactly the things people use today – a pair of false eyebrows, breast pads much like a bra, cheek plumpers (you wear them in your mouth and presumably don’t talk) and stick on beauty patches, amongst unidentified trifles. It was made in the UK at some point between 1880-1930.

The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection – Review

For me an interesting addition would have been the discussion of beauty vs cruelty. In one room, tallow was one of the ingredients used in a reconstructed beauty recipe. Tallow is made from cow fat. There have always been tales of people who preyed on children, or young women. In the 16th century, there was a Hungarian countess who supposedly bathed in female virgin’s blood as a youth and beauty treatment. And there was that man more recently who used the plasma of his teenage child to rejuvenate himself.


Perhaps the latter was consensual, (although how consensual can it be when your dad has a bee in his bonnet about getting your blood? You’d probably say yes whether you liked it or not). But what is not consensual is the testing on animals of cosmetic products. This practice was mostly overturned in the UK, who sensibly decided that ingredients they were using had already been tested in the past, no need to do it all again.

How Beautiful Exactly is Snail Slime?

However, some of the brands then went on to sell in China, and China has mandatory animal testing. So if a company sells their cosmetics in both the UK and China, it will have been tested on animals. It is completely unnecessary and quite horrific. And that’s before you consider the animal-derived ingredients in cosmetic products. They are not just confined to medieval recipes. Snail mucin – snail slime – is very popular at the moment. And you know they didn’t just wait until the snail went out for a walk to get it. Collagen supplements are meant to boost the consumer’s own collagen by eating a cow’s. Even pearl powder, which is added to creams to create a glow or even eaten, is, of course, made from an unpleasant process which results in the death of many molluscs. 

Interesting Discussions

Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome collection is an exhibition which it would be great to take your teenage child to. I think it would spark some interesting discussions. As well as contemporary artworks, there are artefacts from the collection indispersed. The permanent collections upstairs are also free, and provide an interesting addition.

The Cult of Beauty is at the Wellcome collection until 28th April 2024. Entry is free.