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'Kewtie' Woman's Razor

Early woman's "Kewtie" brand razor purchased in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1940s.
(Museum object #1976.392.43)

While rapidly raising hemlines on women's skirts may be the more readily-recognized "shocking" change in American fashions after World War I, at about the same time a revolutionary new trend towards sheer - or even non-existent - sleeves began in earnest in the mid-1910s. This arm-exposing new fashion quickly ushered in an entirely new beauty ritual for women of the 1920s and 1930s - shaving the underarm region. Successful advertisements for razors like this "Kewtie" model, purchased in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pressured women into the new practice by claiming the beauty, or even health and hygiene, benefits of smooth underarms.

Although throughout history women the world over had been concerned with tending to the hair on their heads (and perhaps even going so far as to remove unwanted hair from their face), ladies' fashions in the United States had never before revealed hair under the arms or on the legs, leaving it of little or no concern. But in May 1915, the fashion magazine Harper's Bazar, which had been displaying the latest in new sheer or sleeveless gowns, first ran an ad which sported an image of a woman, sleeveless arms arced above her head, stating "Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair." Similar appeals in later issues of Harper's Bazar made claims like "The Woman of Fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face," providing further commercial pressure for women to participate in the new trend.

Because Harper's was an elite magazine appealing to the most fashionable women, it took a couple more years for similar advertisements to trickle down to more common publications. The previously taboo word "underarm" became a regular part of advertising. The increasing popularity of armpit shaving increased at the same rate as the acceptance of sleeveless garments. The "Woman's Décolleté Safety Razor" by Gillette made its first appearance in Sears and Roebuck Catalog in 1922. Not coincidentally, it was also the first year the catalog featured sheer-sleeved garments.

Pressure for women to shave became two-fold, as not only regular daytime fashions exposed whole arms, but bathing suits in the 1920s and 1930s began to show the entire shoulder region as well. As lounging at the beach became a regular pastime and swimming a suitable sport for women, the suntan became a status symbol for the fair-skinned as a mark of the woman of leisure. Women took to increasingly skimpier suits in order to attain the best tans.

While this razor dates to the early 1940s, it is representative of the earliest styles used by women. This razor was used by Mildred M. Brownlee of Milwaukee. She purchased the set from Boston Store, and its box still carries the label stating a cost of 50 cents. Its diminutive size, pastel color, and cutesy name might have been a direct appeal to women who may have been otherwise leery of what had recently been a man's-only grooming routine. The small size of this razor shows its intent for the underarm region rather than legs. Interestingly, even with raised hemlines and more revealing stockings and bathing suits, earnest pressure for women to shave their legs lagged further behind. The push for leg shaving disappeared during the 1930s when women's dresses once again lengthened to the ankle, and remained undercover until the World War II era led to the shortest skirts to date.

[Sources: Cecil Adams, "Who decided women should shave their legs and underarms?" in The Straight Dope, February 6, 1991. Available at: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_012.html ; Ruth G. Sikes, "This History of Suntanning: A Love/Hate Affair" in The Journal of Aesthetic Science, Vol. 1, No. 2, May, 1998. Available at http://www.skincarederm.com/history.htm]

ALH


Posted on June 07, 2007

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  • Clothing & Personal Items
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