3 Beauty Books You Need In Your Life, According To A Librarian

Brush up on troubled artists, the history of African-American hair, and finding your own eccentric glamour.
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Brush up on troubled artists, the history of African-American hair, and finding your own eccentric glamour.

I have a special passion for beauty books that really dive into the subject (sidebar: I'm a librarian). As much as I love photo-heavy coffee table books and how-to tomes like Kevyn Aucoin's Face Forward, sometimes I want to go deep and really think about beauty.

beauty history books

So here are three books that explore beauty from different angles--biography, history, and manifesto. Each one offers a take on the meaning of beauty: what it means in society, in history, and in our individual lives. And each one gave me a lot to think about long after I'd closed its cover.

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan

dare wright book

Dare Wright and her beloved camera.

This biography tells the story of Dare Wright, a beautiful, troubled artist.

Bleached-blonde and willowy, Wright worked as a model in the 1940s and 1950s. In the early 50s, she became a photographer, and eventually turned her photos into a series of children’s books. The books starred Wright’s alter-ego, a doll she’d made-over with her own signature look (picture a high ponytail, short bangs, and heavy makeup--like the very first Barbie).

While the “Lonely Doll” books were an undisputed commercial success, they are equally known for their dark undertones. Despite her success, talent and beauty, Wright was emotionally troubled (at least according to people who knew her). Wright’s mother, Edie, completely dominated her life. Mother and daughter spent all of their time together, signed letters “Dare-Edie,” and slept in the same bed. This damaging relationship lasted until Edie’s death, when Wright was 60.

Wright appeared to passively accept her role as the eternal child, but her photographs hint at a complicated inner life. She focused on her own body, taking staged self-portraits or using her dolly doppelganger as a stand-in. The book includes a lot of these photos.

Wright’s story is mysterious, tragic, and utterly compelling.

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps

hair story book

Read this book with a device in one hand so you can look up images of hairstyles.

This concise history of African-American hair is academic, but still very readable. If you liked the 2009 documentary Good Hair (the one with Chris Rock), you’ll like this book.

Hair Story is a cultural history of black hair in America. It starts in the 1600s and goes to about 2012, moving through hot combs, lye-based straighteners, Jheri curls, naturals, and more. It explains the trends, the business, and the complex politics of black hair. And it shows that in American history, hair texture was often just as important as skin color when it came to the distribution of power. This book also captures some of the debates about hair that have raged within the African American community.

There are two editions of Hair Story--make sure you grab the second edition from 2014 so you can enjoy two additional chapters that cover 2000-2013 and the re-emergence of natural styles.

Eccentric Glamour: Creating an Insanely More Fabulous You by Simon Doonan

eccentric glamour book

I just really love this book.

Eccentric Glamour is a gleeful, cackling rant about the boringness of conformist beauty ideals. Life is short, Doonan says. It’s time to accept “the utter pointlessness of ever being self-conscious, the utter pointlessness of restraint or ‘good taste,’ the utter pointlessness of not having fun with one’s personal style.”

This manifesto mixes Doonan’s theories about style with personal essays, warnings about ghosts, celebrity profiles, and memories from his long career in fashion. (You might remember him from the first season of America’s Next Top Model, where he famously told a contestant that she was dressed like a prostitute). In other words, the book goes all over the place. I loved it, and I’m happy to go wherever Doonan’s enthusiasm leads me.

If Eccentric Glamour works for you, it has the potential to change your life for the better. Doonan is very smart and funny, and his writing is always top-notch. He’s not afraid to offend, though. I guarantee that you won’t agree with everything he says. 

  • Do you have a favorite beauty book?
  • Have you ever read a beauty advice book that actually changed your life?