On this day in 1888, the world’s first modern beauty contest is thought to have taken place in the small Belgian municipality of Spa. It’s impossible to tell exactly when beauty pageants began, but they certainly existed in some form or other in the classical world: they were, for instance, a type of entertainment in ancient Troy, where they were judged by an illustrious jury of artists, philosophers, poets and even warriors. In the Ottoman Empire, rulers also entertained themselves with competitions to choose the most gorgeous wife in their harem. And across Europe the traditional pagan May Day festivities usually included the selection of a symbolic king and queen, with a young woman chosen as a fertility symbol because of her beauty.
During the summer of 1888, local newspaper advertisements in Belgium Spa announced that “the most beautiful girl on the planet” was to be selected that autumn in a Concours de Beauté, and girls were encouraged to submit some photographs (still a relatively new technology) of themselves alongside a short written description. It was a popular concept, and there were over 350 applications. The (mostly male) jury selected a shortlist of 21 to appear in the actual pageant, which was a modest affair by today’s standards: men wore tuxedos, women wore long dresses, and the contestants were hidden from the wider public in a secluded wing of a private house and closed carriages that took them to and from the main hall.
On this September day “the most beautiful girl on the planet” was judged an eighteen-year-old Creole girl from Guadeloupe: Marthe Soucaret. She was rewarded with an impressive prize fund of 5,000 francs, as well as the honour of appearing on the cover of French magazine L’Illustration. Sadly, almost nothing is known about what became of Soucaret, and how she lived her life. However, the idea of the beauty queen (as well as the glamorous magazine cover girl) itself certainly became a huge success. The Belgian initiative was taken up by other countries. International beauty pageants gained in popularity, most notably the big four: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth.