As an epigraph to this social history of feminine beauty, "You've come a long way, baby--sort of" might do. The fashion-plate sylph of "Godey's Lady's Book" in the 1830s (demure, wasp-waist, rosebud mouth, wispy fingers, tiny feet) and the muscular Amazon in a leotard illustrating the latest look on a Time cover last August are more than a century apart but sisters under the skin. Dieting, physical fitness and exercise have replaced whalebones and tight-lacing for the achievement of the ideal figure, but the pursuit of beauty remains engrossing to feminists and fashionables alike. Beauty culture, Lois Banner writes, is "a key element in women's separate experience of life"--separate, that is, from men's.

Despite her love of finery, the radical feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated and wore the bloomer costume introduced in 1850 by her colleague Amelia Bloomer. Consisting of harem pants under a tunic, it was designed to free women from the burdens of conventional dress. Thirty pounds or so of layered, padded petticoats and skirts that swept the ground made any movement, even walking, literally a drag. The hoots and howls provoked by their bloomer outfits made feminists decide to give them up as not being worth the attention diverted from more important issues.

Banner treats the bloomer episode as only one skirmish in an ongoing feminist battle for "free garb and . . . standards of beauty based on healthy bodies and useful lives." By the 1890s, with the help of a popular health movement that encouraged women to take up sports such as tennis and bicycling, dress reform had made substantial progress.

The conflict between feminists and the devotees of fashion is less a subject than a pervasive theme of this somewhat diffuse study, which includes a chapter titled "Men." Banner acknowledges in the introduction her debt to the ideas of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose biography she wrote in the course of working on this book. For evidence on what people saw and admired, she drew on a wide range of contemporary sources--from novels, art works, and diaries to fashion magazines, etiquette manuals, newspapers and general periodicals.

Though most of the book is devoted to the 19th century, Banner traces styles of beauty from 1800 to 1960, beginning with the frail, girlish "steel-engraving lady" of antebellum days. In the decades after the Civil War, this model was succeeded by the "voluptuous woman," epitomized by musical star Lillian Russell. The curvaceous buxom beauty was in turn superseded by the tall, sporty, aristocratic Gibson Girl of the 1890s. The gamin type, represented by Clara Bow and Mary Pickford, came to the fore in the 1910s; followed by the flappers of the 1920s; a return to a mature voluptuous style, as exemplified by Joan Crawford, in the 1930s; and another version of the wasp-waist ideal in the 1950s. In the 1960s, WASP beauty ceased to dominate and women of other ethnic backgrounds and races became models for emulation.

This charting of shifts in taste prefaces Banner's main concern--exploration of the social forces and cultural values these beauty ideals reflect. Although American dress fashion was dominated by France until fairly recently, the external appearance of Americans in the early 19th century already was a subject for comment. The dressiness everywhere, but especially in the working and middle classes, amazed foreign visitors. "How the ladies dress. What rainbow silks and satins! What flutterings of ribbons and silk tassels, and displays of cloaks with gaudy hoods and linings!" wrote Charles Dickens, as quoted by Banner.

Violating though it did the republican ideal of simplicity, fashionable display was in the American spirit of free enterprise and competition. Building on Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, Banner suggests that the wives of the empire builders in the Astor-Vanderbilt era competed among themselves in the social and domestic realms with the same energy and aggression that their husbands applied to business. For ambitious women who sought to get ahead without breaking the rules of propriety, the pursuit of fashion "had a powerful appeal. It provided intricate paths to influence and achievement."

The ultimate women's competition in this tradition is the beauty contest. Banner devotes an informative chapter to its history, from its start in May Day celebrations in colonial times to the founding of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1921. Ritualizing the notion that beauty culture was women's primary goal in life, it marked a defeat for feminism, as did the development of the cosmetic and hairdressing industries in that decade.

Banner takes a dim view of "entrepreneurs of fashion"--the 19th-century milliners, dressmakers, merchants, hairdressers and medicine men who laid the foundations for the large-scale industries of today. "Despite their protestations that their goal was to enhance women's self-esteem, they were intent on selling products for which the demand was largely artificial." This is a commonplace of anti-fashion criticism, but Banner's sketches of these forerunners of Bill Blass and Estee Lauder are full of fresh, colorful details, and her comments, for example on the palatial architecture of banks (for men) and of department stores (for women) as symbols of American commercialism and sexual roles, often are perceptive.

Of the artistic and literary influences touched on, Hogarth's line of beauty, Henry James's Daisy Miller, and Bouguereau's nudes are typical. A variety of social types cross the pages--working-class Bowery girls, middle-class matinee ladies, New York "elites" and Newport swells, the American chorus girl and the British Blondes (a song-and-dance troupe)--as well as fashion leaders, from the ballerina Fanny Elssler, the actress Lillie Langtry, and queen Alexandra of England to Nancy Reagan.

In the mass of picturesque detail, the line of argument and the narrative progression are sometimes hard to find. The reader is given the iceberg when all that is needed is the tip. Unevenness is to be expected in a work that goes from Plato to Marilyn Monroe, but there are an inexcusable number of slip-ups, especially for a scholarly study with footnotes, in literary and art allusions (Dante's Laura? George Du Maurier, a Pre-Raphaelite?). The writing is servicable but specked with jargon.

Despite its flaws, "American Beauty," with its many illustrations, is a reputable treatment of a fascinating subject.