Girls, girls, girls

Beauty contests, once the epitome of glamour, have been driven out by feminism and the tabloids. But

Funny how, as the years drift by, things that might once have made me almost comically angry bring only a fond smile to my face. Last week, I walked around "Beauty Queens: smiles, swimsuits and sabotage", a small but perfectly formed exhibition at the Women's Library in east London, and as I gazed at the women, lined up like so many dolls in a toyshop window, all I could think was: how sweet. My hackles did not rise; my lip did not curl; I did not stomp or sigh. Finally, I reached the last glass box in the show. There, in pride of place, was the bathing costume worn by a certain Galen Loughran, who came second in the Miss Morecambe competition of 1969. The suit - white with gold buttons, in the style of a drum majorette - was stained with fake tan. At this point, the fond smile became an audible titter. Flour bombs or no flour bombs, some things just never change, girls.

The origins of the Miss Great Britain competition, which, in the fullness of time, went on to become the global phenomenon that is Miss World, lie in the seaside of the 1940s, specifically in Morecambe. The opening in 1933 of Oliver Hill's art deco Midland Grand Hotel and, in 1936, of the town's Super Swimming Stadium - home of the Aqua Lovelies - gave Morecambe a kind of brittle glamour. For a time, it was the place to take one's holiday (hard to believe this now when, disgracefully, the beautiful Midland lies empty and peeling). In 1945, the local council and the Sunday Dispatch launched an event to find the resort's Bathing Beauty Queen (first prize: seven guineas and a fruit basket), a competition that ran annually for several decades. "There would be a race to get my fake tan on," recalls Loughran. "I remember it: orange tan, cold floor, people helping each other."

This is where "Beauty Queens" begins, with local events. It moves on to the glory days of national and international competitions, when the jet-set judges included Alan Whicker and Sidney Sheldon and even, it was once bizarrely mooted, a Womble. Finally, it fixes its beady but mascaraed eye on the cheeringly scruffy feminist protests of the 1970s - a campaign that, eventually, led to the disappearance of Miss World from terrestrial television (though the event itself, I gather, still exists, out there in some weird parallel universe). And the surprise is how fascinating it all is, the peculiar ephemera that the exhibition's magpie curator, Alice Beard, has managed to amass. She has even found an old Miss World board game. In the abstract, beauty contests are bland: "I'd like to see the world and look after children." In the particular, they are oddly beguiling. Hard not to feel a certain nostalgia, even. So this is what we did before reality TV.

In the 1960s, the title Miss Great Britain was genuinely sought after. My feeling is that it was also, perversely, a kind of liberation for some women - a way of making their only assets and their skills (the application of lipstick, the ability to walk gracefully in high heels) work for them. The winner was not only courted and admired; she got to travel, albeit chaperoned, and to attend important civic events. It was a nice little earner, too. "Yes, I can open the Leigh Bowling Centre on 10th of January," writes Gillian Taylor, a petite blonde from Cheadle Hulme, who was, as her headed notepaper proudly proclaims, Miss Great Britain 1963. She was, however, less sure about a trip to the Continent. Also on display is a judge's card. A maximum of 20 points was available in each of four categories: daywear, swimwear, evening dress and, most importantly, the interview. In 1981, contestants were asked: "Science fiction, feature films and TV serials are giving an insight into the world of the future. How do you visualise the lifestyle of our descendants in the 21st century?" I wonder how Jordan would cope with that one.

But, by the mid-1970s, beauty contests had a whiff of seediness and desperation about them - a stench strong enough to penetrate through all that Elnett and Charlie. This was largely the result of a sudden pincer attack by disapproving outsiders. In the left corner was the Women's Liberation Movement, whose shouty protests reached a climax with the throwing of flour bombs at the 1970 Miss World contest, which was held at the Royal Albert Hall and hosted by Bob Hope. In the right corner, predictably, were the tabloids. In 1976, Don Short, show business editor of the Daily Mail, published a juicy little book called Miss World: the naked truth. This volume gave details of the winners who had "ended up in a mental hospital after contemplating suicide; caused a sensation at a Variety club by turning up in a skin-tight dress with no underwear; was seduced by a playboy who says: 'I cannot settle for second best'". Needless to say, the two sides could not understand one another at all. "Exactly who - and what - is Women's Lib?" boomed the Daily Sketch headline beside a picture of Bob Hope disguised as a bap.

"We were clear among ourselves that we weren't demonstrating against the women who were participating in the contest," says Sally Alexander, one of the protesters. "But we did feel very strongly that for women to be judged just by their physical appearance . . . did symbolise the way in which women were seen either as sex objects or as domestic drudges, and we wanted to widen horizons for women." Doggedly, they kept at it. "We are not beautiful, we are not ugly, we are angry," announced their posters. But this work took a while. It was not until 1988 that ITV stopped broadcasting Miss World; and the Miss She competition, launched in 1955 to promote the glossy magazine of the same name (this eventually mutated into Miss Ultra Glow and, finally, Miss Alberto Balsam), ran until 1989.

This seems incredible to me: that while I was at university, grumbling about Mrs T and trying hard to avoid paying the poll tax, there were women out there whose shampoo was their chief inspiration. Then again, I think I look on Alberto Balsam rather more kindly than I do on Botox, silicone and the facial trait that is widely known as trout pout. Have women come so far after all? What "Beauty Queens" does, cleverly, is to suggest that the answer to the question is almost certainly "no". Look carefully and, at the very end of the exhibition, just beside Galen Loughran's spoiled cossie, you will find a typed list of rules and regulations for the Miss Morecambe competition. "No artificial aids, padding or attachments are permitted," says the notice. "All costumes are subject to examination." Oh, if you ask me, it was a more innocent age and, at least at the level of the body, a far kinder one.

"Beauty Queens: smiles, swimsuits and sabotage" is at the Women's Library, Old Castle Street, London E1 (020 7320 2222) until 28 August