Stuck with Your Own Face

Bee Wilson

  • Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry by Geoffrey Jones
    Oxford, 412 pp, £25.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 955649 6

My grandmother Elsie couldn’t bear to look at photographs of Princess Diana. A pretty face was spoiled, she felt, by the thick streak of kohl along the bottom of Diana’s eyes. Odder still, the kohl was sometimes blue. To Elsie, this was a form of self-mutilation: Diana might as well have taken crayons and scribbled all over herself. ‘Why must she do it?’ Elsie would ask, with genuine puzzlement. My grandmother was born in 1908, two years after Madeleine Carroll, the blonde star of The 39 Steps, whom she had known slightly before she was famous. Carroll – correctly in her view – only lined above her eyes. Right to the end (she died aged 94 in 2003), Elsie’s criterion for female beauty remained Margaret Lockwood, Hitchcock’s other early star (so good in The Lady Vanishes), whose top eyelids were sootily shadowed, mascara’d and lined, but whose lower lids remained untouched. Elsie’s eyeliner days were long behind her; her grooming consisted of Pond’s Cold Cream, a spritz of L’Air du Temps and a dab of Max Factor’s Truly Fair Crème Puff. Still, when judging others, she clung to the old rules: top lid, good; lower lid, bad.

Given how fierce and how conservative our ideas about looks and personal hygiene tend to be, the growth of the global beauty industry over the span of my grandmother’s life is fairly remarkable. In 1916, according to Geoffrey Jones, a business historian, only ‘one fifth of Americans may have used any toiletry or cosmetics.’ This would mean that four fifths of Americans used neither toothpaste nor shampoo, never mind moisturiser or deodorant, lipstick or hair gel. In 1914, the total value of the American beauty industry, ‘excluding toilet soap’, was $17 million ($378 million in today’s money, using the consumer price index). In 2008, Proctor & Gamble alone, the largest player in America and by extension the world, generated $26 billion; the second biggest player, L’Oréal, made more than $24 billion. Consumers around the world spend ‘$330 billion a year on fragrances, cosmetics and toiletries’. The beauty industry has managed to persuade the vast majority of women in the Western world – and a few million men – that it is necessary to anoint themselves daily with creams and potions; to remove hair from some parts of the body and to enhance it in others; to suppress sweat; to colour lips and soften hands.

It isn’t that no one used tricks to enhance their appearance before the 20th century. Everyone knows that Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey. Ancient Roman matrons smothered themselves in poisonous powders of white lead. Victorians made hand cream from lard mixed with ground almonds. Jones quotes an 1851 article from the Scientific American entitled ‘Facts for the Curious – Female Beauty’: ‘The ladies of Arabia stain their fingers and toes red, their eyebrows black and their lips blue … The Japanese women gild their teeth, and those of the Indies paint them red … Hindoo females, when they wish to appear particularly lovely, smear themselves with a mixture of saffron, turmeric and grease.’

There is a vast difference, however, between smearing yourself with some nice-smelling grease of your own making and going to a beauty counter to buy a heavily marketed, ridiculously expensive tub of fragrant grease. Hope in a Jar is a moisturiser sold by the Arizona-based firm Philosophy, in a typical piece of commercial chutzpah: the name seems to be exposing the deceptions of the pharmacy, while actually plastering fresher and more outrageous deceptions over the old. ‘Where there is hope there can be faith. Where there is faith miracles can occur,’ the label says. You might indeed hope for a miracle, at that price. It costs £33.50 for 56.7 grams from John Lewis, which works out at £591 per kilo; at the time of writing, the price of silver is around £420. But you can’t rub solid silver into your wrinkles: even in the form of a necklace, it can only adorn; it cannot transform.

Jones asks:

What are consumers really buying when they buy a perfume, or face cream, or lipstick? Scents which last a few hours or face creams that can’t be seen once applied are neither straightforwardly utilitarian products, like food or computers, nor status-symbol luxuries, like expensive watches or designer jeans. Why do consumers pay so much for products whose ingredients are well known to represent only a small proportion of the retail price?

Scent was the first sector of the ‘beauty’ market to become a global industry. An association between glove-makers and perfume-makers was established in France in the Middle Ages because ‘the toxic and putrid substances needed to tan hides meant that leather gloves had to be scented before they were worn.’ Perfumes were made by members of the guild of ‘gantiers-parfumeurs’, many of them centred on the town of Grasse behind Cannes, initially because there was a thriving leather industry there, and later (from the 17th century) because it was high up and sunny – which made it the perfect place for growing the wide range of plants and flowers needed for scent-making. It was said that at Louis XV’s ‘perfumed court’ a different scent was required for every day of the week.

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