Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry 
by Geoffrey Jones.
Oxford, 412 pp., £25, February 2010, 978 0 19 955649 6
Show More
Show More

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.

It isn’t hard to see the appeal of perfume, especially in smellier times. You would need a lot of essential oils in your nostrils to smother the stink of body odour, sewage and animal waste on an 18th-century street. Perfumes – which were sprinkled on food, or drunk, or applied to clothing and linen more often than to skin – were thought to keep the plague away. When an Italian in Germany, Johann Maria Farina, launched what was probably the first global scent in 1709 – that still lovely mixture of citrus, bergamot and lavender known as Eau de Cologne – it was not designed to make its users (of either sex) feel beautiful. Rather, it lent an illusion of health and cleanliness to those who had neither. Eau de Cologne was marketed as a panacea for everything from stomachaches to nausea and worms. Soldiers used it for washing, to avoid splashing their faces with dirty water.

Something different was going on when Eugène Rimmel opened his first perfume shop in Bond Street in 1834, the House of Rimmel. The Rimmel brand, advertised by Kate Moss, is now one of the cheapest in Britain, and therefore the preferred brand of teenagers (colours include Stare at Me, Pink Gossip and Tell No One). When I was about 16, I had many futile conversations with friends about whether it should be pronounced ‘Rimmel’, as in ‘Himmel’, or, more pretentiously, ‘Rim-elle’, as in ‘Michelle’. We usually agreed it should be a Germanic Rimmel, partly because the cheap dark burgundy packaging didn’t seem to deserve a Frenchified accent. Eugène Rimmel’s original brand, however, was both very French and self-consciously upmarket. Rimmel, before anyone, understood how to sell beauty to the world. First, he saw how important packaging was. He was prepared to pay handsomely to have his perfume labels designed by the French lithographer Jules Chéret. (Perfumes are still sold as much by font as by smell, from the romantic swirl of Miss Dior to the lower-case breeziness of Clinique’s happy or the chic capitals of Chanel.) Second, he was one of the first in the business to publish mail-order catalogues, and to put advertisements in theatre programmes (Avon ladies and giant billboards would later perform the same functions). Third, he sold an idea of beauty as something emanating from the city. London and Paris, he announced, were the ‘headquarters of perfumery’. Rimmel’s labels displayed a Paris address in much bigger letters than his real London one. For most of the 20th century, if you wanted to sell beauty products, they had to have some association with either Paris or New York. Even successful Japanese labels such as Shiseido and Shu Uemura had to act French. Another smart move on Rimmel’s part was to obtain warrants for his products from ten European royal families. His was the scent of royalty. His packages were blessed with the aura of celebrity, in much the same way as Glow by J.Lo, a dull floral perfume, sold $1.7 million worth of bottles in 2003 off the back (and the famous backside) of Jennifer Lopez.

But Rimmel also had at least one good product. He sold the usual pomades and lotions (Rimmel’s Portugal Hygienic Lotion for the Hair etc), and his signature creation was a nasty-sounding ‘toilet vinegar’, but he also managed to produce the ‘first factory-made, non-toxic mascara’, an achievement not to be sniffed at. Pale women everywhere should thank him – and I do – for giving us the chance to look as if we have any lashes at all. Rimmel’s invention was so popular that rimmel is still the word for ‘mascara’ in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Before the 20th century, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the wider use of make-up was the fact that it was liable to poison the women who used it. From Roman times onwards, there were periodic scandals when women were disfigured by often lead-based face powders. It was only in 1866 that Henry Tetlow of Philadelphia discovered that zinc oxide made a non-toxic face powder and only in 1873 that the first lead-free make-up for stage actors was created, by the German opera singer and chemist Ludwig Leichner. In 1911, Grumme, a Swedish soap company, launched a new rouge with the tagline ‘does not, as is customary, destroy the skin’. There’s something refreshingly unambitious about this: make your cheeks blush without getting pockmarks.

An entire range of non-toxic greasepaint became available in 1908, when Max Faktorowicz, the son of a Polish rabbi, opened a store in the theatrical district of Los Angeles, using the name given him when he arrived at Ellis Island, Max Factor. It was he who first used the word ‘make-up’ for cosmetics sold to the public. Max Factor’s other great innovation was a foundation which could, at least from a distance, be mistaken for real skin. ‘In 1914, just as the first feature films were being made in Hollywood, Max Factor perfected the first make-up specifically created for motion picture use – thinner greasepaint in cream form, packaged in a jar and created in 12 precisely graduated shades. Unlike theatrical make-up, it did not crack or cake.’ Now there was a good chance that beauty products would not make you look like a clown or give you heavy metal poisoning.

Even so, at the start of the First World War, the market for ‘commercial colour cosmetics’ (i.e. make-up) remained ‘small compared to that for skin creams’ – in large part because ‘face paint’ was associated with ‘prostitutes or, at best, actresses’. Yet by the time the Second World War began, the use of strongly coloured lipstick had lost its class connotations and become ‘near universal’ in both Britain and America. At her coronation in 1953, the queen wore a deep scarlet lipstick, without anyone, so far as I am aware, supposing that she was less than virtuous (there was of course no kohl under her eyes). The legitimising of lipstick over just a few decades must have brought about one of the biggest changes to the appearance of the Western female body in history.

Jones has various theories as to how ‘colour cosmetics’ became normal and accepted. Electric light meant that people could see one another – and themselves in the mirror – more clearly. Modern advertising – on the radio as well as in magazines and on billboards – meant that far more people knew these things actually existed. This should not be underestimated. I vividly remember my happiness, when, as a spotty 13-year-old, I saw an advertisement for something called ‘concealer’. Concealment was exactly what I sought. All day at school, I was in a state of ecstasy, knowing that at last the wretched spots would be ‘concealed’, painted out of existence. The beige stick of Clearasil I bought on my way home didn’t quite give me the smooth, blank face I had hoped for. The colour was satisfying – you could pencil out the red blighters one by one – but it didn’t solve their three-dimensional aspect: the pimples, now beige, still stubbornly stuck out. I had imagined something more transformative, like an eraser, which could rub the spots away. Still, it was a liberating feeling as every morning I ‘concealed’ my face, hiding what I most hated from the world; until, that is, a girl asked me why I always wore such strange orange make-up – was it because of my spots?

I was embarrassed, but not so embarrassed that I stopped using the concealer. This was 1987, one of those annoying eras of ‘fresh-faced beauty’ (think Robin Wright in The Princess Bride: long blonde hair, perfect skin). Spots were not allowed. Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986) wore encouragingly thick make-up, and looked miserable, which gave me hope, but no matter how much I squinted I couldn’t see any spots on her. All the faces I aspired to were uniform, smooth.

It’s hard to be sure, but it was presumably Hollywood that made ‘colour cosmetics’ normal. Make-up itself had originally been designed for thespian use. Max Factor’s Los Angeles store gave the public access for the first time to all the tricks in an actor’s sponge bag. The eyebrow pencils and nail polishes, and many of the colouring devices, now came in swizzy little packages: the first twist-up lipstick appeared in 1921; the first cake mascara (Maybelline) in 1917. Stars were required by their studios to appear in ads for make-up but really the entire film industry was one giant advert. An hour or two in the company of those beautiful giant faces on screen would be enough to persuade an entire audience that make-up was not the preserve of prostitutes but of goddesses. You turn back to your own face in the mirror, and want to start again: Clara Bow’s mouth, Mary Pickford’s eyes. The impact of television must have been still greater: now these lovely spotless faces were at home with you, not just out in the exotic space of the cinema. By the early 1960s, Jones writes, ‘an estimated 86 per cent of American girls aged 14 to 17 already used lipstick, 36 per cent used mascara, and 28 per cent used face powder.’

Jones does not give the equivalent figures for Europe and Japan, but indicates that they were much lower. If American womanhood, as he suggests, embraced a bright mask of make-up, the French and the Japanese aspired to a natural ‘radiance’ underneath the mask, where what mattered was face cream. By the end of the 1970s, the American face cream market was worth $525 million, whereas the Japanese market, with a population half the size, was $1.3 billion. Jones writes that Japan was ‘to become, and remain, the world’s second largest beauty market’.

Skincare, as beloved of the Japanese and Europeans, is in its way an even more puzzling sales proposition than make-up. In the 19th century, there were essentially only two classes of skin cream: ‘“milks”, or emulsions intended to freshen and clean the face, made by crushing the seeds of plants, such as roses, and mixing with water; and “cold creams” made from mixing fats and water, and used to smooth skin’. How do you get from that to a world of infinitely gradated moisturisers and repair creams and capsules and oils, in which no one simply has ‘skin’ any more, because we must be slotted into one of several categories, such as ‘combination’ (a euphemism for ‘greasy’) or ‘sensitive’ (a euphemism for ‘blotchy’) or ‘mature’ (a euphemism for ‘old’)? How, more fundamentally, do you persuade women to part with so much money for something so ephemeral? You can spend $500 on a pot of Clé de Peau Beauté, one of the world’s most expensive creams, but once it has sunk in, you are still stuck with your own skin.

The profit margins on what is really nothing but nice-smelling oil and water are huge. Consumers don’t appear to want their beauty products to be too cheap or too accessible. Sales of Chanel No. 5 plummeted when it became available in drugstores in America; it regained its ascendancy only by returning to the more exclusive setting of the department store. Similarly, when L’Oréal entered the Chinese market in 1997, primarily as a provider of skincare, it was careful to position itself as ‘a prestige brand sold in department stores’ and to inflate its prices. China became the most expensive place in the world to buy L’Oréal moisturisers. ‘Because you’re worth it,’ as the slogan says.

The law rarely intervenes. Elizabeth Arden was forced to change the name of her Orange Skin Food to Orange Skin Cream, since it was not technically a food; and Helene Curtis’s wrinkle-removing cream ‘was seized by regulators on the grounds that the company was making false claims for its efficacy’. In general, however, the skincare industry could not exist without its bogus claims. Unlike make-up, which seldom pretends to be scientific, skincare is forever parading in the robes of chemistry or medicine. Is part of the reason the French spend so much on face creams that they are mostly sold through pharmacies? The Clinique brand, launched in 1968 by Estée Lauder ‘as an allergy-tested, fragrance-free line of cosmetics’, is ‘sold by sales consultants wearing white lab coats’. The latest ‘highly technical products’ – anti-ageing creams and so on – are even known as ‘cosmeceuticals’.

Jones, who is content to take many of the industry’s pronouncements at face value, claims that the growth of ‘cosmeceuticals’ in recent years ‘reflected consumer desires for effectiveness rather than hyperbole’. If only effectiveness was a real possibility. It is more likely that consumers wanted their hyperbole in a new form, or that companies had spotted that it was time to change their schtick. Consider Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, and much given to attacking the beauty industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Roddick visited Tahiti and other far-off places and discovered to her amazement ‘that there were women all over the world caring for their bodies perfectly well without ever buying a single cosmetic’. Her response was not to persuade Western women to stop buying cosmetics, but rather to switch to buying her cosmetics. ‘By 1984,’ Jones writes, ‘the year before it went public, The Body Shop had a turnover of almost $7 million with 45 outlets in Britain and 83 abroad.’ In 2006, The Body Shop sold out to L’Oréal, but Roddick was confident that this wouldn’t ‘compromise the ethics’ of the company – which might make you wonder what kind of ethics it had had all along. To Jones, however, always prepared to see the industry in the best light, the fact that green cosmetics had become mainstream was a sign that ‘the broad search for meaningful things was evident.’

Much of Jones’s text is devoted to the ‘issue of legitimacy’. The industry, he suggests, ‘assumed a paradoxical position as both enslaving and modernising for women’. He considers in a cursory way the various critiques of the beauty industry by feminists (‘educated young women’ proud to display ‘hairy legs and armpits’), and concludes that they got it wrong. ‘Chanel No. 19, launched in 1970, was positioned as appealing to assertive and independent women in control of their own lives.’ Charges of racism, too, are brushed off. He concedes that the soap advertisements of Pears’ and others in the 1890s were ‘offensive’ in the associations they made between ‘whiteness’, cleanliness and civilisation. In the Philippines, Pears’ soap was marketed as a ‘potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth’. He seems considerably less exercised by the skin-lightening creams that are such a big part of the business of ‘prestige skincare brands’ in Asia – Japan and China as well as India. In 1978, Hindustan Lever – the Indian offshoot of Unilever – launched Fair & Lovely, a cream that promised fairer skin within six weeks, and better marriage prospects as a result. Jones admits that this ‘reinforced colonial-era prejudice’ but defends it on the grounds that it also reflected ‘older, caste-based Indian traditions’ favouring light skin. Unilever, he argues, ‘followed the right basic approach in India: cultivate deep local knowledge and tailor products and marketing to local needs, while also keeping global brands recognisable’. Business is business.

Strangely, Jones seems more perturbed by the element of artifice in the beauty industry. In the early 20th century, he writes, many products promised women ‘the opportunity to improve their self-confidence by buying beauty products. Yet the fact that these promises were made with increasing amounts of artifice – whether the beautiful bottles and packaging of luxury perfumes, or the wrappers and promotion schemes of mass-produced soap – raised questions about the legitimacy of the entire endeavour.’ It is at this moment – if not before – that you realise that Jones, for all his facts and figures (he gives great appendices, listing the world’s largest beauty companies by revenue), just doesn’t understand his own subject. He is suggesting that ‘artifice’ is a threat to the legitimacy of the beauty industry. Yet what is the whole powdered perfumed business except a profound form of artifice? A tampering with our selves, a dream of perfectibility, a refusal to accept the bodies we were given or an attempt to return in old age to the bodies we were born with (Born Blonde is the name of a hair dye sold by Clairol)? There is nothing natural about it: ‘natural’ beauty products are probably the most artificial of all, because they seek to disguise the artifice – Max Factor’s good old lipsticks and pan-cakes revelled in the glamour and the fakery. That’s why it’s called the beauty industry when ugliness is what it’s all about.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences