|Helena Rubinstein (left) and Eugène Schueller came to the cosmetics industry from different directions. (Helena Rubinstein Foundation)|
Mirroring changes for women
A cultural history takes wide-angle look at a pair of pioneers in cosmetics industry
There’s an old joke that goes like this: Why do women use makeup and perfume? Because they’re ugly and they smell bad. What the joke tells us about gender and beauty and self-worth in our culture may depend on how one feels about femininity and its relationship to feminism. You could read it as a critique of women’s own self-criticism, an affirmation that we don’t need makeup to be beautiful and our natural scents are just fine; or you could hear instead a crushing, brutal misogyny.
In “Ugly Beauty,’’ a dual biography of two cosmetic industry titans, British cultural historian Ruth Brandon argues that makeup is good for women. She writes that “the public acceptance of women’s cosmetics has varied according to the social status of their sex,’’ arguing that, in general, societies where women’s public and professional opportunities approach those of men are places where makeup is accepted, even demanded, while cultures in which women are kept at home also deny them the liberating appeal of a smoky eye and red lip. I’m not certain this is true — don’t many veiled women conceal a full face full of makeup? — but whether makeup today is a symbol of liberation or of oppressive beauty standards, Brandon’s main point is unassailable: Its growth as an industry has mirrored the expansion of women’s rights and freedoms.
In a business that sells the possibility of self-invention, Helena Rubinstein was an appropriate pioneer. Born Chaja Rubinstein in 1870s Krakow, Poland, she fled to Australia in her early 20s to avoid an arranged marriage. It was there that she renamed herself and began working in the industry she would dominate for the next 60 years. Rubinstein’s extreme work ethic (18-hour days were routine) and intuitive brilliance for advertising and marketing (she invented the notions of classifying skin as dry, oily, or normal and of using different creams for morning and night) launched a business that made her the world’s first female millionaire. In time she left Australia for Paris, then London, eventually landing in New York in 1914, just as the American century was really getting going.
Among Rubinstein’s master strokes in the early years of her New York-based empire was the idea of selling her products not only at her trademark boutiques, and never in mass-market drugstores, but expanding into department stores, a practice that other makeup brands followed.
Despite her financial success, Rubinstein didn’t “have it all’’ the way today’s women are raised to want; she married a man she loved and who loved her, the bookseller Edward Titus, but it was he who raised the couple’s two sons on his own. As Brandon points out, Rubenstein, in a memoir written toward the end of her life, covered “the joys of motherhood in three lines before going on to devote several pages to her preferred topic, interior decoration.’’
Indifference to one’s own children seems common among those who succeed wildly in business. The other makeup tycoon considered in “Ugly Beauty’’ was also an inattentive parent, although in the end that’s hardly his biggest failing. Like Rubinstein, Eugène Schueller was born into a poor family in the last quarter of the 19th century. His Alsatian parents’ work ethic was transmitted to him indelibly; years after he had earned his millions, he still spoke of the importance of working “more than sixteen hours a day, 365 days a year, without Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays.’’
Unlike Rubinstein, Schueller came to cosmetics as an expert, an academic chemist who in 1907 invented what had been a holy grail in the world of women’s beauty products: a hair dye that was both effective and safe. In addition to his scientific acumen, Schueller was a sharp businessman, always taking the opportunity to expand his empire, so that by the late 1930s he headed up not only L’Oréal but also a paint company, a plastics concern, and several subsidiary businesses.
Then came the war. Faced with living in France under German control, Schueller worked both sides of the line in occupied France, collaborating in both business and politics with the Vichy government, while lending occasional aid to the resistance. Those who pick up “Ugly Beauty’’ because of their interest in cosmetics and women’s history may find their powers of attention tested as Brandon details Schueller’s wartime activities, and those of several of his top employees and successors, and the decades-long echoes of their choices.
Even though Schueller was acquitted of collaborating with the Germans nearly a decade before he died in 1957, his company’s purchase of Helena Rubinstein’s in 1988 raised vexing issues. For a company with such deep ties to the Nazis to buy another that had been founded by a Jewish woman didn’t look good, even several decades after the war. As Brandon points out, historical amnesia is often proof that one was on the wrong side of history. “Deeds that the perpetrators recalled only with great difficulty,’’ she writes, “remained vivid in their victims’ memories.’’
The book ranges widely through territory so vast it can feel disjointed. Some readers will doubtless wish for more time with the often-hilarious Rubinstein, and less with the enigmatic Schueller. Still, the book is a rich chronicle of two entrepreneurs working in what was then a startlingly new industry, as well as a sharp examination of the interplay between individual, business, and political morality. At first glance, the politics of Vichy France may not appear to have anything to do with the business of beauty, but Brandon subtly urges us to make connections — what is beauty, after all, but a crowd-sourced consensus of what good looks like? If there’s anything the story of Schueller and others during World War II shows us, it’s that beauty can be deceptive.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.