Geoffrey Jones

 

On his book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry

Cover Interview of January 03, 2011

A close-up

There is no doubt in my mind that the place to start with this book is the illustrations. _Beauty Imagined _ includes over thirty color plates, and others in black and white.  I tried to select some of the most influential figures in the industry, and to show them in interesting ways.  One of my personal favorites is Armand Petitjean, the founder of Lancôme, greeting the female spokespersons he sent around the world in the 1950s.

These color illustrations tell the unfolding story of the beauty industry over the decades.  The contrast between the first illustration of a late eighteenth century Japanese women painting her lips and the penultimate one showing two Japanese models advertising a recent Shiseido brand, demonstrate vividly how beauty ideals have changed over time.  There is a fascinating contemporary map of Africa in the nineteenth century, showing where a pioneering French perfume house had gone in search of new flowers and plants to widen the range of available scents. The industry’s early global vision is illustrated by, of all things, an advertisement for a Swedish toothpaste brand, showing men dressed in a wide variety of cultures.  The lengths to which people will go to appear more beautiful is illustrated by a German women sitting under a permanent wave machine in 1932.

For a reader browsing the text, pages 20-29 on the transformation of fragrances in the nineteenth century, can be an eye-opener.

We all tend to think of perfume as a classic and unchanging product.  In fact, although perfume does indeed have a long history, it is also a history of change.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, perfume was still being drunk as a health product, including by Napoleon, and was rarely applied to the skin.  Men and women used the same scents.  And Britain was a larger producer than France.

By the end of that century, all had changed.  There was a huge growth of the perfume industry in France, associated with innovations in both production and marketing.  The range of scents available was expanded enormously by the worldwide search for exotic flowers and plants, the development of new technologies to extract scents, and the application of science to create new synthetic scents, which were far more complex than anything previously.  Entrepreneurial figures reinvented the more expensive scents as integral components of the emergent Parisian world of fashion, selling perfume in elegant bottles whose cost far exceeded the juice inside them.

While the craft of perfumery is ancient, the fragrance industry in the early twentieth century bore little resemblance to its predecessor a century earlier.