A story of beauty, entrepreneurship, capitalism, democratization, globalization, prejudice, legitimacy

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

This book tells the story of how a small, often morally dubious, craft industry in the nineteenth century grew to be the $330 billion global powerhouse.

There are many books written about the beauty industry. But few treat it seriously as a business, and even fewer take a global view of how this industry grew, and what are the consequences. This is the gap I wanted to fill.

Beauty Imagined is the product of five years research, in archives around the world, and numerous interviews with many of the leading figures in the industry today. And I pursue three big themes.

First, I try to uncover the entrepreneurs and firms in each generation who built the industry. The journey takes me through a rich tapestry of colorful figures, from François Coty, who smashed his first perfume on the floor of a prominent Parisian department store to get attention, to Charles Revson, the brilliant if misogynist entrepreneur who build Revlon through crooked TV game shows and eavesdropping on the telephone calls of competitors.

Beauty, it turns out, is a social construct. My second big theme is the role of business in shaping what we today think is beautiful.

The third theme is whether this is a legitimate industry. Beauty is a big business, whose products we use every day. But it should also be seen as playing another and very important role in all our lives. Attractive people earn higher wages, and are more likely to be acquitted by juries, than people deemed to be less attractive. I explore whether the beauty industry has done a good job as a gatekeeper of what is considered attractive.

“Attractive people earn higher wages, and are more likely to be acquitted by juries, than people deemed to be less attractive. I explore whether the beauty industry has done a good job as a gatekeeper of what is considered attractive.”

The wide angle

I am sometimes asked what a grown man, let alone a Harvard business professor, is doing with a history of the beauty industry. Underlying the question is the assumption that beauty is not a serious business. I dispute this. Beauty is a fascinating and puzzling business: Exactly what are people buying when they buy skin cream or a lipstick? The important beauty business tells us much about our world today.

Let me start how I got to write this book. My background is as a business historian teaching in a business school. I write and I teach MBAs about the history of business, especially the history of global business. My first professional encounter with the beauty industry grew directly out of this interest.

During my research for a book I published five years ago, on the history of the consumer goods giant Unilever, I was taken aback when I saw how little had been written on the beauty industry from a business perspective. Business historians had written more on diapers and margarine than on make-up or hair dye. The giant French beauty industry, in particular, was seriously under-researched—even in French, let alone English. I concluded that a $330 billion industry merits serious attention.

But it was the potential of the beauty industry to provide a new lens on globalization, past, present and future, which fascinated me. We all experience globalization in our daily lives—sometimes painfully so, when jobs are outsourced to lower wage countries—but the phenomenon itself is almost too big to comprehend. The beauty industry turns out to be a powerful way to understand the impact of globalization at a very individual level.

The desire of people to be attractive is certainly not in itself a product of globalization. Humans have been interested in being attractive since the dawn of history, and they have made and bought products to help achieve this for as long.

From Charles Darwin onwards, many have argued that the search for being beautiful is based on the need to reproduce. However different societies and time periods defined beauty in very different ways. I show in the book that this changed dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century, as revolutionary improvements in transport and communication created the first great wave of globalization. Beauty became associated with white people, and with certain Western cities, notably Paris, and later New York.

I do not claim that the association of beauty with Western countries and white people was the direct result of explicit corporate decrees. For one thing, racism is far older than the beauty industry. The timing of the emergence of the modern beauty industry and the first wave of globalization, coinciding with the highpoint of Western imperialism, made it all but inevitable that being white was seen as possessing superior beauty—alongside superior everything else.

I do argue that beauty companies interpreted such prevailing societal assumptions about ethnicity and appearance, translated them into marketing campaigns, reinforced them, and took them from the West to around the world. Cleverly crafted marketing campaigns linking their brands to civilization then became reinforcers of societal and cultural prejudice, in the same way that the beauty industry in the United States mirrored its segregated society. The result was an extraordinary worldwide homogenization of beauty ideals. It was a homogenization born more from aspiration than coercion.

An extreme case I talk about in the book was in Japan, which resisted colonization, yet whose government sought to change the face of the Japanese people by banning tooth blackening and male use of cosmetics. When Japanese-owned beauty companies emerged, they looked to France and the United States for products and brands. The momentum of homogenization continued after 1914, by which time the creativity of US-based companies, the attractions of American wealth, and the beauty ideals represented in Hollywood movies, created a powerful new momentum.

There was little threat to the global pre-eminence of Western beauty for many decades. Controversially, I suggest that our present era of globalization, which got underway two or three decades ago, is now facilitating more heterogeneous beauty ideals rather than simply working as a force for homogeneity.

The beauty industry is, again, interpreting political and societal shifts. Responding to the new realities of the post-colonial world, firms began employing more local models in their advertising in non-Western countries. As the racially segregated society of the United States gave way to a diverse mosaic of different ethnic groups, meeting the needs of the “ethnic market” became a marketing priority. The economic growth of Brazil, Russia, India, and China not only created huge new markets for the industry, but also highlighted the wider range of skin tones, hair textures, and facial features that characterize humanity. As Chinese and other consumers became affluent and confident, they demanded that the products they bought were relevant to them and their culture. Aware of the growth of these markets, the large Western beauty companies are now scrambling to achieve this relevance.

January 3, 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.

“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.”


This book can, at one level, be taken as a case study in the triumph of capitalism. I explore how entrepreneurs and firms made mostly safer products than their pre-industrial forbears, produced them in large numbers, and invented ways to market and distribute them. Beauty had once been the preserve of the aristocrats. The story of the industry over the past centuries has been one of democratization—beauty products for all.

However I also discuss the legitimacy of the beauty industry. I think the legitimacy of global capitalism in general is a major issue going forward. And those of us who regard ourselves as advocates of capitalism’s many virtues, need to pay attention. Ten years ago college professors, and radicals of various kinds, worried about this. In a storied decade of corporate scandals, terrorism, financial meltdowns, and worries about global warming, I think every industry has to reassess its moral foundations.

In the case of beauty, the historical evidence is decidedly mixed. As the industry grew in stature and respectability, the question of legitimacy centered on the choices it offered to consumers. Insofar as the industry reflected societies’ contemporary assumptions, it reflected all the imperfections of those societies as well, including sexism, racism and ageism. Occasionally, and motivated usually by the perennial need to find new customers, strategies were ahead of such norms. During the 1960s Avon’s marketing towards black consumers and involvement with inner city communities were probably ahead of most American consumer goods firms. However the industry was rarely on the avant-garde of social change.

The choices offered to women have been especially contentious. Reduced to its basics, the industry’s marketing seemed pre-occupied with, in the words of Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, manipulating the emotions of “women desperate to cling to their fading youth.” Beauty used extensive market research and made claims which can be described as hyperbole at best; heavy advertising and expensive packaging helped sell products at prices far above the cost of the ingredients.

In the book, I argue that the beauty industry assumed a paradoxical position as both enslaving and modernizing women.

It was enslaving because it celebrated norms of femininity that were difficult for most women to achieve, and restrictive by privileging Western and age-bound constructions of female beauty. Yet it is unlikely that generations of female consumers bought brands which gave them zero benefits, or that they believed in some simplistic way assertions that they would become Hollywood film stars overnight by using such brands.

Contrary to certain variety of feminist critiques, the industry was also modernizing: women gained agency and autonomy as consumers, were transformed from dependents on men to independent persons who made their own choices on what to buy and how to appear. Arguably, as women entered the workforce, they did better in the job markets by using beauty products—such was the apparent strength of the “beauty premium.” At the same time, female entrepreneurs were able to build businesses, including some of the largest in the industry, and tens of thousands of women became quasi-entrepreneurs as direct sellers.

Legitimacy is a complex subject, which merits multi-layered explanations.

© 2010 Geoffrey Jones
Geoffrey Jones Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry Oxford University Press 416 pages, 9 1/4 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0199556496 ISBN 978 0231157575

Geoffrey Jones is Isidor Straus Professor of Business History and Director of Research at the Harvard Business School. He was educated at Cambridge University and has taught in Europe as well as the United States. Besides Beauty Imagined, featured in his Rorotoko interview, he has written many other books on the history of global business, including Renewing Unilever (2005) and Multinationals and Global Capitalism (2005). Geoffrey Jones has been President of both the US and European business history societies, and is currently co-editor of the quarterly journal Business History Review.

Cover Interview of
January 3, 2011