Make-up as Artistry and the Origins of the Beauty Industry in ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’

Global beauty industry sales hit $500 billion in 2019, and consistently outperformed other areas of fashion retail throughout the pandemic. It can seem as though this economic force appeared overnight, but make-up artist Lisa Eldridge’s BBC Two series, Make-up: A Glamorous History, debunks this notion by tracing the history of make-up in Britain in three parts. In each episode, she highlights an important moment in beauty history: ‘Georgian dandies, demure Victorians and decadent flappers.’

Each episode of the series sees Eldridge make up a model in the style of the period, where possible using products made according to original recipes. In some cases – notably, with the toxic lead used by the Georgians to create white pigment for face powder – this requires the help of a specialist and protective equipment. In others, Eldridge is able to knock up batches of luxurious Georgian facial cleanser and subtle Victorian lip tint with nothing more than a single tabletop hob and some muslin. Eldridge also speaks to historians to dig deeper into the trends of each era, looking at the women and men considered to be the beauty influencers of their time and what this says about each society. She looks at extant objects, including posters, magazines and compacts, to get an understanding of the marketing and retail of beauty products in each era.

While researching Georgian beauty ideals, Eldridge meets with Royal Academy of Arts Curator of Works on Paper Annette Wickham. Their discussion of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings of society women – including actresses, singers and courtesans – reveals the origins of the ‘beauty influencer’ system that is so culturally and economically significant today. The boom of print culture at this time allowed the images of these women to be disseminated in newspapers and as prints, displayed in alehouses, coffee shops and in the street-facing windows of dedicated print shops. The women who featured in these images encouraged their dissemination and even staged publicity ploys: Wickham tells the story of Kitty Fisher, a prominent courtesan who deliberately fell from her horse in Hyde Park to ensure that her name and picture would appear in the newspapers. Maintaining a high profile aligned with beauty brought these women financial security in the form of wealthy husbands. Today, being recognised for beauty (or, often, excellent make-up artistry) can bring financial gains in the form of brand partnerships and advertising revenue, highlighting the significant potential outcomes of effective use of make-up throughout history.

Kitty Fisher (1762), line engraving by William Humphrys, after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery.

The episode that focuses on Victorian beauty reveals the secrecy around make-up during this period. Just as today the perfect ‘no-makeup make-up look’ is a holy grail for many, the Victorians went to great lengths to appear ‘naturally’ beautiful. Make-up masqueraded as medicine in published recipes and advertisements, adding a further layer of artifice to what was already perceived as immoral trickery. But such efforts were necessary: the inherent sinfulness of make-up was enshrined in a law that enabled police officers to arrest women if they were suspected of wearing make-up. The argument was that if a woman was so depraved as to wear make-up, she might also be guilty of illegally selling sex. This puritanical preference for bare – and, notably, pale white – skin fed into the Victorian colonial narrative in its parallel suggestion that a person’s ‘natural’ appearance was an indication of their human worth. The quest for pallor meant that there was even a vogue for ‘tuberculosis chic’, prefiguring the trend for ‘heroin chic’ that would appear a century later. Prominent beauties, including Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, also known as Madame X, paid the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money for a form of semi-permanent make-up known as enamelling. The treatment comprised an aggressive exfoliation before a thick layer of white paint – meant to fill in fine lines and cover blemishes – was applied, then drawn over with blue veins. Some of the dangerous attitudes that drove these extremes – especially those around deviations in skin tone or texture from a ‘natural’ yet idealised beauty – are undoubtedly still present in some form in the global beauty industry today.

Portrait of Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the third and final episode in the series, the 1920s was the era in which the beauty industry as we know it today was born. A desire among women to break away from social ideals eventually led to the acceptance of a full face of make-up in public, as well as bobbed hair and new behaviours. This change was inextricable from the rise of cinema, which disseminated moving and still images of new beauty ideals – women were necessarily heavily made up under studio lights – and provided the technological advancements in make-up that allowed for its commercialisation. Eldridge traces the rise of modern foundations from their inception in Max Factor’s stage make-up. New markets also appeared – make-up was no longer just for the wealthy – and elaborate packaging encouraged further consumption. Celebrity endorsements continued to be important, but now famous faces could be tied to brand names, for example, Josephine Baker’s many beauty lines. Eldridge introduces a piece from her personal collection: a Josephine Baker and Flamand compact cuff. The glamorous black and gold bracelet can be opened to reveal powder and a mirror, allowing for regular, public reapplication. While it’s more unusual to find cross-pollination like this today, likely owing to the cost that would be involved for the manufacturer as well as the consumer, make-up brands continue to place a high importance on packaging. This is increasingly true as consumers look for sustainable (yet still aesthetically pleasing) options.

Josephine Baker and Flamand powder compact cuff bracelet, 1930s, personal collection of Lisa Eldridge. (Still from Episode 3 of ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’, BBC).

Overall, the series makes it clear that, while the beauty industry as we know it today exists in an intensely commercialised form, it has been an important part of society for centuries, functioning in broadly similar ways. While trends have changed according to the mores of the day, some form of artifice (either highly decorative or more ‘natural’) has always been the goal. Make-up has always represented a form of self-expression: it offers a means of communicating wealth, health or alternative values. Furthermore, for viewers who may be accustomed to buying their make-up branded and boxed from the beauty aisle, the series reminds us that make-up is an art like any other, with the body as its canvas. The medium and the tools that can be used as make-up aren’t necessarily always labelled as such. Experimentation and play are therefore encouraged, and a less exclusive concept of beauty can emerge.

By Lucy Corkish

Sources

Emily Gerstell, Sophie Marchessou, Jennifer Schmidt, and Emma Spagnuolo, Consumer Packaged Goods Practice: How COVID-19 is changing the world of beauty, McKinsey and Company, 2020 (https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Consumer%20Packaged%20Goods/Our%20Insights/How%20COVID%2019%20is%20changing%20the%20world%20of%20beauty/How-COVID-19-is-changing-the-world-of-beauty-vF.pdf)

Make-up: A Glamorous History, presented by Lisa Eldridge, directed by Rachel Jardine and Lucy Swingler, BBC Two, 2021

Elizabeth Arden: The World’s Most Successful Trilogy

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Throughout the 1930s cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden repeatedly echoed the ingredients that represented the three main phases of beauty, which, in her opinion, every modern woman should possess and follow in order to achieve the ‘Arden Look.’

The ‘Arden look’ was a term coined by Arden herself where she referred to the women throughout the world who possessed the credentials which were reflective of the brand. Arden’s global accessibility as a company, which was – and still is – stocked in every large city across the world, meant that more and more women endorsed and adopted the Arden Look. Yet, what were the credentials that defined the ‘Arden Look?’

Whilst hunting through American Vogue’s online archive for copies of the magazine, which marketed the cosmetic brand, I came across the above advertisement, which outlined what Arden perceived as the three main phases of beauty. These phases, considered by Arden ‘world’s most successful trilogy,’ were the combination  of a lovely face, a slender figure, and a clever wardrobe.

Where society’s concept of beauty had changed during the twentieth century, from that of a woman’s moral qualities to her external appearance, Elizabeth Arden recognised that there was a growing market place for skin care and decorative cosmetics. Therefore, where a woman’s appearance through her hair, eyes, skin, lips, hands and weight became ‘critical points’ for judgement, Arden was able to offer beauty solutions through her products, and then her services.

As Arden’s influence grew within the cosmetic world, so did her brand. Beginning with skin care and decorative cosmetics, Arden opened up her own health spa, Maine Chance, in 1934. Lindy Woodhead described Maine Chance as ‘America’s first luxury health and beauty farm,’ where some of America’s wealthiest ladies would visit for health and beauty treatments, as well as outdoor sports and workouts. Clients would spend $500 a week and Arden would keep the resort open from May to September each year.  An example of the machines used is demonstrated in the accompanying photograph, which featured the ‘metal hip roller.’ It was believed that such a machine would reduce the dimensions of a woman’s hips and buttocks!

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However it was during the 1940s that Arden’s brand truly became a ‘one-stop destination’ for the three phases of beauty, with the launch of her Fashion Floor in 1944.  During her lifetime, Arden collaborated with four couture designers: Charles James, Antonio Castillo, Count Sarmi and Oscar de la Renta to provide her customers with the ‘clever wardrobe,’ that would keep her customers looking ‘irresistibly soigné.’

In this respect Arden’s ‘most successful trilogy’ not only formed the basis of the modern woman, but also demonstrated the vision that Elizabeth Arden had for her business. Moreover, as Arden defined the three phases of beauty, her empire soon expanded and encompassed these three industries, which ultimately aligned the Arden brand with the function of an American department store through her ability to offer her ladies a ‘one-stop shopping’ experience when they entered her salons.

 

Sources:

U.S Vogue online archive

Gourley, C. Rosie and Mrs. America: Perceptions of Women in the 1930s and 1940s (Minneapolis, 2008).

Woodhead, L. War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (United Kingdom, 2003).

Beauty Industry: A Call for Attention

It has been over a month since clicking ‘print’ on my desktop and witnessing the birth of the most important document in my academic career. Immortalising three months worth of research, the 10,000 word document is, without sounding too dramatic, a cathartic ode to a lifetime of fascination for the business of beauty. Though my dissertation is now a near distant memory, the floors of my flat are still (very) active reminders of a by-gone era of unapologetic feminine capitalism, expression and innovation. Besides the fact that the covers and spines of the books double as beautiful decorative pieces, my refusal to put them away is perhaps explained by a reluctance to participate in the critical ‘forgetting’ of the emancipatory origins of the beauty industry.

My research on Helena Rubinstein has put under a microscope a disparity between the achievement of female figureheads, and the industry that they have built.  The books that litter my floor are filled with tributes to the foresight and exceptional industrial prowess of Rubinstein, amongst others, that signal a socio-political turning point in America’s Post-War expansionist society. The biographical emphasis on a climactic escape from patriarchal oppression that seems to underpin any discussion of Rubinstein, or Elizabeth Arden, or Madame C.J Walker, can be read as a compensation for the ‘un-feminist’ methods in which these women built their success.

It is no secret that the early beauty industry was predicated upon manipulative copy and unregulated claims; one only has to select a random page from Vogue to witness the way in which the consumer was denigrated to validate the need for beauty culturalists. This paradox is the crux of contemporary consideration that readily focuses on the purposeful alienation of identity. Naomi Wolf and her influential book, The Beauty Myth, draws upon ‘third-wave’ feminism that posits the beauty industry as an entity that constructs ideal femininity in order to punish women. Indeed, whilst fashion allows women to experience the truest expression of self, the beauty industry displaces it, or removes the autonomous ‘self’ all together. Though Wolf’s argument has been instrumental in the feminist criticism of beauty as a self-governing and exploitative entity, it seems anachronistic that present day historiography is informed by an argument that was guided by the disregard for ‘beauty’ that permeated art and fashion alike in the 90s.

Herein lies the major problem with contemporary writing on beauty – it overlooks the positive impact of beauty culture that is to be found if the dogmatic approach were to be abandoned. Unlike fashion and wider culture in the early twentieth century, the beauty industry was a microcosmic sphere that broke down class boundaries, the restriction of women and racial segregation in its aspirational conception. It extended to women a means to unite their appearance with their newfound economic and performative power, experienced after gaining the right to vote in 1921, and allowed them to rival patriarchal power through an entirely female sphere. It is a shame therefore, that at a time when more citizens owned a compact and lipstick than an automobile, the beauty industry is so often written about in an apologetic tone.

Despite the fact that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are largely forgotten relics of the industry that they once created, the modern beauty industry has arguably developed in response to their earlier domination. Contemporary beauty culture has become an extension of the wider criticism of its own origins by promoting self-expression and health, rather than indoctrinating ‘ideals’. However, it still employs the PR strategies and product development that are direct ancestors of those created by Rubinstein and Arden – evident in the success of Charlotte Tilbury and her mystical ‘magic cream’.

Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C.J Walker might not have the recognition they once did, but their legacy lives on in the present day industry that they gave birth to.

Sources:

Peg Zeglin Brand, ed., Beauty Matters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Bantham Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1991)