Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Reader review: Beauty Imagined

Paul Doolan reviews Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry by Geoffrey Jones.

by Paul Doolan,

The obvious terrain of the art historian, beauty has recently become something of a stomping ground for social historians and philosophers, such as Arthur Marwick and Roger Scruton. Surprisingly, despite the growth of the beauty industry, the field has been relatively unexplored by business historians. However, Geoffrey Jones argues that one of the most intriguing developments in modern business history is the transformation of the beauty industry ‘from humble moral nuisance to a global brand-driven powerhouse offering products essential to daily life’. In Beauty Imagined, he seeks to explain the development of the beauty industry.

Professor at Harvard Business School and with many scholarly works to his credit, including The Oxford Handbook of Business History, Jones comes to the task well-qualified. Beauty Imagined is clearly the result of in-depth research into business archives and trade journals and of interviews with industry leaders. It is accompanied by extensive footnotes and a bibliography in three languages.

Jones examines the history of the beauty industry through three lenses: the founding entrepreneurs, the construction of a market through branding, and the issue of legitimacy, or how the industry shapes our perceptions of what it means to be beautiful. The book is divided into three parts: the origins of the industry, its geographical and social spread, and the contemporary changes in the industry. According to Jones, it is impossible to deny the globalisation of the beauty industry. He argues, however, that its globalisation is accompanied by a contradictory movement, which he labels ‘tribalization’. Although he briefly addresses some of the criticisms that the industry has faced (that it enslaves women to an impossible ideal, for example), the author concludes that the history of the beauty industry is ultimately one of ‘democratization’ whereby providing people with the opportunity to change their hair colour ‘enriches the daily lives of people’.

The book highlights many intriguing facts: until the end of the 19th century, perfumes were drunk and used on clothing but rarely on the skin; Europeans had a strong fear of washing with water, seldom used soap and almost never washed their hair with water; it was an epidemic of tooth decay caused by an increase in sugar consumption that led Europeans to start brushing their teeth in the late 19th century (Colgate cleverly provided the tooth paste). The most interesting part of the book is the story of this significant change in habits of hygiene between the late 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War.

These changes were partly a result of developments outside the industry – colonialism as well as developments in transportation, technology and science, but Jones also stresses the role of the entrepreneurs who built the industry. He highlights the fact that many were ‘outsiders’ (foreigners, women, African-Americans) and that a disproportionate number were Jewish. He also stresses their creativity, a word that is repeatedly used throughout the book, and even refers to their ‘genius’. Jones never quite explains what he means by these concepts, however. One entrepreneur, Francois Coty, is described as creative and possessing genius, although the main evidence seems to be that he dropped his surname and took his mother’s maiden name in order to market his product.

Jones addresses some of the criticisms of the industry (its use of toxic chemicals, for example) and also considers recent alternative voices, such as Anita Roddick of The Body Shop. However, Roddick is not described as a ‘genius’ or ‘creative’, and feminist critics of the industry such as Naomi Wolf are given short shrift. Surely no history of the beauty industry can be considered truly global when there is hardly any mention of Africa, nor of the destruction of the rainforest for the sake of growing palm oil for Unilever/Dove. The only mention of the industry’s deliberate targeting of young girls is: ‘The pre-teen market of 9- to 12-year olds girls was seen as particularly promising by many companies’.

Jones’ extensive overview of the beauty business is undoubtedly useful and interesting; his conclusion, however, is a foregone conclusion. Interviews with critics of the industry and research beyond the trade journals would have provided a more critical history.

Paul Doolan is Head of History at Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland.

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