Modern Makeup

Two cheers for the beauty industry.

Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture

By Kathy Peiss

Metropolitan Books; 334 pages; $25

In the past five years, my friends and I have taken to getting our nails done—filed, painted—every week. So, it seems, have many other women we see in the subway or office. Is this an improvement in personal grooming (a thesis communitarian philosophers might advance) or yet another imposition on busy professionals by the beauty industry (as feminist pundits might argue)? Well, here’s why I do it: Manicures look and feel great, plus they’re remarkably cheap and fast these days—$7 plus tip, 20 minutes tops. You used to have to go to a beauty salon, wait twice as long, and pay twice as much. What happened? Entrepreneurial Korean and Vietnamese women, putting ethnic credit unions to good use, opened discount nail salons in every city neighborhood in America.

If the goal of feminism is greater economic and social independence for women, then storefront manicure parlors are a feminist success story for the 1990s: They’ve turned a generation of new female immigrants into small-business owners. But cosmetics and personal care have always been a way for marginalized women to gain entry to the marketplace. That’s one lesson of Hope in a Jar, a history of American beauty culture from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, a period when the pursuit of improved looks was transformed from a matter of folk recipes whispered from woman to woman to a multibillion dollar industry. In fact, historian Kathy Peiss writes, “the beauty industry may be the only business, at least until recent decades, in which American women achieved the highest levels of success, wealth, and authority.”

For the past three decades, feminists have been accusing the beauty industry of fiendishly sophisticated campaigns to undercut women’s self-worth. A century ago, no one could have imagined that beauty could be anything as faceless as an industry, let alone one capable of a broad social agenda. In the late 19th century, beauty, connoting as it did individual service and the laying on of hands, was considered a trade too vulgar for respectable people. It was a low-class, penny ante affair, therefore an excellent opportunity for immigrants and blacks. There were men in the field, but women had the edge. They could claim to use the products themselves and other women trusted them. The women who rose to the top invented flamboyant personas to go with their step-by-step systems, but they came from distinctly unglamorous backgrounds.

Helena Rubenstein was a Polish Jew who embarked on a career as a cold- and vanishing-cream saleswoman only after her parents interrupted her medical education to ship her out of reach of an unsuitable boyfriend. But she claimed to descend from aristocracy and to have advanced scientific degrees. Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham, the daughter of Canadian tenant farmers. Madame C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone, two of the best-known entrepreneurs in African-American history, were both daughters of slaves, orphaned as children, who began as purveyors of black women’s hair potions. Both defused charges of pandering to the straight-hair, white ideal of beauty by becoming prominent “race women”—hiring only blacks (usually women), giving generously to black causes, and refusing to sell skin bleach, a popular item among African-Americans.

The early female cosmetics tycoons faced two problems. One was the lingering Victorian belief that face painting was for hussies. The solution was to tie makeup to the freedoms women were beginning to enjoy: The “New Woman” who worked in the city or went to college or just thought of herself as modern needed and deserved a new face for the world, just as she needed and deserved the right to work and vote.

Women eagerly embraced the idea that changing their faces would change their social status. The new consumers of beauty products wrote to manufacturers that they applied rouge, lipstick, and mascara for their own pleasure, not that of their men. Men were more likely to oppose makeup than demand it, and often forbade their wives and girlfriends to use it.

The second problem was access to capital and to store shelves. Bankers and distributors were generally loath to do business with the gentler sex. The cosmetics queens solved this problem by exploiting their intimacy with their customers. During the first quarter of the century, the beauty industry advanced new sales techniques emphasizing personal contact: door-to-door and mail-order marketing, beauty schools and correspondence courses, lines of cosmetics tied to salons. Malone and Walker were particularly adept at what is known today as “multilevel marketing”: They traveled around the country recruiting black women as sales representatives.

The rise of mass production, national advertising, and brand identity—the mainstays of consumer capitalism—sent most small beauty manufacturers out of business, and the rest into the hands of men who directed large corporations. (Rubinstein sold out to Lehman Brothers. Later, enraged by their downscale positioning of her upscale products, she bought her company back.) But female founders were kept on as spokeswomen, or new front women were hired. Advertising agencies hired their first women to write beauty copy, then promoted them to higher positions. Beauty magazines, with scores of editorial jobs for women, emerged out of what had been farm or dress-pattern publications. And some women, such as Estee Lauder and Mary Kay Ash, made the strategic alliances with male financiers required to keep them afloat.

For consumers, the key development of the 1920s and ‘30s was the mass-produced image, which led to the culture of celebrity and unified standards of feminine beauty. Suddenly, there was a look, and everyone had to have it. Whereas once beauty practices had had an appealingly informal kitchen quality, now skin care and makeup regimens were codified—even taught in offices and schools. Women went from being active to passive participants in the rites of beautification. No longer was putting on one’s face seen as a matter of individuality, dignity, or even racial advancement (moving to Northern cities in the Great Migration of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, many former sharecroppers saw applying cosmetics as a step toward participating in the wider American culture). Making up became an mandatory act of conformity and, by the time the women’s movement began to address it, of oppression.

This is the resentful perception so many mainstream feminists seem stuck in today. When Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, for instance, talk about the beauty industry, they sound like suspicious middle-class ladies eyeing a Chanel counter at Saks—they’ll resist those foreign wiles! But as Peiss’ excellent research demonstrates, the culture of beauty isn’t all big corporations and victimized customers. Even during the 1950s, the height of American conformism, women consistently ranked advice from mothers, sisters, and friends as more likely to drive their buying decisions than advertising. Nowadays, lefty female academics dress as “white trash” as a statement of class protest. Lipstick lesbians wear heavier makeup than straight women. Black professionals braid their hair to display their ethnic pride. In other words, using makeup is as complicated an act as it has ever been.