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  • Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry
  • Rob Schorman
Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. By Geoffrey Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. viii plus 412 pp.).

In Beauty Imagined, Geoffrey Jones seeks to write the history of approximately 200 years of the global beauty business. Given the sprawling, fragmented, and rather unstable state of the industry through much of that time, it seems an almost quixotic task, but the book succeeds at every level. Its scope is impressive; its research is impeccable; its writing and organization are clear and persuasive.

Jones recognizes at the onset the distinctive characteristics of the beauty business. Components of success include particular kinds of creativity, fashion sense, and cultural affinity that are not easily quantified or readily susceptible to analysis. Moreover, the industry has always lacked a cohesive identity as the business enterprise, encompassing significantly different sectors in fragrances, color cosmetics, hair care, skin care, and toiletries that often have little in common from the business side. Research and product development in different areas required entirely different skills and expertise. Distribution channels were crucial but varied, sometimes exceedingly complex, and often mutually exclusive for different products. In addition, the industry has faced a perpetual fight for legitimacy amid allegations of immorality, manipulativeness, cultural imperialism and oppression coming from critics across the political and cultural spectrum. Beauty Imagined captures and organizes this complexity with remarkable clear sightedness, drawing on a broad range of primary sources and extensive reference to the secondary literature in a number of fields.

The first section, "Beauty Imagined," covers the period up until about 1914. By that time the beauty industry was still relatively small and its products consumed by a minority of the population, but the outlines of the modern beauty market were visible. Products had moved beyond craft and home production to be manufactured and branded for mostly female consumers. They were heavily advertised and those advertisements attempted create associations with youth, urbanity, celebrity and fashion. From the beginning, entrepreneurs in the industry tried to build brands based on aspirational rather purely functional claims. An usually high proportion of business leaders were women, and many early entrepreneurs of the industry were outsiders who established themselves under names that were not their birth names in countries that were not their birthplace. What Jones terms "the first global economy" emerged thanks to developments in communications, transportation, international travel, and the growth [End Page 233] of western colonialism. With rare exceptions the beauty industry did not provide the same first-mover advantage that typified big business of the era. Instead, it remained fragmented and highly competitive, subject to shifts in fashions and cultural attitudes, permitting the creative corporate strategies of newcomers to gain access to the market. These are patterns that persisted throughout the industry's history.

As described in "Beauty Diffused," the second part of the book, the use of beauty products became more mainstream and widespread in the years following World War I. The growth of the movie and advertising industry, the political disruptions of two world wars, and the immense economic shock of the Great Depression played out in different ways for different brands in different countries. As he does throughout the book, Jones manages to convey the broad sweep of the industry's development without losing sight of the distinctive stories of individual companies and sectors, or even of individual people. Among a few examples from the 1930s we learn of Coty's ill-fated attempt to extend its brand into the mass market, how Beiersdorf (makers of Nivea cream) accommodated the rise of Nazism, L'Oreal's success at inventing the product category of suntan lotion, and the growth of the direct marketing behemoth that became Avon, which subsequently had a run as the largest beauty products company in the world. The book addresses the post World War II era from several perspectives: the transformational impact of television, the mostly ill-fated attempts by pharmaceutical firms and then conglomerate holding companies to acquire and manage beauty brands, the onset and limitations of a new age of globalization, and the emergence of a new breed of industry critics concerned with product...


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pp. 233-235
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