?Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv + 412 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-955649-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ingrid Giertz-M?rtenson, Centre for Business History, Stockholm.


In the introduction to his new book, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Geoffrey Jones makes two points that instantly trigger the reader?s interest. The beauty industry is said to be one of America?s most profitable industries with a yearly global turnover of around $330 billion. And yet, according to Jones, it is remarkable that so little has been written about the extraordinary work and people who made beauty a business.

Geoffrey Jones, Isidor Strauss Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School, sets out to tell the story of this outstanding but little-known industry. The book can be seen as a continuation of Jones? earlier work on global business, entrepreneurship and consumer products. Here he provides the first global study of the beauty business, starting with its emergence in the early nineteenth century up to the present. This is not a small task, covering some 200 years of growth, and at the same time offering an analysis of the development of the industry and the men and women who created it.

Jones approaches his subject through three lenses. The first one covers the story of the entrepreneurs who built the business. Going back to ancient medical knowledge, religious devotion and the human desire to use artificial means to enhance attractiveness, Jones explains how the key players, often cosmopolitans, translated such desires into brands, products and ultimately global enterprises. The story of famous perfumers from France (Coty) as well as the success of the female makeup entrepreneurs in the U.S. (Rubinstein, Arden) is carefully examined and full of surprising anecdotes. The general problem was often one of establishing the legitimacy of the industry and overcoming the ethical objections to the use of the products. Building on associations with fashion, media and celebrity was essential, both for luxury brands and later also for mass market products. At the same time cleanliness and hygiene became symbols of Western modernity, making soap and toothpaste must-haves for everyone. Innovations in recipes and packaging — and a constant interpretation of new trends in social behavior and lifestyle — skillfully communicated changing beauty ideals and the need for consumers to follow them.

The second lens deals with the building of the global beauty market. Creating a market had to do with how beauty was conceived: ideals of beauty and attractiveness have differed from one society to another and from one generation to the next. Here the author discusses the influence on the market and the consumer of the changing economic and political status of women as well as the growing influence from America and Hollywood during the first decades of the twentieth century. But the international growth of the business also faced war, nationalism and closed borders. During the postwar decades, peace and prosperity pushed the market and consumer spending on beauty products. Madison Avenue, television ads and women?s magazines opened a growing democratization of all kinds of products, especially fragrances, colored cosmetics and hair care. New distribution channels, like direct sales, made the products even more accessible.

When the industry crossed geographical borders it also had to define new boundaries of age, ethnicity and gender. Using a third lens, Jones points out that the industry?s gender and age standards contributed to the paradoxical nature of the industry: it has been seen as both modernizing and enslaving for women. It opened up new business opportunities for female entrepreneurs and tens of thousands of women who enrolled in direct sales. At the same time, it was seen as enslaving, forcing women into western norms of femininity and age-bound ideas of female beauty.

The globalization of the industry meant new challenges as well as opportunities. But the base of the commercial beauty industry and the most powerful brands (like Avon, l?Or?al, Coty, and Est?e Lauder) has stayed with specific countries or rather specific cities. Here the resemblance to the fashion industry is evident. The beauty business built its empires on the reputation and flair connected with fashion centers like Paris and New York: French and American brands remained the benchmarks of aspiration. Later on Tokyo became a hub for East Asia. At the same time, the changing ethnic and generational mix in many countries offered new possibilities for creative entrepreneurs. According to the author, ?globalism? is today followed by ?tribalism? in the beauty business — global megabrands are competing with small niche brands encouraging heterogeneity and offering the consumer (now including men, pre-teens and seniors) a wider range of choice.

Jones argues against the belief that corporate marketers and communicators shape our beauty ideals and dictate beauty norms. Instead, companies are better seen as interpreters and reflectors of societal beliefs. Yet, the industry is able to reinforce ongoing trends and fashions and create new standards through heavily advertised brands and international distribution. And, according to Jones, it is primarily an industry based on aspiration. It sells dreams of lifestyle, anti-aging, good health and natural ingredients. This opens a continuous questioning of legitimacy which will probably be going on for years to come.

One question that can be raised when reading the book is about production. Jones writes about marketing, communication and distribution, but less about production. Where, how and under what conditions is the stuff made, in what kind of environments and what working conditions? Are bottles, packaging and covers made by the same producer of a perfume from southern France? What does the global cosmetics value chain look like? Here additional information could have added to a more complete picture of the industry.

The book is thoroughly researched with documentation based on five years of interviews with companies and selected executives from prominent brands. Primary sources from corporate as well government archives and private collections are the background for a well-supported analysis of two centuries of the beauty industry. A selection of images and illustrations, combining the history of the industry with that of graphic art, poster ads and photography, adds important visual information on how beauty was imagined. Of special interest are the statistics and figures never published before, revealing the scale of the industry today and its dramatic and consistent growth over the decades.

With this book, Jones hopes to open up the field of serious research regarding the beauty industry (, arguing that it has not been taken seriously to date. Presumably this is due to the fact that it has been seen as fickle, superficial and feminine. But Jones manages to present us with the history of the transition of a morally questionable industry to a brand-driven global power house offering everyday necessities — and it turns out to be one of the more fascinating stories in modern business history. Jones offers valuable new knowledge for the critical eye of a professional business historian. ?At the same time the book is a must-read for anyone working in the beauty or fashion business: the beauty industry has long lived in an invisible symbiosis with the fashion industry. Both exhibit the same passion for creativity, the same effort to try to interpret the Zeitgeist, and constantly offer the consumer new aspirations and hopes of creating a ?better? self.

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry deserves to become the standard reference work on the history of the international beauty industry.


Ingrid Giertz-M?rtenson, MA in Ethnology and Art History, is Senior Advisor at the Centre for Business History in Stockholm and CEO of Swedish Vision. She is the former Director of The Swedish Fashion Council and initiator of the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University.

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