Belfast Telegraph

Like the right to vote, there was a struggle for the right to wear make-up, led by two formidable matriarchs

Model looks: Demi Moore starred in a new campaign for the cosmetics company started by Helena Rubinstein
Model looks: Demi Moore starred in a new campaign for the cosmetics company started by Helena Rubinstein
Helena Rubinstein

By Mary Kenny

I had a bit of a tidy-up of my bedroom recently, and realised that I owned (at least) 47 lipsticks: in addition to all the other unguents, potions, skin creams, moisturisers and assorted cosmetics.A monument to vanity? Or a modern woman's entitlement to make the best of herself and present a cheerful face to the world? Lipstick, especially, is hugely cheering and a small luxury that goes a long way.

This month, we celebrated the victory of the women's vote in December 1918: yet there was another female revolution happening in parallel with the suffrage movement. It was led by two formidable matriarchs - Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden - who asserted a woman's right to cosmetic adornment, believing that such a right enhanced female confidence, advanced a woman's power, and gave her better skin all her life.

Elizabeth Arden (born Florence Nightingale Graham in Canada in the 1880s - she lied about the exact date) even joined a women's suffrage march in New York in 1909. The astonishing aspect of the march - for the period - was that the participants all wore bright red lipstick, as a symbol of assertive feminism. Before World War I, only actresses and prostitutes wore lipstick.

As late as 1934, according to Lindy Woodhead's biographical history, War Paint, an entry in a standard reference book read: "Face: painted. See also under whore." But Miss Arden was delighted the feminist marchers wore lipstick. Good for business to see cosmetics linked to female power.

Helena Rubinstein- born into a strict Jewish neighbourhood in Krakow in 1872 - was just as much a campaigner for beautification. "Beauty is power," she'd say.

Emigrating to Australia as a young woman in search of opportunities, she observed that the skin of Australian women was ruined by exposure to sun. "The sun is woman's mortal enemy," she proclaimed. From this she developed her mantra of "moisturise, moisturise, moisturise".

It happened that Helena's mother (a religious woman who had borne 15 children, of whom eight survived) possessed a herbal recipe for face cream, and Helena took this with her to Melbourne. She worked hard researching the cream's ingredients, which included herbs, pine bark, sesame, almond essence, oil and wax. But something was missing, and Rubinstein found it among Australia's sheep wool: lanolin. Her career was launched and she established her first salon in 1902.

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But there was a struggle for acceptability. Cosmetics were stigmatised, not just by moralists, but sometimes by serious-minded women - like many of the suffragettes - who thought primping up your face was frivolous.

High-minded writers like George Eliot considered vanity a feminine weakness. Women should focus on their minds, not on their appearance.

Elizabeth Arden, who was a social-climbing snob, yearned to be accepted by New York high society when she moved there in the 1900s. But it took her over 30 years to gain entry. Make-up wasn't entirely respectable until after the Second World War.

Yet, Rubinstein's biographer, Michèle Fitoussi, notes that beauty expertise went in step with women's progress throughout the 20th century. And both Rubinstein and Arden were adroit in their timing: the cinema, modern photography and the enormous expansion in women's magazines that started in the 1930s all enhanced the cosmetic arts.

There have always been sceptics about make-up. The feminist Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, argued that women were manipulated and sold an illusion by the beauty industry. The same charge was made by a landmark book back in the 1930s called Skin Deep. The plain fact is that nothing holds back time; skin tissue isn't renewed; some claims are dubious, some downright mendacious. And some products on the market then were unsafe.

There's a grain of truth in the notion that there's an element of buying into an illusion. But Helena Rubinstein wasn't wrong in her diktat that exposure to sun and wind is terrible for the skin, and women who never touch their faces with anything other than soap and water do tend to look more weather-beaten.

These 'beauty queens' made great fortunes - Arden earned more money than any other woman in America, in her time. And they were both tough businesswomen.

They also genuinely believed in their mission to enhance women's lives. Later they were followed by others - Dorothy Gray, Estée Lauder. There had been men in the business too - Eugène Rimmel, Charles Revson (of Revlon) and the Hollywood make-up artist Max Factor, who arrived as a refugee from Russia as Maksymilian Faktorowicz.

Cosmetics have featured in history since Cleopatra, but until modern times they could be dangerous - Madame de Pompadour died from lead poisoning. Lead was commonly found in face powder at the time.

We wouldn't suggest that the invention of the twist-up lipstick (launched by Arden and Rubinstein) was as significant as the vote in women's history: but it deserves its little place of honour just the same.

Belfast Telegraph


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