The History of Beauty

13/05/2021 Aura


Fragrance, eyeliner, toothpaste—the beauty business has permeated our lives like few other industries. But surprisingly little is known about its history, which over time has been shrouded in competitive secrecy. HBS history professor Geoffrey Jones offers one of the first authoritative accounts in Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry.

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry is the first serious attempt to trace the history of the $330 billion global beauty industry and its large collection of fascinating entrepreneurs through countries including France, the United States, Japan, and Brazil. What’s taken so long?

According to author Geoffrey Jones, the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at HBS, the fragmented, secretive, often family-owned businesses that have constituted the industry have been difficult for scholars to unlock. Couple this with the fact that most business historians are male, and you have a major industry that still has lots to reveal. We asked Jones to discuss his research and his new book.

Sean Silverthorne: What inspired your interest in the beauty business and its history?

Geoffrey Jones: My initial interest in the beauty industry was triggered by my earlier history of the consumer products giant Unilever, published some years ago. This company had a long-established business in soap and other toiletries, but spent decades after World War II striving without great success to expand its business into other categories of the beauty industry, such as skin care and perfume.

As I researched this story, I realized both the huge size and the importance of this industry—and the remarkable paucity of authoritative literature about it. Or more precisely, while there are numerous books on various aspects of the beauty industry, from glossy coffee-table publications on cherished brands of perfume to feminist denunciations of the industry as demeaning to women, there were few studies that treated beauty seriously, as a business. So I saw both a challenge and an opportunity to research the story of how this industry grew from modest origins, making products that were often deemed an affront to public morality, to the $330 billion global industry of today.

Q: Why has this industry been so neglected by business school faculty?

A: I think there are two reasons. First of all, this is a difficult industry to research. Historically, it has been quite fragmented, with many small and often family-owned firms whose stories are hard to reconstruct. The industry as a whole is well known to be secretive—after all, its foundations rest heavily on mystique.

And then there is the frequently observed gender bias in business school faculty. I suspect male faculty, who comprised the majority in most schools until quite recently, regarded this industry as a feminine domain and rather frivolous, and felt more comfortable writing about software or venture capital than lipstick and face powder. As female faculty built careers in business schools, they may also have been disinclined to conform to assumed gender stereotypes by working on beauty. The fashion industry, which is also huge, suffers from the same lack of attention from management researchers.

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