Monday, March 14, 2011

Non-Fiction: Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal and the Blemished History of Looking Good by Ruth Brandon

British historian, biographer and novelist, Ruth Brandon, has been making a habit of writing very good books on art and culture-related topics. Both fiction and non-fiction. She has written seven novels, primarily detective novels, including 2008’s fabulously good Caravaggio’s Angel (Constable). Her largest mark, however, has been with thoughtful works of non-fiction: a dozen books in all on topics as widely varied as a biographic look at governesses through the ages, a consideration of how the car altered modern life and, released just last month, Ugly Beauty, the story of the modern beauty industry, through the lens of Helena Rubinstein and L’Oréal’s Eugéne Schueller.

Though Rubinstein and Schueller did not meet during their lifetimes, the story plays out beyond both of their deaths. In the late 1980s, L’Oréal bought what was left of Rubinstein’s company. The purchase led to the unearthing of a series of decades old scandals, including the fact that, while Rubinstein had been a jew, Schueller had not only been a Nazi sympathizer, but a collaborator. The scandals would have reverberations throughout French culture, threatening the reputation of even the French president. As Brandon writes:
It may seem odd -- certainly unexpected -- that a history of the beauty business should include an excursion into fascist politics. But cosmetics, unlike clothes, have always been a political hot potato. The stories of Helena Rubinstein and Eugéne Schueller show us why this has been so -- and continues to be so today.
With the sense of drama and timing that have made her novels so enjoyable, Brandon brings us not only the stories of Schueller and Rubinstein, but the hollow-hearted industry of beauty. At one point, Brandon writes, “What (Frued famously inquired) do women want? Madam Rachel could have told him: to be beautiful forever.”

It’s possible no one has ever looked at the cost of beauty in quite the same way Brandon does in Ugly Beauty. ◊

Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home