November 20, 2017 Christina Strawbridge
Much has been documented about the power of women in business, finance, media and politics. Although glass ceilings are being broken at some levels in 2017, most women continue to struggle for equal pay and recognition of their power.
I recently saw the Broadway musical War Paint about two giants in the cosmetic industry—Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Their rivalry to dominate the beauty market from the early 1900s to the 1960s brought innovation not only in product development, but also in how cosmetics are marketed. Today we have this duo to thank for being the founders of the worldwide, billion dollar beauty industry, and yet, who knew?
Before suffrage, “nice” women didn’t wear makeup, leaving it to their sisters in more theatrical businesses. Arden realized if women wanted liberation they needed to be noticed. In order to establish her business, she gave free samples of lipstick to marching Suffragettes. Her pink packaging and branding sometimes cost more than the cosmetic inside. Elizabeth Arden Red Door, founded in 1910, became a precursor of modern spas, and is still popular with the social elite. Rubinstein took a modern approach to formulating her products using science, by blending the standard use of lanolin with hormones.
Arden and Rubinstein were the first to stress the importance of diet and exercise in a skin care regimen, which helped legitimize the use to all women. They both came from modest backgrounds: “Miss” Arden fled the farm in Canada and “Madame” Rubinstein escaped a Polish shtetl and became a role model for European immigrants. Their journey from the working class to heads of global empires epitomized the American Dream. By 1929, Arden was considered one of the wealthiest women in the world.
War Paint just finished its Broadway run. The Tony Award-winning cast featured Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. Their rich performances gave the audience a sense of power with real vulnerability. The gorgeous costuming, including glamorous furs, hats and jewelry, were in contrast to a minimalist set of lit, ceiling-high rows of cosmetic bottles and jars.
Throughout the show, I couldn’t help to think about my mom, who started her own custom blended cosmetics company in the late 1940s, and my sister, who created a holistic skincare line about nine years ago against great odds. When a woman is building an empire or even a small business, the journey involves sacrifice, success, self-doubt, and hopefully sisterhood. Yes, Arden and Rubinstein were rivals, but their shared commonality of what it takes to be successful is the real story. We’ve come a long way baby…or have we? This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Benicia Magazine.