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Geoff Jones is a Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School. Jones researches the history of global business and has written on the evolution of international entrepreneurship and multinational corporations,[…]

Consumers have been changing their perception of beauty products since the 19th century.

Question: What have been the important moments in the history rnof the beauty industry? 

Geoffrey Jones: The modern industry begins in the 19th rncentury, but its predecessors go back to every known human civilization.rn I can hardly think of a single product that we use today that wasn’t rnused 400 years ago, 1,000 years ago, even 3,000 years ago. So, rninflection points really are the late 19th century when products that rnwere primarily used by relatively few people, made by craft methods rnsuddenly started to be turned into brands and suddenly started to be rnsold not just locally but first regionally then nationally then rnglobally. And that’s really when much of what we think of as the modern rnindustry really, really gets going. 

Then if we’re looking at rnstages and its subsequent growth, I think Hollywood was really very rnimportant because Hollywood kind of I feel like, raised the stakes of rnappearance, and it also served as a medium for taking beauty ideals rnaround the world. And by the '30s, people in towns almost everywhere in rnthe world have access to a cinema; they could see representations of rnbeauty, particularly hairstyles, particularly the use of cosmetics. And Irn think that was enormously important. And if I’m thinking of a more rnrecent inflection point, I would probably say the 1970s, when we first rnbegin to seek some really serious criticism about some aspects of the rnindustry, in particular its impact on people’s health—here’s a giant rncancer scare about hair dyes—and concerns that the industry was rnover-promising. And there begins to be a backlash from then on, which rndoesn’t kill the growth of the industry, not at all, but which begins torn reshape it and redefine it. 

Question: What has rnchanged since the‘70s in terms of how we think about beauty products? 

rnGeoffrey Jones:
If you go back to the early 19th century, every rnsociety and every culture defined beauty in their own ways. People rnlooked completely different around the world. For example, in Japan, rnearly 19th century Japan, the epitome of female beauty was very narrow rneyes, whitened faces, and black teeth. Elite men, aristocratic men in rnJapan used cosmetics. They also whitened their face. And you could tell rnthe same story about every other society. 

What happened over rntime was this: you could call it, homogenization of what it meant to be rnbeautiful spreading out throughout the world. And beauty consumers came rnto see beauty in very much more uniform or, you could say, restrictive rnterms. And this conception of what it meant to be beautiful was rnreinforced by television, by Hollywood, by the whole ecosystem of the rnbeauty industry area, of magazines, the gatekeepers of beauty. So if yourn were to take a long-term historical perspective, consumers' conception rnof what it meant to be beautiful narrowed and homogenized dramatically.

Recorded on April 21, 2010