April 26, 2004

"The pursuit of beauty is honorable." So Estée Lauder used to like to say. The announcement of her death at age 97 along with a picture of her taken 16 years ago appears on the front page of today's NYT. The front page color-picture shows the 81 year old Lauder dressed and coifed and made up with drama and perfect taste. On-line, it's the one with the purple hat, here. There's also a nice slide show with narration that emphasizes her "marketing genuis" and success in making the business a family empire. But it's that quote that caught me: "The pursuit of beauty is honorable." Now, clearly, she built a business empire that depended on women's believing that using makeup (and spending a lot of money on it) was a fine thing to do.

That makeup is a great feminist and pop culture topic is very clear to a woman like me who became a teenager when Mod fashion hit us from London at the same time as the Beatles and ended her teenage years when hippies and feminists advocated the no-makeup look as a matter of principle. The fabulous Mod period brought a new and extreme way to wear makeup. Why not draw a thick dark brown line at the top of your eyelid? Especially if the makeup was by Mary Quant! How exciting Mary Quant makeup (essentially, the packaging) was then! Why not paint extra eyelashes--"twiggies"--directly on the skin under your eyes like the model Twiggy? In the hippie period, it seemed that a whole way of life included rejection of all the material purchases that people like Lauder and Quant had hoodwinked women into making. Our high principle--which opposed war and materialism and Nixon and male chauvinism--would be demonstrated, in part, by never wearing any makeup at all. It was possible to believe at the time that all women would reach a kind of feminist enlightenment that would necessarily entail stopping using makeup.

The principled rejection of makeup remains. I saw an example of it just yesterday in the NYT, in a quick interview with documentary filmmaker Jehain Noujaim (who's made a film about al Jazeera):
What film are you making next?

I don't have any of those ambitions. I should probably quit working in film and just find a husband. It would be nice to be in one place for a while and have a social life again and get a job. But I'm not qualified to do anything. That's the problem.

Perhaps you can get a job as an anchor with CNN or Al Jazeera.

I don't think so. I don't wear enough makeup.
Well, maybe she's just kidding, but wouldn't it be weird if the female talking heads on CNN walked around off camera in makeup like that? The notion that they applied for the job already in the on-air style makeup is actually pretty funny. But I hear in that comment the same kind of assertion of superiority (or that superiority/inferiority mix that David Brooks refuses to acknowledge) that I used to hear from hippies and feminists in the early 1970s.

Anyway, respect is due to the magnificent businesswoman, Estée Lauder, whose companies included not just Estée Lauder, but Clinique and Prescriptives (as if she had to create worthy competitors for herself!), and (for men) Aramis, and (for you aging hippies looking for some solace) Origins.

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