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Rags, riches & rivalry: The rise and fall of beauty mogul Helena Rubinstein

TextLiam Hess

Helena Rubinstein invented the waterproof mascara, the first moisturising treatment and designed the red lipstick worn by the suffragettes as a sign of resistance. So why isn't she a household name?

It might seem like our obsession with beauty has never been greater, but looking to the past tells a different story. Making Up The Past is a column looking at great women from history and how they used cosmetics to shape their identities, from ancient queens to modern artists.

If you were to tell Helena Rubinstein that in 2019 even the most avid beauty fanatic would be hard pressed to tell you who she was, there’s little chance she would believe it. Then if you told her that her great rival, Elizabeth Arden, had remained one of the best-known names in the world of cosmetics to this day, she would have been incensed.

And yet, over six decades in the industry, the story of Rubinstein’s beauty empire is the story of modern cosmetics. With a finger firmly on the pulse of the shifting attitudes to make-up throughout the 20th century, Rubinstein’s early recognition of the mutually beneficial relationship between science and beauty proved that, in the world of business, a woman’s touch could be the Midas touch. So imperious was her hold over the whims and trends of this fickle industry that she was nicknamed, by none other than Jean Cocteau, the “tsarina of beauty” - but her tumultuous rags to riches story is one that has now been largely forgotten.

Helena Rubinstein was born in 1870 and christened Chaja, the first of many names she would adopt throughout her life. It’s appropriate that she adopted these chameleonic guises, given what she would later offer women of all classes and walks of life for the first time in history: the ability to remake themselves daily, in the comfort of their own bedroom. The eldest of eight sisters growing up in a sprawling Jewish family of humble means in central Krakow, Rubinstein showed an early aptitude for maths and accounting, but at the age of 18, her father betrothed her to a 35-year-old widower, much to Rubinstein’s irritation. In the first of many displays of fierce independence, Rubinstein contacted an estranged uncle who lived in Australia and arranged to travel there. Most importantly, before she left, she made sure to pack a few pots of the face cream her mother swore by, concocted by a Hungarian chemist and comprising of, among other things, herbs, almond essence and fir tree extract.

It was this cream that would be Rubinstein’s golden ticket to success: upon arrival in Australia, she began selling the cream to fellow emigrée women whose skin was becoming increasingly damaged by the country’s intense sun. From here, she established a shop in Melbourne, followed by a further shop in Sydney, then a salon on London’s Grafton Street, which enabled her to be closer to the European dermatologists from whom she was acquiring the scientific insight that allowed her to produce some of the most groundbreaking products on the market. Among Rubinstein’s long list of innovations are the first moisturising treatment - her signature Valaze cream that proved such a hit in Australia - debuting in 1902, the first waterproof mascara in 1939, and the first preventative anti-ageing product in 1956.

By the outbreak of World War I, Rubinstein also had a popular salon in Paris, but she was, by this point, married to the American newspaper magnate Edward William Titus and ended up moving with their two sons across the pond to New York. It was here that she was able to take the business to its greatest heights. Opening salons all across the country and personally training the staff, Helena Rubinstein Incorporated became a roaring success - so much so that at one point, she sold the company to Lehman Brothers for many millions, only to buy it back at a fraction of the cost during a financial crash and reboot it under her watchful eye. In its new iteration, she established a sprawling spa complex on Fifth Avenue that served as a one-stop flagship for the Rubinstein brand and collaborated with surrealist artists like Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí on everything from shop interiors to product design. It was this unlikely mix of fierce business acumen, technical know-how and creative flair that led her to die in 1956 as one of the world’s wealthiest women.

But then what of her famous rivalry with fellow beauty mogul Elizabeth Arden? Arden’s ascent to the height of the beauty industry happened almost concurrently with Rubinstein’s, and her similarly pioneering developments in the field saw the two of them become fiercely competitive, with Rubinstein referring to Arden acerbically as “the other one”. But despite everything from books to Broadway musicals having been written about this supposedly acidic relationship, the irony is - a little like another of the great female rivalries from history, that of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots - they never actually met, and there were certainly never any cat fights. That hasn’t stopped writers taking artistic license to pit them against each other though, which perhaps says more about how we view the dynamics of powerful women working within the same industry than it does about their actual relationship.

What’s arguably more important than Rubinstein’s business acumen and extraordinary wealth was what she represented. In today’s world, we take it for granted that a woman’s interest in beauty bears no correlation with her intelligence, or her industriousness, or any other attributes that might fall under this rubric of “seriousness”. Female politicians are happy to grace the pages of fashion magazines, and more recently, we learnt that one of the world’s most famous beauty influencers is studying law to better understand her passion for criminal justice reform.

But back at the turn of the 20th century, when Rubinstein first began building her empire, the visible wearing of make-up was largely seen as something illicit: a form of duplicitous magic employed by harlots, prostitutes, and - perhaps most horrifyingly to buttoned-up 1910s society - the suffragettes. For suffragettes campaigning for the vote in both Britain and America, red lipstick became a symbol of their emancipation, and the lipstick they wore was manufactured by none other than Rubinstein, who seized the opportunity to build a new world for women where they could control their image through the medium of make-up, much to the delight of the flapper feminists who would follow throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Rubinstein’s beauty revolution was more than just turning the cosmetics industry into a mass-market phenomenon; although it was that, too. It was the opening of the door to all the possibilities that make-up could afford the modern woman: the first example of the complex meanings that we decipher from how a person chooses to paint their face, from the dewy shimmer of the beauty influencer to the kaleidoscopic colours of the drag queen to the minimal impact of the CEO’s mascara and lipstick.

Where Elizabeth Arden Inc continued to thrive as an independent enterprise, Rubinstein’s company was sold to the Colgate Palmolive conglomerate in 1973 where it was slowly and anonymously subsumed into L’Oréal. But even if her name is no longer remembered as it should be, with today’s understanding of beauty as an expression of individuality, her legacy is everywhere. One of Rubinstein’s most famous sayings was “beauty is power”: it seems it just took a little bit of time for society to realise this too.

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