On Beauty...and the History of Business

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  • Topic: Beauty, Beauty contest, Aesthetics
  • Pages : 27 (9010 words )
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  • Published : August 7, 2010
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On Beauty . . . and the History of Business

Beauty and business seem opposite terms but in fact have had an important and consequential relationship that business historians are only now exploring. This paper sketches several major themes and approaches to the topic. The first is the emergence of a large sector of the economy devoted to selling beauty aids, fashions, bodily care, and style to American women and men. Another is the deployment of beauty as a business strategy—in creating brands, sales, and marketing; in managing the workplace; and in projecting corporate identities. A third considers the sale of beauty itself, as a value added and attached to a wide range of goods, from art to bodies. These broad approaches suggest new directions for future research.

What can business historians learn by making beauty a subject of research and investigation? Beauty and business: one might as well say beauty and the beast. These terms conjure up distinct domains, different images, and contrasting values. Beauty is seemingly frivolous, superficial, and female, the subject of aesthetics, art, poetry, and, most recently, feminist criticism. Business, in contrast, connotes serious, consequential — indeed, manly — activity, the intellectual domain of economists and social scientists. Until recently, business historians have not yielded to beauty — at least as a subject of scholarly inquiry. The field has been so much

Enterprise & Society 1 (Sept. 2000): 485 – 506. © 2000 by the author. All rights reserved. KATHY PEISS is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Contact information: Department of History, Herter Hall, Box 33930, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003-3930, USA I thank Sally Clarke and Peter Agree for their comments on an earlier version of this essay; discussions with Philip Scranton, Roger Horowitz, Will Hausman, and the participants of the Hagley Conference on Beauty and Business (March 1999) aided my thinking on this subject.




defined by studies of heavy industry and corporate power that the activities of hairdressers, fashion designers, and “Avon Ladies” have largely gone unnoticed. But beauty is big business, with large-scale production, international distribution networks, media-saturation advertising, scientific marketing, and sales in the billions of dollars. And business historians have begun to take notice. Placing business within the broad narratives of American history, they increasingly investigate how economic enterprises interacted with cultural and social developments, responding to and influencing them in turn. They have opened new directions for research on gender, race, the creation of markets, and the role of consumers. Interest in beauty, style, and fashion is a logical development in the new business history.1 And what of those who write about beauty? They pay much more attention to the power of representation —paintings, poems, prescriptive literature, and advertising images — than to the strategies of business. Critics of the commercialization of beauty tend to treat business as a monolith, an industry whose motives are uniform, actions synchronized, and effects transparent.2 The papers in this special issue of Enterprise & Society go beyond such approaches to investigate closely the relationship between beauty and business practices. They explore the assumptions and decision making of entrepreneurs, manufacturers, retailers, advertisers, and consumers. They consider how changing ideals of beauty, notions of fashion, and attitudes about the body shaped business strategies. Just as important, they show how businesses profited from their attention to beauty and influenced cultural ideals and social identities embodied in faces, figures, and fashion. These case studies demonstrate that beauty and business are worth pondering further. A broad look at the historical relationship between beauty and business points to several...
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