Helena Rubinstein November 11 2014, 4 Comments


Celebrating the Feminist Who Knew the Power of Makeup

An airbrushed photo of Rubinstein. Photo Courtesy of The Jewish Museum


Women are ditching their dark eyeliner and heavy lipstick in favor of the barefaced look that's filled the runways and our celebrity Instagram feeds. This departure from over-the-top makeup is refreshing, even liberating. Some women think we should be able to present ourselves however we want and not be beholden to someone else’s standard of beauty. But there was a time whenwearing makeup was the act of empowerment.

Like the army of models who marched down Marc Jacobs’ statement-making spring 2015 runway sans makeup, the women of the suffragette movement in 1911 marched in New York with red swiped across their lips as a symbol of freedom. The lipstick they wore was made by Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965), a feminist and beauty titan who founded the world's first beauty salon and whose cosmetics empire spanned seven decades and four continents. She is the focus of "Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power," an exhibit that just opened at the Jewish Museum in New York City.

Before Rubinstein, makeup was only used by actresses and prostitutes and was looked down on by the middle class. But she believed in the importance of self-invention and showed women that beauty was not something that was simply inherited or accessible only to the wealthy. Rubinstein felt that every woman's identity was her own to define and create—and makeup was a tool to do this.

"By encouraging women to define themselves as self-expressive individuals in a world that discouraged non-conformity, Rubinstein contributed to the modern woman’s empowerment,” the exhibit’s curator, Mason Klein, told ELLE.com. “I think a lot of people, even when I talk to women, take that subjectivity for granted today. The degree or sense of individuality that Rubinstein fostered was very new and profound.”

Rubinstein fled her home in Poland when she was 16, faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage. She moved to Australia where she launched her eponymous beauty brand starting with a skin cream. She then went to Paris and London, opening the world’s first beauty salons along the way. These beauty salons were modeled after the literary salons of Europe, making them a place where women could not only get their hair and makeup done, but learn how to do it themselves, and discuss art and culture. Rubinstein was an avid art collector as well as beauty expert, and filled her salons with sculptures and paintings.

At the outbreak of World War I, she left Europe and moved to the United States, where she continued to expand her empire. “Rubinstein came to New York in the wake of the tsunami of modernism and at a time where women wanted the right to express themselves, represent themselves, and vote,” explains Klein. “Rubinstein felt that the new woman should also create herself on her own terms, rather than in accordance with some predetermined standard of beauty."

Rubinstein was ahead of her time in many ways. She was the original self-made woman, and the first woman to be the face of her own brand, often starring in her own campaigns. Long before Kim Kardashian, Gisele, and Beyoncé took control of their public images and started cultivating themselves as living, breathing brands, the 4'11" beauty mogul understood the power of self-promotion. Featuring her own face was a part of her business, and she often had the photographs manipulated to make herself look younger. She was selling youth-enhancing skin cream, after all.

"She was the brand, she had to remain beautiful," says Klein. Throughout her career she also commissioned many artists (including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol) to paint her portrait—the "make me look younger" clause stood strong for many years.