In a 1935 pamphlet, Helena Rubinstein, writes: “Let me create a living portrait of you in vibrant, thrilling colors!” Rubinstein, a marketing guru, began producing pamphlets with her beauty tips in 1903, when she opened her business in Australia. These booklets were available by mail and in her salon. Creative and ahead for her time, Rubinstein packaged her lipsticks in what looked like, art, jewelry and Hollywood style.
Rubinstein relocated her New York beauty salon three times before settling in New York in 1936 at 715 Fifth Avenue, a prestigious address near her rival Elizabeth Arden. Helena Rubinstein surprisingly kept her Jewish name. She famously displayed her brand in widely spaced sans-serif, lower case letters – h e le n a r u b i n s t e i n
The smart business woman used the slogan “Beauty is Power” in Australia to sell her first product, Valaze cream, a statement of empowerment – the start of Rubinstein’s distinctive mix of commercial savvy and inherent feminism.
At the start of the century, the use of cosmetics – associated with the painted faces of actresses and prostitutes – was disliked by the middle class. Rubinstein, a model of independence, rejected this. She produced and mass marketed her products for women to transform themselves. This idea challenged the myth of beauty of her time, which only the wealthy were entitled. Rubinstein encouraged women to like and redefine themselves, which greatly contributed to their empowerment.
Rubinstein was inspired by the tradition of European literary actions. She conceived her beauty salons as intimate environments for exchanging ideas. After her initial success in Australia, she opened beauty salons in big cities like London and Paris. With the outbreak of WWI, Rubinstein moved to the United States, where she founded her first New York salon in 1915. Two revolutionary events occurred: the Armory Show of avant-grande European art in 1913 and a huge rally in 1911 of woman suffragists. Tens of thousands of woman had marched in the rally, with some wearing lip rouge as a badge of emancipation. Rubinstein was marketing savvy to develop a brand that appealed equally to the cultured socialite and the working class – an emerging market created by the influx of young immigrant women into the workforce.
In the 1920s, wearing makeup became acceptable for the first time. In the Roaring Twenties, women took makeup to ghoulish extremes, showing that they were, indeed, wearing makeup big time. Helena Rubinstein made a name for herself in that decade, due to the popularity of her products.
By the time of her death, Rubinstein rose from humble origins in small-town Jewish Poland to become a global icon of female entrepreneurship and leader of art, fashion, design, and philanthropy.
The Jewish Museum exhibit Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is power is truly spectacular, showcasing Helena as an innovative cosmetics entrepreneur and art collector. It is a first museum exhibition to explore the ideas, innovations, and influence of the legendary cosmetic entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965). Her business challenged the myth of beauty as the wealthy embraced. In encouraging the women to define themselves as self-expressive individuals, Rubinstein moved this generation forward and contributed to their empowerment.
Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power runs through March 22 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street; 212-423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.