When I spotted the listing for “The Powder & The Glory” on PBS, I knew I had to see it. After all, how often can you find a documentary about beauty and make-up pioneers?  Also, I thought that the title of the film was as clever as the title of the book on which it is based, “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead.


Woodhead’s well researched biography of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein makes compelling reading, and the documentary does it justice.  I don’t know why there aren’t more documentaries exploring the lives of female entrepreneurs, in particular those women who made their marks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – maybe this fascinating offering will start a trend.


They may have become cosmetics giants, but both Arden and Rubinstein began their careers by offering beauty treatments, not make-up. They created creams and ointments which they said would nourish and improve a woman’s complexion, and make her look younger.


The desire to be beautiful isn’t new, but the way in which Arden and Rubinstein interpreted it was profoundly modern. They were advocating science for the formulation of beauty potions, and exercise for health. For instance, if you’ve spent any time at a spa, or if you belong to a gym, you can appreciate Elizabeth Arden’s whole-hearted endorsement of yoga. She credited her practice of yoga with having saved her from hip surgery and she offered classes at her Red Door salon. Helena Rubinstein did not exercise, but she was a canny observer of trends and introduced Rubinstein Rhythmics (exercise incorporating dance routines) at her salon.


The two women whose lives and careers were played out only blocks apart in New York City, never met face-to-face. It’s a shame they never made an effort to get acquainted – they had so much in common. Each of them was hard-wired to succeed, and the documentary made it clear that the competition between them created an atmosphere in which they felt even more driven to excel.  Still, it is fun to imagine what a partnership between them may have accomplished. Helena Rubinstein once said: “With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world”. I believe she was right.


If you are curious about how the beauty culture of the 20th century developed, or if you are just interested in learning more about two incredibly talented and brilliant business  women, I strongly recommend that you look for “The Powder & the Glory” on PBS and grab a copy of Lindy Woodhead’s biography of Arden and Rubinstein, “War Paint”.  


Now excuse me while I touch up my lipstick. Then maybe I’ll do a downward facing dog.