History of fragrance and perfumes by Estee Lauder

Estee Lauder with customer in 1966
Excerpt from an editorial by David DeNicolo, The Face Makers.

Estée Lauder saw beauty as class. Her message was about taste and breeding, and the subtle sophistication that her makeup, skin care, and fragrances could convey. When her products made their debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1946, they were a graceful alternative to what she called "the hard, lollipop features of the Hollywood vamp," a dominant look at the time. The alternative she offered was a palette of more muted colors combined with restraint in application, producing an effect she self-referentially called "Estee Lauder's soft magic." And it was magic indeed to create an aesthetic of understatement in an industry accustomed to bold strokes, if not actual shouting.

Which is not to say that Lauder was remotely passive in business. A vigorous saleswoman, she wasn't above "accidentally" dropping a bottle of Youth Dew at Galeries Lafayette in Paris so customers could smell it (and want to buy it). Lauder understood luxury, personally reveled in it, and knew how to deliver a level of opulence in a friendly, nonthreatening way. Her packaging was exquisite, the products contained in little jewel boxes that could be displayed proudly as the feminine ritual of putting on or touching up makeup became more public through the '50s and '60s.

Lauder's marketing deftly amplified her beauty ethos. The models in her ads looked like they had been dropped into Park Avenue drawing rooms in full evening dress, perhaps to play a little Liszt on the Bösendorfer, or to regale a suitor in perfect French, or maybe just to recline sculpturally, without a care in the world.

Estee Lauder Private Collection, 1973
Estee Lauder Private Collection Fragrance, 1973

It all tapped into an ideal of American aristocracy that probably never existed and certainly had nothing to do with Josephine Esther Mentzer, a hardworking daughter of Eastern European immigrants from a middle-class neighborhood in Queens. Lauder aspired to social status (and achieved it) in the way she believed her customers would aspire. And what's more American than that?


  1. DeNicolo, David. "The Face Makers." Allure Mar. 2011: 226-231.

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