A cultural take on Beautiful, by Estée Lauder

Social historians of the future who are studying images of femininity in our times could find ample material in the naming and marketing of perfumes, especially those with names like ‘Beautiful’, ‘Lovely’, ‘Pretty’ and so on. Today I want to have a look at Lauder’s Beautiful, for what it says about women and femininity in the late twentieth century.

Composed by Sophia Grojsman, Beautiful was released in 1985 and has what we now recognise as a great big 1980s vibe. It’s a complex, romantic floral anchored by green, woody and chypre facets.

The perfume has been modelled by a string of undeniably beautiful women, including (among others) Willow Bay, Pauline Porizkova, Elizaeth Hurley and, most recently, Constance Jablonski. Beautiful is marketed as a wedding fragrance. Estée Lauder apparently once remarked: ‘Why are all brides beautiful? Because on their wedding day they care about how they look.’ Porizkova, I remember, looked stunning in a huge puffy wedding dress of classic Princess Diana type.

Weddings aside, Beautiful is bound to be one of those fragrances constantly given to women as a gift on many occasions. This is reversal from the earlier time when Lauder signalled to women that with Youth Dew in the form of as a bath oil they could buy perfume for themselves rather than wait for their men to pick up the hints.

Beautiful’s obvious message – ‘you are beautiful’ – must make it a safe choice for men buying gifts. It conforms to the image most men surely would like to have of their womenfolk. It is a warm-hearted, generous fragrance, confident and sexy, but clean, never dirty or carnal. Few fathers or sons like to imagine their daughters or mothers as sex-bombs, do they?

However, Beautiful tends to offer a feminine ideal that few women can attain in their every day lives. Other Lauder classics do this too. Remember those glamorous women (Karen Graham, and others) dressed for evening and wearing Private Collection or Cinnabar, or sitting languidly on the terrace in White Linen waiting for tea to be served? Few of us live that kind of life, or ever did. Perhaps the more casual style of the ads for Sensuous are an attempt to meet us where we actually are.

These days Beautiful is one of those fragrances tiresomely labelled ‘for old ladies’ by unthinking young persons subconsciously living in fear of their own old age. Beautiful actually has legions of loyal fans and is still a top seller in the US. Oddly enough (or not), while it is respected by perfume bloggers, it is rarely reviewed. For an exception, see Victoria’s review on Bois de Jasmin.

I didn’t care for Beautiful when it came out – too many flowers in the vase for me – but I have come to like it very much recently. To my surprise I have found that it suits me – me, the one who normally enjoys a more austere aesthetic. It goes to show that it is worth trying (and re-trying) something you think doesn’t suit you, because you just never know.

As for waiting for someone to give it to me, pooh to that. When I saw it in a discount chemist in Darlinghurst in inner-Sydney the other night, as I was walking back to my hotel after a lovely dinner (by myself) in a Spanish restaurant, I strode right in and bought it. Yay me!

23 thoughts on “A cultural take on Beautiful, by Estée Lauder

  1. I love Beautiful! It’s so gorgeous. I’m not sure it’s “me” enough to own a bottle, but I admire it greatly.

  2. Very astute analysis on the feminine ideal. For so long, women found identity and self-confidence in a very limited set of goals. Success at “being a woman” was defined by how well one performed the roles of daughter, bride, wife and mother– each role having its prescribed appearance, its set of external signs of worth (the white gown and veil for the bride, etc.) Maybe it’s a sign of how far we’ve come and how much our choices have expanded, but the type of marketing you refer to makes me uncomfortable, too. I feel subtly judged, as if someone were whispering, “THIS is what you’re supposed to want. What are you wasting your time with NOW?”

    1. Oh many thanks, that is so well put. You are so right about the roles. And of course, so much marketing – of any product, not just perfume – tries to tell you what you should want. It’s hard to ignore.

      I must say that while being left unexpectedly single is terrible, it does give a chance to shake off some of those roles and re-invent yourself.

  3. I enjoyed the cultural analysis. Many perfume ads are missing sorely what our actual lives are about. I wonder what a perfume ad designed for me would even look like. Thanks for a food for thought and for a synchronicity — I was just recently thinking about that small bottle of Beautiful that’s sitting in my closet.

    1. Oh give it a spritz and see what you think! Yes, perfume advertising – a great deal of advertising – is more about dreams than reality. I find it enjoyable to dream about another life, even I am happy with my own.

  4. I really like ads for Beautiful. Why? In my mind, they don’t exploit sex. I think I hate being forced into the sex object scheme even more than into the one described by Meg above (though I agree with her in general on the topic). If anything, Beautiful is romantic – and that makes me like it more. That’s why I was going back to testing that perfume again and again. I wanted to like it! I can’t. I’m not sure what’s wrong with it for me (the last time I tried it was a while ago, back then I wasn’t asking such questions – I either liked a perfume or I didn’t) but it just didn’t want to work on my skin. On more than one occasion I thought it smelled great on somebody else – just to try it again and be disappointed.

    1. I must say I agree with you about the Beautiful ads. They delight a little romantic corner of my soul that I ignore most of the time.

      Your situation with Beautiful – the perfume – is a good example of why it is a good idea to hang on to perfumes you don’t think agree with you. It is tempting to downsize, but the day may come when you and the perfume come together. Good luck!

      My history with Beautiful is that for years I had a mini, and and I wore it occasionally, but eventually I must have discarded it in some house move. In recent times I somehow picked up a manufacturer’s spray sample. Again, I hardly ever wore it until one day my 9yo daughter and I were having a perfume sniffing session in my bedroom. I pulled out Beautiful because I thought she would like it. She did – and so did I. I remember the moment, both of us sitting on the bed staring at each other in surprise at how … beautiful … this stuff is. I wore it for a few days after that, and realised that it is a great fit for me.

  5. Welcome back! This one doesn’t work for me, but I love the image of you striding into the shop and buying it on your own. Just goes to show that if a product survives the test of time, even its ads can’t position it to death.

    1. Good point! A good product might take a life of its own regardless of the advertising.

      I was lucky with that purchase. It had two price tickets but the lower price was incorrect. The girl admittesd the error but sold it to me at the lower price without argument. I paid $60 for a 30 ml EDP. I might have got a lower price online but shipping is always a factor. Anyway, what the hell! I was enjoying myself.

  6. I have never liked Beautiful – nor any other Lauder scent, ever, even the ones that I *should* love based on their notes. (Oh, I take that back: Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia was nice. And Pure White Linen Light Breeze did not send me running to scrub it off, largely because it doesn’t seem to have any basenotes whatsoever.)

    EL was quite upmarket compared to the drugstore scents that my mother wore (her Chanel No. 5, a pre-wedding gift, ran out when I was about eight), and I felt that I should like Beautiful or White Linen or whatever else, because it was Lauder and you could only get it in a fancy department store! I’ve come to realize that there’s just something common to the brand that bothers me.

    In any case, so glad you bought your own Beautiful. We girls need something like that as a reminder – and if they made scents called Intelligent, Brave, or Wise, I’d buy them for the name alone.

    1. Hi Mal, yes, I know where you stand on the Lauders! I wonder if it is a common material in the base, or just the density of the style of so many of them? Maybe some of the flankers to Beautiful, Pleasures and White Linen have a bit of air in them, something sheer. If only I had the energy to try …

      Yes to Intelligent, Brave and Wise! I’d buy those too. And spit on that thing called Young Sexy Lovely that Yves Saint Laurent has. I have no idea how it smells, I just hate the name.

      New thought: I wonder if some female perfume enthusiasts are particularly attracted the work of indie perfumers like Laurie Erikson and Dawn Spencer Horowitz because they sense the perfumers’ respect for women, and their undertanding of women’s lives?

      1. An interesting idea regarding the indie perfumers… those two I love, and I would have said simply because they create beautiful perfumes that are easy to wear and smell good, but probably also because the packaging isn’t stupid. Nothing’s pinkified or dumbed down.

        You know, Andy Tauer does the same thing.

        (On the other hand, I’m not tempted to try any of the Boadicea the Victorious fragrances, mostly because there are SO DARN MANY of them! and they’re so expensive! but I do like the fragrance names and covet those bottles…)

  7. The little bottle of Beautiful I had didn’t make the move from Oregon, but was re-homed; I appreciate it, but couldn’t wear it often enough to justify the cabinet space… Although, I’m developing a new appreciation for mossy notes, so I wonder if I’m finally ready for Beautiful? I’ll re-try it next time I’m at Macy’s or Nordstrom, I think.

    I like that thought you added in response to Mals, about Laurie and Dawn catering to women in an intelligent way. I hadn’t thought about it before, but now that I do, I think you’re onto something; they offer fragrances I feel pride in wearing, web sites I delight in linking to, and “positions” that I can get behind— a very different approach from nearly all the mainstream marketing.

    1. Yes, that is what attracts so many of us to niche perfumes. (Niche other products too, I reckon.) But as Mals says, Andy Tauer needs to be included here. It’s all about respect between the maker and consumer, and gender need not be an issue. For an example how intelligent people can subvert dumb marketing, have a look at the fun discussion today on NST about Lanvin’s ‘Marry Me Love Edition’. Give me strength.

      It’s the green, mossy note in Beautiful that makes it a success for me. Otherwise it would just be a floral (and slightly fruity) mess. Worth re-trying occasionally.

  8. Thought-provoking post, Anne-Marie. Beautiful, Knowing, Spellbound, et al are on my “scents to revisit” list, but my oh my are the names and ads not boring? I love many Estee Lauder scents, but these 80s/90s EL scents do not exactly invite curiosity. If anything, for someone like me who Knows she is not Spellbound by being Beautiful so she can be Married (why isn’t there a perfume called Married?), they turn me off.

    Great point that it’s a step backward that a line that produced a perfume that invited women to buy it for themselves would create imagery that throws modern women back to the 50s.

    I feel this takes us back to a conversation we had many moons ago — perhaps about White Linen! — concerning how much marketing can actually alter how you perceive a perfume. I’ll give Beautiful a shot again and I’ll let you know if this ad kills any possibility for me!

    1. Thanks Barbara. Those 80s/90s lauder ads were very repetative. Even now I’m not sure of the difference between Spellbound and Knowing. Knowing is the good one, I think? Spellbound not so much. (Terrible name.)

      And it is so hard to disassociate Beautiful from its marketing (I think).That’s why I especially enjoyed Victoria’s review on Bois de J. Judging the fragrance merely on what she smells out of the bottle, she traces its lineage back to Chanel No 19. Any fragrance with No 19 in the background has my full attention.

  9. I love the tale in your post! Beautiful has a very strong brand message which has remained consistent over many years.

    Wholeheartedly agree with a previous commenter that Intelligent, Brave and Wise deserve their place alongside Beautiful and Sensuous. I’d also add Independent and Wild.

    Beautiful is one of the EL fragrances I can’t wear. After a short puff of lovely roses, it is tobacco all the way.

    1. That’s interesting. Luca Turin (I think it is him, and not Tania? Can’t remember … ) mentions tobacco too. I don’t get it as full note, just a nuance: a presence that messes, in a good way, with the flowers. If I smelled it any more strongly than that I, like you, would be turned off. I wonder if EL will ever uncouple the wedding marketing from this fragrance?

      I can certainly imagine Wild as a fragrance name. Perhaps it has aleady been done. Victoria’s Secret would probably put it out as ‘Sexy Wild Child’, or some such.

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