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ILOVEYOUPOWDER

I collect exquisite examples of cosmetics packaging and advertising from the 1880s through the 1950s, but even though most of my collection consists of powder boxes, hairpin cards, and hairnet envelopes, I never restrict myself to those items. I appreciate the pieces in my collection that have context, so I can immerse myself in the history and popular culture of the era during which they were manufactured.

For example, I discovered this funny Valentine’s Day card at a paper show a few years ago. It is inscribed on the back with a man’s name (John) and the year (1932). If I hadn’t done my homework, I would not have known that 1932 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. In L.A., thousands of people were unemployed and they found themselves competing for work with Dust Bowl refugees who were flooding into the city from Oklahoma and other areas that had been ravaged by deadly dust storms. Women, many of them wives and mothers, were tasked with keeping their families clothed and fed on meager resources, living day to day on the brink of ruin.

But strangely, while most industries suffered enormously during this time period, cosmetics sales actually rose. This phenomenon has since been dubbed the “lipstick effect,” the thinking being that when resources are scarce, women try harder to attract quality mates. Maybe back then, but I prefer to think that now, when times are tough, small luxuries are crucial morale boosters.

Anyway, I am touched by John’s thoughtfulness. He obviously cared enough for the unnamed young woman to select a card intended to lighten her mood, and it also conveys a heartfelt message—that he would adore her whether or not she could afford powder to touch up her occasionally shiny nose. These days, Valentine’s Day often means a box of gourmet chocolates or a pricey piece of jewelry, but I think that John got it right in 1932 when he handed his sweetheart a card that affirmed his unconditional love for her. This holiday is a good excuse to tell certain people in our lives how much their relationship, romantic or otherwise, means to us, and how abiding our affection is.

Theodora-Goes-Wild

Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema!  This week’s feature is THEODORA GOES WILD starring Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas. This is one of my favorites!

Enjoy.

soul_kiss

Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away, and there’s no beauty product in my collection more fitting for a holiday that exalts romantic love than the Soul Kiss box of powder samples. When I spotted this in an online auction six years ago, it was as if I had been struck in the heart by one of Cupid’s arrows. The name alone implies intimacy, and I was instantly smitten by the packaging: the image of a woman raising herself up to submit to the caress of the little cherub, suggesting as it does that anyone applying the contents could ignite passion and become an irresistible object of desire. This unique design has made Soul Kiss products highly prized among collectors.

Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson

The Soul Kiss line was popular in the early 1900s, when the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, reigned as the paragon of American femininity. Although she was undeniably gorgeous, the allure of the Gibson Girl went much deeper than her physical attributes—it was her confidence and independent spirit that captured the imaginations of the women who sought to emulate her. But come the Roaring Twenties, women’s fashion had changed dramatically. The Gibson Girls’ towering piles of curls and cinched waists gave way to the bobbed hair and boyish silhouettes of the flappers.

The Gibson ideal may seem antiquated now, a vestige of traditional femininity, but she has something in common with the modern Los Angeles woman: Both are reflections of their era. Standards of beauty may have changed during the decades since the genteel Soul Kiss model was considered supremely aspirational, but a woman of intelligence, compassion, and wit never goes out of style.

heavenlybody

Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema!  This week’s feature is THE HEAVENLY BODY starring William Powell and Hedy Lamarr.

Enjoy.

 

TCM says:

In Bandello, California, just outside Los Angeles, noted astronomer William S. Whitley is about to make scientific history for his discovery of a new comet. Although Bill’s young wife Vicky is supportive of his work, she has grown weary of his long, odd hours and yearns for companionship. Consequently, Vicky agrees to visit Mrs. Margaret Sibyll, an astrologer recommended by her nosy next-door neighbor, Nancy Potter, even though she knows that Bill would disapprove. After briefly reading Vicky’s astrological chart, Mrs. Sibyll predicts that “something important” is soon going to happen to her.

 

https://youtu.be/iNr94uD1Uck

irresistible_adI have always been drawn to the Irresistible cosmetics ads because, well, they truly are irresistible. The colors are lush and the ads depict women who are individual beauties, not cookie cutter glamour girls.

It is rare to discover the identity of an artist working in cosmetics advertising—their art is generally unsigned and they are often employed by the container company or the cosmetics manufacturer who wants the focus placed on the product, not the artist.

mozert_russell

The unique renderings of the women in the Irresistible ads are so compelling, though, that I had to seek out the artist. Fortunately the Internet has made such spur-of-the-moment quests possible and within a few keystrokes I had a name: Zoe Mozert.

zoe-mozert-the-outlawZoe Mozert worked as a commercial artist during the 1930s, creating the dreamy, romanticized images for Irresistible, and she was also one of the few women working as a pin-up artist.

Mozert was attractive enough to be a pin-up girl herself and frequently posed in front of her camera for early selfies, which enabled her to be the model for her own drawings.

Zoe eventually moved from the East Coast to Hollywood, where her portraits of stars such as Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow graced the covers of movie magazines. Mozert was also in demand as a movie poster artist. Her design for the 1937 comedy True Confessions might be her best, but my favorite is the one she created for the 1943 Howard Hughes horse opera The Outlaw, the film that introduced newcomer Jane Russell to audiences as the seductive Rio McDonald. Russell’s talent made her an actress, but I believe that it was Zoe’s depiction of her in the notorious poster that made her a star.

 

My-Man-Godfrey-Poster

Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema!  This week’s feature is MY MAN GODFREY starring William Powell and Carole Lombard.

Enjoy.

TCM says:

On the eve of their mother’s charity scavenger hunt, which requires competitors to capture a useless animal, spoiled socialite sisters Irene and Cordelia Bullock compete to capture a goat. Irene follows the goat to the docks, where an apparently vagrant man surprises her. He covers her mouth to keep her from screaming, but when he lets her go, she calmly asks after her goat. Charmed by Irene and eager to avoid police detection, the man introduces himself as Godfrey, and helps her outsmart Cordelia by returning to the party with her as her “animal.” Irene’s flighty mother Angelica presides over the chaos at the contest headquarters, while Alexander, her gruff father, looks on in distaste. Upon seeing Godfrey, the crowd roars its approval and Irene is declared the winner. Flushed with her triumph over Cordelia, Irene follows Godfrey into the crowd and offers him a well-paying job as the family butler, intriguing him further by noting that his bearing reveals him to be a gentleman.

hi_hat

Produced during the 1930s, the bold colors and high concept design make this Hi-Hat face powder box a minor Art Deco masterpiece. In addition to being absolutely stunning, the box introduced me to products made specifically for women of color. Face powders for dark skinned women were produced in shades with exotic names like Parisian Lavender Nite, Harlem Tan, and Spanish Rose.

For me, the Hi-Hat box evokes the Harlem Renaissance, when legendary African American entertainers drew crowds of “swells,”—men in top hats and women in evening gowns—into Harlem’s nightspots.

The silhouetted chorus girls that encircle the Hi-Hat box are representative of the beautiful women who worked in Harlem nightclubs during the ‘20s and ‘30s. The hostesses at the Savoy were legendary; they could take a “dead hoofer” (bad dancer) and have them jitterbugging in no time. Not only were they talented, but they were reputed to be the most gorgeous ladies in Harlem.

hi_hat_side_2From 1920 to 1955, Central Avenue was the L.A. equivalent of Harlem, where boogie woogie, jazz, and R&B were blasted from juke box speakers through the wee hours of the morning. The avenue was known as “the heart of Saturday night Los Angeles.” One of the classiest places to go for an evening’s revelry was the Dunbar Hotel, L.A.’s answer to the Savoy and Cotton Club in New York.  In its heyday the Dunbar was the hub of African American culture in L.A., and it offered entertainment from such artists as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway.

Imagine the dressing table of a habitue of Central Avenue —among her lipsticks, rouge pots, eye pencils and perfume atomizers, surely there would have been a box of Hi-Hat face powder.

topper

Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema!  This week’s feature is TOPPER [1937] starring Constance Bennett, Cary Grant and Roland Young.  I’m a Cary Grant fan (who isn’t?) and this film is a delight.

Enjoy.

TCM says:

Middle-aged New York banker Cosmo Topper’s wife Clara insists that they live a staid, well-ordered existence, the complete antithesis of bank owners George and Marion Kerby, who live for fun and excitement. After a board of directors meeting, the Kerbys try to convince Topper to stop doing what his wife says and “live.” On the drive back to their country home, just after Marion says that she wants to do a good deed and make Topper over, George loses control of their speeding car and they crash. Though they feel all right, George and Marian quickly realize that they are transparent and, in fact, died in the crash.

monogram_hairnet

I love old Hollywood, especially the B movies of the 1930s and 40s, so when I first saw this Monogram hair net in an online auction it reminded me of Monogram Pictures Studios.

The quintessential B movie factory of its era; Monogram churned out westerns, melodramas, mysteries and, most notably, series like Mr. Wong, starring Boris Karloff. The design on the Monogram envelope above looks like it could be a studio logo, and the woman depicted on the front with her au courant hairdo and makeup could be a starlet on the verge of major motion picture career.

Of course, Hollywood stardom has proved elusive to all but a fortunate few.  Of the actors who were making pictures in the 1930s, most were not on the payroll of a major studio like MGM or Warner Brothers. They were more likely working as extras or for a small studio, like Monogram.

One young Hollywood hopeful, Carmelita Geraghty, who graduated from Hollywood High School in 1919 and began her career as an extra, made many of her films for independent studios like Monogram. In 1931 she starred in a drama entitled “Forgotten Women.” Ironically, the trials and tribulations of women trying to succeed in Hollywood is the subject of the film.

A stunning girl with beautiful eyes, Carmelita was selected as one of the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers Baby Stars for 1924. By 1925 she seemed poised for great things; Carmelita had appeared in The Pleasure Garden, the first feature directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and would soon accept the role of Jordan Baker in the 1926 production of The Great Gatsby. Despite these successes Carmelita’s breakthrough role never came.

The unknown girl on the Monogram hair net envelope may have shared Carmelita’s fate and never have made it to stardom in the movies—or maybe not. I like to imagine her sitting for the portrait that will forever remind me of Hollywood during its heyday.

 

Picture 23

It is not possible for me to discuss the history of modern cosmetics without invoking the name of Max Factor. The man was a genius.

He created Pan-Cake, the make-up that made filming in Technicolor possible. He introduced the lipstick brush and indelible lip color that didn’t come off, even with smooching. He designed the famous “Cupid’s Bow” or “Bee-Stung” lips for stars like Clara Bow during the 1920s. In the early 1930s, when Joan Crawford went from playing wise-cracking, dance-crazy flappers to the more mature rolls for which she is now best known, it was Max who transformed her mouth from a cute pucker to the dramatic “Hunter’s Bow Lips,” which Crawford referred to as the “smear”. The look became her trademark.

Factor didn’t limit himself to creating cosmetics alone. He also invented devices like the Kissing Machine, which was used to test the longevity of lipstick formulas. In my opinion his most brilliant creation was the Beauty Micrometer, also known as the Beauty Calibrator.

At first glance the calibrator resembles a medieval torture device, but it wasn’t designed to inflict pain; it was made to measure the contours of a woman’s face and head within one thousandth-of-an-inch! Why were such measurements needed? Why to correct with cosmetics the imperfections of nature, of course.

Here are the ideal facial measurements according to Factor:
Nose: same length as the height of forehead
Eyes: separated by a space the width of one eye.

Even the most beautiful stars in Hollywood had imperfections by these standards, but with the deft application of light, shadow, and color, any actress could become perfection personified.

The Beauty Micrometer was featured the February 1933 edition of Popular Science magazine, and was also featured in a 1935 article in Modern Mechanix. With all the buzz, Factor hoped to place micrometers in beauty shops around the world, but his plan never came to fruition. As far as I know, only one micrometer was ever constructed. Which is why, in 2009, I was stunned to discover that the machine had been placed in an auction!

To own such a rare piece of beauty and cosmetics history I would have been willing to do almost anything, but with a preliminary estimate of from $10,000 to $20,000 I feared the micrometer would never be mine. Crackpot ideas for making a quick buck filled my brain. I considered dozens of schemes, most of which would probably have landed me in jail. Then cold, harsh reality finally set in: I would have to watch the auction and hope that whoever was lucky enough to win the micrometer would treat it with care.

And yet, the auction ended differently than I’d anticipated. The one-of-a-kind Max Factor Beauty Calibrator did not meet the auction reserve! So, what happened to the calibrator? I phoned the Hollywood Museum and they assured me that it is now where it belongs: currently on display where Max Factor himself once worked.

Note:  This article originally appeared in The Clutch/Los Angeles Magazine on December 29, 2013.

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