The illustration on the Comfort Hair Net package reminds me of psychedelic rock ‘n roll posters from the 1960s. The ubiquitous posters advertised concerts that were held in every venue from the Fillmore West to the Fillmore East, and every dive bar in between.  Organic, sensual, and other worldly, the style of the posters owed a huge debt to artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Is the name of the hair net a discreet nod to Tiffany? It’s unlikely, but not out of the question.  Fixing a date for the hair net package is tricky, but because Art Nouveau was at its peak of popularity between 1890 and 1905 it is probably from that period.


Psychedelic art shared a similar aesthetic with its predecessor.  Both styles are considered to be applied art (i.e., graphic design, fashion design, interior design, etc.) and both were in some sense lifestyles – at least their artifacts could be incorporated into one’s daily life.  Art Nouveau was present in architecture, as well as in personal items such as jewelry. Psychedelic art encompassed music, light shows, fashion and interior design and was also a way in which to describe the experience of taking certain mind altering drugs like LSD or mescaline.

The most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau period was Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley’s subject matter was often erotic in nature and grotesque in execution – occasionally depicting enormous genitalia. He was quoted as saying “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.” He was influenced to some extent by Japanese Shunga, which is erotic art. One of the most beautiful and disturbing of the Shunga images is “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1820). 

Alphonse Mucha was another artist who worked in the Art Nouveau style (sometimes even referred to as the Mucha style); and it was his work that was often cited as a major influence by the psychedelic artists of the 1960s.  One of Mucha’s best known works is a poster that he did for the actress Sarah Bernhardt (“The Divine Sarah”) advertising her appearance as “Cismonda” in Paris.  Sarah adored the poster, and it wasn’t that last one that Mucha would create for her. 

Even though it was Mucha who produced posters of the “Divine Sarah”, she may have had more in common with Aubrey Beardsley. Both of them were extreme personalities, flamboyant and eccentric. Beardsley expressed himself quite often by donning outlandish garments, and Bernhardt frequently slept in a coffin so that she could “better understand my tragic roles”. 

Bernhardt may have been on to something when she chose to sleep in a coffin – in the 1930s members of the Group Theater in New York City popularized method acting, and Lee Strasbourg would continue to advance the method in later years. Students of Strasbourg would include Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I can’t help but believe that Sarah would have embraced method acting with its emphasis on the sensory, emotional, and psychological components of a character.
Sarah was arguably the most skilled actress of her time, and  she lived as dramatic a life as any of the characters she portrayed on stage. She was rumored to have had an affair with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). And it is also possible that she had a lesbian liaison with French painter, Louise Abbema.

Louise Abbema

Louise Abbema

During a performance of “Tosca” in Rio de Janeiro in 1905, Sarah injured her knee in a leap from a high wall. The leg never properly healed, and by 1915 gangrene had set in and the leg was amputated. It is said that she turned down $10,000 offered to her by a showman (not P.T. Barnum, who was long dead by 1915) for her amputated limb.  Despite the loss of her leg Sarah Bernhardt continued to perform, as well as to run her own repertory company, until her death of uremia on March 23, 1923.










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.




The roles that women played during World War II were as complex and contradictory as at any time in history. On the home front they were wives, mothers, sweethearts, factory workers, and taxi drivers.  War time propaganda encouraged women to keep the home fires burning, while simultaneously raising children and driving rivets into the hull of a destroyer or the fuselage of a bomber.


I have noticed that one phrase appeared consistently in wartime articles on make-up and fashion, and that was “morale is woman’s business”. It was made clear that in addition to any other responsibilities she may have had, it was a woman’s patriotic duty to look her best at all times. The business of morale was taken seriously, and countless articles were written to advise women on how to be competent, effective war workers, and yet remain attractive and cheerful companions.


While the women of the home front were keeping things on track, servicemen needed to be reminded why they were fighting, and what they were fighting for; and nothing sent a clearer message than a gorgeous pin-up picture.  Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Betty Grable were the three most popular pin-up girls of the era, and their photos accompanied soldiers in their footlockers around the world. Five million copies of Rita Hayworth’s picture were sold; that number exceeded only by Betty Grable’s iconic photo.


Photos from home were crucial to a fighting man’s morale, but sometimes a candid snapshot wasn’t good enough. I found an article in the Los Angeles Times from October 1943 entitled “Send Him Your Picture”. The article described in detail how to apply make-up for a professional portrait, and it also provided tips on what to wear and whether or not to apply whitener to your teeth. This all speaks to the significance of the pin-up photo during the war. The pin-ups weren’t merely masturbatory tools for lonely troops, but they were a necessary, if idealized, connection to home.


 Not surprisingly, the focus of home front culture was on victory. There were victory gardens, victory pins (to wear on your sweater or jacket), and there was victory lipstick.  Victory lipstick came in tubes made of paper, plastic, or wood because metal was required for the war effort.


Jergens wasn’t alone in using patriotic themes in their advertising, but they put an imaginative spin on it when they hired world class pin-up artist Alberto Vargas to create both a package design and an ad that urged women to “be his pin-up girl”. And of course it was Vargas, among other pin-up artists, who inspired some truly glorious nose art (art that graced the fuselage of many of the aircraft during the war).


It’s plain to see that Jergens grasped the relationship between pin-up art and the woman’s business of morale and used it masterfully to their advantage.


The pin-up girl ad campaign appears to have run during 1944, and the face powder box with the Vargas art turns up in ads for about a year following the end of the war in 1945.