Revson’s Revlon

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Richard Avedon, Revlon Fire and Ice campaign, Vogue, November 1, 1952.

Gucci Westman, Global artistic director at Revlon, has recently announced that she will be leaving the brand after a seven-year tenure. Since joining Revlon in 2008, Westman has been credited with raising the cosmetic house’s contemporary profile, ironically by returning to the seasonal colour stories that were the brand’s founding principles. Westman draws upon current runway trends, which often reference earlier epochs. The Evening Opulence collection of 2013, for example, with its concentration on vampish oxbloods and deep burgundies, complemented the season’s Gatsby fever, which originated at Prada – the design house behind  the costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby of the same year.

There is a strong link between cosmetic and fashion artistry, as manifested in sell out premium collaborations. We have in recent years seen Phillip Lim and Guy Bourdin for NARS, Gareth Pugh for M.A.C, and Courrèges for Estée Lauder. Their respective brand identities are aestheticized through distinctive colour harmonies and packaging. Cosmetics in this light become an entry point for otherwise inaccessible luxury, and surpass their status as accessory to fashion by becoming part of it. At the same time, however, to achieve this, the ‘host’ brand leverages its own identity, thus conforming to the inherent creative order.

What makes Revlon so fascinating by contrast, not only as a business model, but as a colour house, is that since it’s conception in the 1930s, it has been able to keep up with, if not threaten, luxury contemporaries whilst maintaining a definitive drugstore identity. Functioning like a premium brand, whilst meeting the demand to keep costs low, it is easy to see why Charles Revson saw his company as worthy of premium status. Lindy Woodhead has noted how Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were so incensed by Charles Revson’s success, that they would begrudgingly refer to him as ‘the nail man.’

The allusion to wider cultural trends is arguably one of Revlon’s most identifiable qualities. This has been as consistent throughout its history. In 1952, Revlon launched its new lipstick shade, ‘Fire and Ice’, which was accompanied by arguably one of the most iconic campaigns in history. Dorian Leigh was photographed by Richard Avedon wearing a skintight silver dress that mirrored the overt sexuality of the coordinated red lip and nails. The ad’s daring copy asked, ‘Are you made for fire and ice?’ Revlon cleverly reframes outdated assumptions that any woman wearing red is a ‘hussy’, by instead positioning her as a modern woman. By stating that the colour is ‘for the girl who likes to skate on thin ice’, liberated sexuality becomes a rarefied, exotic virtue. The ad connects to youth culture and modernity, and shows how these mimic fashion, since, like Dorian’s dress, they look towards the future.

Revlon was remarkable in many ways, and was notably ahead of its time. Perhaps the most revolutionary factor was that it was a man who was able to democratize beauty in a way that no-one had yet seen, during a time when the industry was monopolized by female beauty entrepreneurs. Recognising the potential for experimentation that nail polish would allow for, Revson provided an outlet for the desires of both the upper and lower classes. His brand was at the forefront of fashion, rather than being qualified by it- a quality still at the heart of the brand today.

 

Sources

Lindy Woodhead. War Paint, Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Times, Their Rivalry (Virago Press: London, 2013)

http://www.vogue.co.uk/beauty/2015/04/08/gucci-westman-leaves-revlon-global-artistic-director

 

War, Women and Lipstick

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‘War, Women and Lipstick’, House of Tangee Advertisement, Vogue, July 15, 1943, page 75.

In recent months, countless hours perusing the US Vogue database has enabled, or rather become an outlet for, my intense cosmetics and advertisement addiction.

There is much pleasure to be had in tracing the origins of what we now consider to be heritage brands, and the pivotal campaigns that have shaped their iconic status. In many cases, Second World War years were fundamental, as the backdrop of turmoil and increased social changes inevitably became a barometer of cosmetic houses’ ability to adapt and remain relevant. At the same time however, the progression from the 1930s into the 1940s stood to magnify the deeply complex relationship shared between the cosmetics industry and women.

In a recent Man Repeller article, the modern use of cosmetics was categorized as either ‘shield’, or ‘weapon’. This echoes a study undertaken in 2008 by LVMH researchers that attributed two inherent abilities to cosmetics: the ability to ‘camouflage’, and the ability to ‘seduce’. Hardly a revelation, yet the recognition that camouflage relies on an internal desire, while seduction relies on the external surface, was as pertinent if applied to examples from the 1930s and 1940s, as it is to today’s cosmetics.

As we saw in Nicole’s January post, ‘Cosmetics: freedom in a tube’, the 1930s was synonymous with possibility and opportunity. Not only for the liberation of the female body in terms of activity, but for the promotion of a new visual discourse that encouraged exploration of surface identity through the use cosmetics. In this respect, the cosmetics industry was pivotal in mobilizing both the wearer and spectator, as makeup became a recognizable symbol of free will and autonomy- a ‘shield’ with which to navigate, or identify modern femininity. What is clear moving into the 1940s is the apparent reversal of feminine ideals, repositioning women both as wearer and consumer, and cosmetics as ‘weapon’. Though this is surely to be expected during such upheaval, the wearer becomes a vessel though which the aims of the nation can be expressed, and thus loses her individual identity under the guise of ‘femininity’.

It was a common strategy for all cosmetics houses, not limited to industry behemoths such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, to focus on the collective identity of women rather than their individuality. In doing so, they expressed what David Clampin has stated as the desire of the industry to participate in wartime society. The above advert from the House of Tangee, for example, encourages women to wear lipstick as a show of ‘strength’ for adapting so courageously to their new roles in masculine spheres. Superficially, the imagery employed by the advert suggests support for the freedom of female expression solidified in the ‘30s. However, such a ‘shield’ is re-positioned by the cosmetic house as a ‘weapon’, as femininity itself becomes an extension of the nation’s ambition to assert supremacy over Germany – a country that discouraged such displays of femininity. Makeup therefore becomes emblematic of carrying out a task, even if it is not a product of the wearer’s free will. The spectator recognizes cosmetics as national ambition, over the ambition of the wearer. In this light, solidarity is achieved, but external forces manipulate ‘self-expression’.

It is arguable, when following the trajectory of advertisements after the war that the use of makeup never quite returns to being the show of independence that it was in the ‘30s. There is always a task to be completed, often requiring seduction of some sort. Next time you are browsing the pages of a magazine, question whether the advert is positioning makeup as a shield, or as a weapon. I think you will be surprised.

Sources:

David Clampin, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II: Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit (New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014)

R. Korichi, D. Pelle-de-Queral, G. Gazano, A. Aubert, Why women use makeup: implication of psychological traits in makeup functions, J Cosmet Sci, 2008 Mar-April, 59 (2)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18408870

The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips

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“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”

Source:

Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.