Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty

Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Marilyn Minter began her long and fruitful career in the explosive art scene of 1980s New York City.  Since the beginning of her practice, Minter has been exploring sexuality, feminism and her subjects’ deepest fantasies and impulses. Such intriguing, unapologetic and often seductive subject matter resulted in a great number of solo exhibitions all over the world and her ‘Green Pink Caviar’ video welcomed MoMA visitors for over a year, appeared on billboards in Los Angeles and at Times Square. In 2011, her work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in 2013 she was a part of a group exhibition show at Guggenheim Bilbao. Considering her output and influence on the art world, her first retrospective, currently at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, seems a little overdue. But it was worth the wait.

The Brooklyn Museum galleries of Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty are mesmerising. Tracking the development of her style, spanning the years 1969 to 2014, the visitor is encouraged to form a relationship with Minter and understand her intentions. Beginning with early black and white photography of the artist’s mother, her infamous undergraduate work, the exploration of the female body with which the artist occupies herself commences. Depicting Minter’s mother in front of a mirror, putting on make-up or just simply posing, the photographs set the scene for the fascination with the beauty industry and its deceptive nature. Here, the sexualisation of Minter’s work also begins, spilling into the following four galleries of the exhibition. Stepping deeper into Minter’s world, one is confronted with the oddly beautiful she is so fascinated by. Incredible paintings of mundane sights, such as a spill on a laminate kitchen floor or a cracked egg and a block of frozen peas in a kitchen sink, are made strangely desirable.

This desire associated with the kitchen and food becomes yet more explicit in her ‘100 Food Porn’ series. Conceived between 1989 and 1990, a few decades before the #foodporn hashtag took over Instagram, Minter explored the sensual imagery of peeling, splashing, dripping and shucking, harking back to the desire food can create as well as provoking the viewers’ sexual minds. No wonder a sign warning visitors of uncensored imagery and the show’s unsuitability for younger audiences is plastered over the entrance to the show space, stressing visitor discretion.

Marilyn Minter – Drizzle (Wangechi Mutu) (2010) Enamel on Metal. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Continuing along on Minter’s career path, the spectators are met with large-scale artworks which defy the preconceptions of photo-realism. By combining negatives in Photoshop, Minter creates compelling compositions, which are then painted by layering enamel paint on aluminium, ensuring the smooth finish and the illusory nature of her pieces. This idea of other-worldliness is further achieved by the zoomed-in and cropped viewpoints. Metallic liquid bubbles and spills out of mouths, make-up is smeared and made imperfect, graffiti obscures objects behind painted cracks and wet glass, blurred glitter, sequins and pearls create a hypnotic and visceral viewing experience, leaving the visitors guessing and perhaps slightly uncomfortable at times. The title Pretty/Dirty really hits home here – the works really tread the fine line between these two adjectives. But then, great art is always divisive. It challenges our preconceptions, makes us slightly uneasy and even alters our views considerably. Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty certainly does this very successfully and as such is a must-see exhibition for those who wish for their minds to be provoked and aroused.

Marilyn Minter – Blue Poles (2007), Enamel on Metal. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty is at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City until 2 April, 2017.

Elizabeth Arden: The World’s Most Successful Trilogy

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Throughout the 1930s cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden repeatedly echoed the ingredients that represented the three main phases of beauty, which, in her opinion, every modern woman should possess and follow in order to achieve the ‘Arden Look.’

The ‘Arden look’ was a term coined by Arden herself where she referred to the women throughout the world who possessed the credentials which were reflective of the brand. Arden’s global accessibility as a company, which was – and still is – stocked in every large city across the world, meant that more and more women endorsed and adopted the Arden Look. Yet, what were the credentials that defined the ‘Arden Look?’

Whilst hunting through American Vogue’s online archive for copies of the magazine, which marketed the cosmetic brand, I came across the above advertisement, which outlined what Arden perceived as the three main phases of beauty. These phases, considered by Arden ‘world’s most successful trilogy,’ were the combination  of a lovely face, a slender figure, and a clever wardrobe.

Where society’s concept of beauty had changed during the twentieth century, from that of a woman’s moral qualities to her external appearance, Elizabeth Arden recognised that there was a growing market place for skin care and decorative cosmetics. Therefore, where a woman’s appearance through her hair, eyes, skin, lips, hands and weight became ‘critical points’ for judgement, Arden was able to offer beauty solutions through her products, and then her services.

As Arden’s influence grew within the cosmetic world, so did her brand. Beginning with skin care and decorative cosmetics, Arden opened up her own health spa, Maine Chance, in 1934. Lindy Woodhead described Maine Chance as ‘America’s first luxury health and beauty farm,’ where some of America’s wealthiest ladies would visit for health and beauty treatments, as well as outdoor sports and workouts. Clients would spend $500 a week and Arden would keep the resort open from May to September each year.  An example of the machines used is demonstrated in the accompanying photograph, which featured the ‘metal hip roller.’ It was believed that such a machine would reduce the dimensions of a woman’s hips and buttocks!

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However it was during the 1940s that Arden’s brand truly became a ‘one-stop destination’ for the three phases of beauty, with the launch of her Fashion Floor in 1944.  During her lifetime, Arden collaborated with four couture designers: Charles James, Antonio Castillo, Count Sarmi and Oscar de la Renta to provide her customers with the ‘clever wardrobe,’ that would keep her customers looking ‘irresistibly soigné.’

In this respect Arden’s ‘most successful trilogy’ not only formed the basis of the modern woman, but also demonstrated the vision that Elizabeth Arden had for her business. Moreover, as Arden defined the three phases of beauty, her empire soon expanded and encompassed these three industries, which ultimately aligned the Arden brand with the function of an American department store through her ability to offer her ladies a ‘one-stop shopping’ experience when they entered her salons.

 

Sources:

U.S Vogue online archive

Gourley, C. Rosie and Mrs. America: Perceptions of Women in the 1930s and 1940s (Minneapolis, 2008).

Woodhead, L. War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (United Kingdom, 2003).

Beauty Industry: A Call for Attention

It has been over a month since clicking ‘print’ on my desktop and witnessing the birth of the most important document in my academic career. Immortalising three months worth of research, the 10,000 word document is, without sounding too dramatic, a cathartic ode to a lifetime of fascination for the business of beauty. Though my dissertation is now a near distant memory, the floors of my flat are still (very) active reminders of a by-gone era of unapologetic feminine capitalism, expression and innovation. Besides the fact that the covers and spines of the books double as beautiful decorative pieces, my refusal to put them away is perhaps explained by a reluctance to participate in the critical ‘forgetting’ of the emancipatory origins of the beauty industry.

My research on Helena Rubinstein has put under a microscope a disparity between the achievement of female figureheads, and the industry that they have built.  The books that litter my floor are filled with tributes to the foresight and exceptional industrial prowess of Rubinstein, amongst others, that signal a socio-political turning point in America’s Post-War expansionist society. The biographical emphasis on a climactic escape from patriarchal oppression that seems to underpin any discussion of Rubinstein, or Elizabeth Arden, or Madame C.J Walker, can be read as a compensation for the ‘un-feminist’ methods in which these women built their success.

It is no secret that the early beauty industry was predicated upon manipulative copy and unregulated claims; one only has to select a random page from Vogue to witness the way in which the consumer was denigrated to validate the need for beauty culturalists. This paradox is the crux of contemporary consideration that readily focuses on the purposeful alienation of identity. Naomi Wolf and her influential book, The Beauty Myth, draws upon ‘third-wave’ feminism that posits the beauty industry as an entity that constructs ideal femininity in order to punish women. Indeed, whilst fashion allows women to experience the truest expression of self, the beauty industry displaces it, or removes the autonomous ‘self’ all together. Though Wolf’s argument has been instrumental in the feminist criticism of beauty as a self-governing and exploitative entity, it seems anachronistic that present day historiography is informed by an argument that was guided by the disregard for ‘beauty’ that permeated art and fashion alike in the 90s.

Herein lies the major problem with contemporary writing on beauty – it overlooks the positive impact of beauty culture that is to be found if the dogmatic approach were to be abandoned. Unlike fashion and wider culture in the early twentieth century, the beauty industry was a microcosmic sphere that broke down class boundaries, the restriction of women and racial segregation in its aspirational conception. It extended to women a means to unite their appearance with their newfound economic and performative power, experienced after gaining the right to vote in 1921, and allowed them to rival patriarchal power through an entirely female sphere. It is a shame therefore, that at a time when more citizens owned a compact and lipstick than an automobile, the beauty industry is so often written about in an apologetic tone.

Despite the fact that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are largely forgotten relics of the industry that they once created, the modern beauty industry has arguably developed in response to their earlier domination. Contemporary beauty culture has become an extension of the wider criticism of its own origins by promoting self-expression and health, rather than indoctrinating ‘ideals’. However, it still employs the PR strategies and product development that are direct ancestors of those created by Rubinstein and Arden – evident in the success of Charlotte Tilbury and her mystical ‘magic cream’.

Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C.J Walker might not have the recognition they once did, but their legacy lives on in the present day industry that they gave birth to.

Sources:

Peg Zeglin Brand, ed., Beauty Matters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Bantham Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1991)

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

 

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.