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KATHY PEISS has a small collection of vintage cosmetics, including the Tangee lipsticks that even "nice" girls wore during World War II. But the UMass professor of history doesn't wear makeup herself, except when she has to appear on television. "I'm a late '60s person," she says. "I think your sense of self, your sense of your face, gets fixed in your teen years."
Although she has no wish to paint her own face, Peiss is fascinated by the history of makeup. Her book Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture, which excited an unusual amount of interest for a scholarly work when it appeared last year, chronicles how women in this country made beauty into both an art and a business. Successful entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Madame C.J. Walker offer examples of how farm girls, immigrants, and women of color, respectively, capitalized on a newly respectable form of self-expression.
Hope in a Jar contains numerous evocative illustrations, many of them ads for creams, powders, and potions, often with before-and-after pictures, all holding out the promise of youth, beauty, and, usually, a standardized, genteel, "American" look. There are pale powders to disguise the effects of working outdoors, hair removers for women of Southern and Eastern European extraction, hair straighteners and skin lighteners for African American women. The politics of cosmetics are never far below the surface of paint and powder.
Peiss is pleased to have been able to uncover real women's beauty rituals not an easy task, since the evidence is, as she puts it, "slippery." But here again, photographs and other images help. For instance, a 1931 photo of aviator Phoebe Omlie, who has just won a national transcontinental air derby: Standing at the front of her plane, she has pushed her goggles back onto her helmet, and is powdering her nose. Marietta Pritchard '73G
THESE BUSINESSWOMEN shrewdly understood that their own personalities were business assets, integral to their sales strategies. They carefully crafted their self-images, creating distinct versions of femininity that resonated with the particular aspiration and social experiences of those they targeted as consumers. White beauty culturists often shed their names, hometowns, and social backgrounds to create personae as beauty experts. In a business dedicated to illusion and transformation, they were self-made. Madame Yale was, in fact, Maude Mayberg, who lied about receiving a degree from Wellesley College and whose other claims about formal training in chemistry, physical culture, and art are dubious. Poverty had "induced" Ida Lee Secrest "to take up the business," and, carrying some cosmetics recipes given her by an uncle, she fled Chanute, Kansas, for New York City. There she became "cosmetic artiste" Madame Edith Velar, literally her own creation, whose "eyebrows were artificial, her lashes dyed, her complexion made up, her eyes brightened and made to look large by one of her preparations."
Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein fashioned contrasting public personalities on which to base their cosmetics marketing. Arden, as a 1938 Fortune profile correctly observed, was "an alias concealing many things" a chain of salons, a manufacturer, a sales corps, and, not least, Florence Nightingale Graham herself as she curried favor with elite society. "Arden pink" was her signature, coloring her apparel, salon interiors, and cosmetics packaging. Promotional letters under her name imitated her whispery, intimate speaking voice to create poetic pictures of youthful loveliness, considered models of "writing in women's own language" in the advertising industry. Often described as a dithering, smiling figure, Arden undoubtedly exasperated the male executives around her. According to several reports, she was "fond of asking male advice on money and business, and almost invariably disregard[ed] it." This criticism reflects less upon Arden's "unbusinesslike manner" than on the control she exerted over her image and the company. Pink femininity concealed Arden's acts as an exacting and tough manager who broke a threatened strike, fended off complaints from the Food and Drug Administration, and remained the sole stockholder of her company, despite several marriages and buyout offers.
Rubinstein also adopted a high-society image but invoked elements of the New Woman. In her view, the beauty specialist was a professional woman, "who is human in her sympathies, and will express these sympathies thru [sic] science." Typically photographed in a lab coat or striking dress and jewelry, she presented a dramatic figure of modernity exotic, urban, and scientific. Reporters often commented that Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, was "not a talker" her speech was heavily accented but also stressed her worldliness and sophistication: "a woman without a country who is at home in any country." Characteristically, she took an inclusive view of beauty culture, welcoming "stenographers, clerks, and even little office girls" into her salon and acknowledging the variety of skin types in a nation of immigrants. Unlike Arden, who only flirted with the suffrage movement when it was fashionable, Rubinstein became a long-term supporter of women's equal rights.
If white beauty culturists sloughed off their origins to perform the American myth of self-making and individual mobility, black entrepreneurs tended to embed their biographies within the story of African-American women's collective advancement. Madam C.J. Walker identified closely with the struggles and dignity of poor women even as she sought entrance into the ranks of the black economic and social elite. She had remade herself in certain ways, hiring a tutor in standard English and carefully fashioning a refined and elegant appearance. Still, she persistently tied her business to the fortunes of the unschooled and poor women whose life experiences she had shared. In 1912, she burst into public awareness when she attempted to address the National Negro Business League at its annual meeting. Booker T. Washington repeatedly refused to recognize her, apparently not wanting to endorse such a disreputable calling. Finally Walker rushed up to the podium, exclaiming "surely you are not going to shut the door in my face," and launched into an impassioned speech. "I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South; I was promoted from there to the washtub ... then I was promoted to the cook kitchen," she said emphatically, "and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations." Walker proved her mettle, and Washington welcomed her back the following year, when as a featured speaker she pointedly declaimed, "I am not ashamed of my past; I am not ashamed of my humble beginning. Don't think because you have to go down in the wash-tub that you are any less a lady!"
from Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss, Metropolitan Books, Hardcover $25.00
Diana: The Secrets of Her Style, Diane Clehane '82, G.T. Publishing. Admirers of the late princess are likely to find this volume delectable, especially in its lavish
illustrations. It also offers a detailed chronicle of Diana's consumption of couture.
Camouflage Isn't Only For Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military.
Melissa S. Herbert '90G, N.Y.U. Press.
Uniforms aren't the only source of
unease for women in a setting one reviewer calls "a finishing school for men." The index of this scholarly work
includes entries for "fingernails,"
"homophobia," and "incompetent, women perceived as."
It's Time. Doris Abramson '49 . Haley's.
OK, fashion is stretching it, but we are talking about one of the great profiles in UMass history, and three images of it do adorn this tender volume of poems written since her retirement by this alumna and theater professor emerita.