Rinse it in dead champagne

Colm Tóibín

  • War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead
    Virago, 498 pp, £20.00, April 2003, ISBN 1 86049 974 0
  • Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight
    HarperCollins, 308 pp, £30.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 688 16738 1

The women who invented beauty came from far away. They lied about their ages and their origins and the source of their magic; their secrets were known only to certain chemists and secretaries and the maids and butlers who lived in fear of them, who survived long enough to tell and tell again the shocking truth, for example, that Elizabeth Arden, one of the world’s richest women, lined the inside of her shoes with newspaper, or that Helena Rubinstein’s lawyer chose ‘the budget option’ at the funeral parlour after her death until wiser counsel prevailed, or that Diana Vreeland’s hair was so hard that once, when her maid bumped into it with a tray, ‘it clinked.’

1905 was the year Rubinstein returned to Europe from Australia with magic potions in tow and Elizabeth Arden struggled ‘to find a pathway out of Toronto’. It was also the year Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth, in which the lines slowly appearing on her heroine’s face play a central part in the drama. Lily Bart is aware that it is not prudent to indulge in ‘a mood of irritability’ because ‘she knew that such emotions leave lines on the face as well as in the character, and she had meant to take warning by the little creases which her midnight survey had revealed.’ In the survey her face had ‘looked hollow and pale, and she was frightened by two little lines near her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of her cheek’. At the beginning of the novel, she is seen as someone who ‘must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her’. Lawrence Selden who watches her, is ‘aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay’.

Two years earlier, W.B. Yeats had published In the Seven Woods, which was full of references to fashions changing and a woman ageing; it had ‘Adam’s Curse’ as its centrepiece, in which the ‘beautiful mild woman’, on hearing the poet outline the difficulty of creating verse,

Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know –
Although they do not talk of it at school –
That we must labour to be beautiful.’

Between July and September 1905 Helena Rubinstein, who already owned a beauty business in Australia where she had arrived nine years earlier, toured Europe, investigating new beauty treatments and new markets in fashionable spas and cities, noting in London, for example, that a large department store like Harrods, already at its current site in Knightsbridge, did not have a cosmetics department. Queen Victoria was four years dead, but her abhorrence of face painting lived on.

Rubinstein, born in Poland in 1872, and Elizabeth Arden, born in Toronto in 1881, quickly removed the aura of the hospital from face cream and replaced it with a sweet or subtle and alluring smell. Both women then built empires on the idea that Lily Bart and Yeats’s ‘beautiful mild woman’ could, and indeed should, stop worrying about the lines on their faces. The labour involved in being beautiful would become akin to pleasure. It would be simple; it would be readily available; it would be expensive; it would be old Europe in the mystery of its origin but redolent of the new American century; and it would make a fortune.

Even in New York in the late 19th century, fashionable women did not wear make-up, except for what Lindy Woodhead calls ‘a light dusting of rice powder and possibly the merest hint of rouge, high on the cheekbones . . . Not one of these ladies would have dreamed of painting their faces: that is, using ceruse-based foundation creams and coloured eye-shadow. To do so would mean social death.’ Mamie Stuyvesant Fish, one of the great hostesses of the age, was famous for greeting her guests with the line: ‘Here you are again, older faces and younger clothes.’ For the moment, there was nothing the more conservative guests could do about their older faces. As late as 1912 the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal said that ‘men continued to see rouge as a mark of sex and sin.’ That same year, however, twenty thousand women, watched by half a million onlookers, marched in New York City for the right to vote: the leaders, who included some society ladies, wore bright red lipstick. The march was joined by Elizabeth Arden.

1914 was the year the war between Arden and Rubinstein began, with the latter’s arrival to take America. Some of the fashionable New York department stores had begun to stock Arden’s lines – among them, ‘Venetian Cleansing Cream; Pore Cream; Lille Lotion (to prevent freckles and keep skin from darkening); Muscle Oil; Velva Cream; and her newest addition, Venetian Adona Cream for firming the neck and bust’. Arden’s own salons were taking off, as women watched close-ups of heavily made-up stars in the cinema and decided, helped by advertising in glossy magazines and brilliant public relations, that the ‘mark of sex and sin’ was worth the price. By 1927 American women were buying 52,000 tons of cleansing cream, 26,500 tons of skin lotion, 19,109 tons of complexion soap, 17,500 tons of nourishing cream, 8750 tons of tinted foundation, 6562 tons of talcum powder and 2375 tons of rouge every year.

Years later, when much cream had been spread and rouge faded and money spent, figures such as John Richardson, Graham Sutherland and Bruce Chatwin would have dealings with Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein trusted Richardson, in as much as she trusted anyone, because he told her that certain paintings in her vast art collection that she believed were fake, were in fact by Juan Gris. Richardson had also seen the drawings Picasso had made of her in old age, which Picasso had refused to show her. ‘He had, however, shown them to me,’ Richardson wrote in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

What are they like? She kept asking. Brilliant, I said quite truthfully. I did not dare tell Madame that many of her drawings were studies of her jewelled wattles and ring-covered claws, and that one of her heads had made her look as bald and rapacious as an eagle. ‘Picasso has ennobled you,’ I told her. ‘He has made you his eagle.’

When Sutherland came to paint her portrait he noticed ‘the contained energy burning away behind the stillness . . . She was, in a word – magnificent – minute and monosyllabic, with the force of an Egyptian ruler.’

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