Book review: Compacts and Cosmetics
April 10, 2013
Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day by Madeleine Marsh provides a brief history of both the U.K. and U.S. beauty industries from the 19th century through today. Sorted roughly by decade, the book features an abundance of photos depicting items from each period. It's an accessible, easy read that both beauty culture newbies and long-time fans alike would enjoy.
While I enjoyed the first chapter on beauty rituals in ancient Egypt and Greece, I thought the immense chronological jump from this period to Chapter Two (covering Victorian times) was a bit awkward. From there, however, the narrative flows nicely. Marsh sprinkles the text with choice anecdotes, noting the beginnings of such familiar beauty brands such as Pond's, Maybelline and U.K.-based Boots. She also includes some very helpful guidelines to buying vintage makeup items in the appendix.
Where the author really shines, however, is in explaining how makeup went from being firmly in the realm of prostitutes/actresses in the 1880s to the huge business we know today. She does this by weaving in the broad cultural and political influences that affected how women used cosmetics as well as the type and packaging of the products themselves. For example, she traces how the rise of the film industry, which made actresses "more socially acceptable", flapper culture, and World War I all contributed to beauty's breakthrough as a regular part of most women's daily routines. By the 1930s, "the question was no longer whether to wear make-up at all, but what to choose from an ever-expanding range of products....women's magazines [started] featuring dedicated beauty columns providing tips and advice, whilst salons were offering an endless variety of services." (p. 88). And with the flurry of products introduced during these decades, packaging came to the fore. The rest of the chapters, each covering a decade from the 1940s through the aughts, similarly place beauty trends and products within a general cultural context, with plenty of pictures along the way. Most of these photos show items from Marsh's personal collection. Here are some of my favorites.
Art Deco compacts:
An Art Deco palette - what struck me about this is the fact that it includes products for lips, cheeks and eyes. I usually associate any vintage cosmetics with powder compacts, but this has a variety of products, similar to today's palettes.
Boots Christmas ad:
Compacts from the '40s and '50s - love the rotary telephone.
Getting psychedelic with Avon lipsticks and Mary Quant crayons from the late '60s. Groovy, man.
Bottom line: this is one of the most satisfying tomes on beauty history available, on par with Kathy Peiss's Hope in a Jar. Definitely one to buy!