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Interview with a curator: Andra Behrendt of Perfume Passage

I had the great fortune of getting in touch with Andra Behrendt, curator of the Perfume Passage museum.  She's a member of the International Perfume Bottle Association and sends out a quarterly eNews for their Compacts & Vanity Items Specialty group. The eNews focuses on compacts and related vanity items that are a part of the IPBA. She also runs Lady A Antiques, a shop she established in 1993.  Andra kindly agreed to an interview, which I am extremely grateful for since not only has it been ages since I've interviewed anyone but more importantly, she has over 35 years worth of beauty history knowledge and experience to share. Enjoy!

Makeup Museum: How long have you been in the antique business?

Andra: I have been an antique dealer since 1993 as Lady A Antiques. As a dealer I specialize in celluloid covered boxes and albums from the 1900s, jewelry from Victorian through Deco, German bathing beauties from the 1920s and ladies accessory items such as compacts, purses, perfumes, hatpins, powders and puffs. I've had a website since 1997 and display at antique shows throughout the Midwest. I admit I don't update the website as often as I used to as I try to save the more unusual items for the shows. I have been a collector since I was a teenager, my aunt collected jewelry and she introduced me to antiques and collecting.

MM: How and why did you end up focusing on perfume and vanity items?

A: I gravitated toward enamel items and starting finding compacts and purses for my inventory. Then as my inventory of these items grew, I started meeting more collectors of these items at the antique shows. Now I specialize in the ladies vanity items!

MM: How did you get involved with the IPBA?

A: In the mid 1990s, before the internet, if you were interested in a special category of collecting, you joined a collectors club! I think at one time I belonged to a collector club for hatpins, combs, jewelry, purses, plastics, compacts and of course perfumes. That's how people met other collectors and shared their knowledge. I love to learn about the items that interest me and collectors are very generous in sharing their knowledge. The International Perfume Bottle Association has always been one of the more professional collectors club with a board of directors, annual convention, newsletters, etc. They believe in educating collectors about the history of the items we love so much. And many perfume collectors also collect related vintage vanity items such as compacts, purses, powders and lipsticks. The IPBA has always included compacts and related vanity items in addition to perfumes.

MM: Tell me about your experience as curator at Perfume Passage. What exactly do you do in your curatorial role?

A: I met the founders of Perfume Passage at one of the IPBA conventions about 10 years ago. When the museum started gathering information about compacts and vanity items to eventually display at the museum, I began evaluating the items they accumulated, providing information on their history, etc. When the museum was ready to begin installing displays, I started assisting with the showcases in the galleries and drugstore displays, focusing on the compacts, vintage makeup items and vanity items. I've been documenting the museum's collections as we are developing an online database for public use. I also assist with writing articles for the museum's website and eNews. As we just opened in May 2019, there are a lot of projects in the works!

MM: What are some of your favorite compacts/lipsticks/other makeup items and why?

A: I've always loved enameled items and the Art Deco time period. So my favorite compacts are the detailed enameled compacts from the 1920s and 1930s. I also like the whimsical figural compacts as they tell such an interesting story.

MM: What is your favorite era for makeup and why?

A: I'm drawn to the 1920s as it was an era of growth and change for women. There was a reason for compacts and makeup for women during this time and it was evident in the products that were produced. Looking back at some of the makeup items, it's almost humorous to think that "ladies really used" some of these products!

MM: Why do you think makeup history is important and worthy of preservation and museum display?

A: Compacts, purses, perfumes, powders and all vanity items were significant of their time periods and their manufacture was influenced by cultural and social trends. Just like most items that we collect today, there was a reason for their use and need. And these initial reasons don't always exist today, but are part of our history. With makeup, compacts and perfumes, people still use them and the reasons for using these products are mostly the same, but the products are different. But it's those early products that evolved into what is being used today and I don't think that should be forgotten. And it's a fascinating history if people take the time to learn about it. Perfume Passage and other related museums, such as yours, provide people with the opportunity to learn about this history as well as view wonderful items that didn't start out as collectible, but certainly are now!

MM: Any thoughts on current makeup/beauty culture? The Makeup Museum focuses on contemporary cosmetics, artist collaborations, etc. in addition to vintage objects, so I'd love to have your insight on what makeup and trends are out there now!

A: That's a very interesting question. I admit that I've really never worn makeup, I use just a little blush as my skin is so pale! I don't wear perfumes either. So it is kind of funny that I'm so in love with the history and products that are vanity related. And I honestly don't follow the contemporary cosmetic industry at all, just what I see on TV or read in magazines.

MM: Do you have any tips for compact collectors?

A: As with any item that we collect, buy what interests you. And while condition is usually the top priority for me, I also like the unusual. And before the internet, when many collectibles could only be found at shops, shows or auctions, collectors seem to buy for quantity. The internet has opened a whole new world for collectors, allowing us to see and purchase items that we would often never have a chance to find. So items that were considered "rare" or "one of a kind" can be found online. So I think collectors have more choices on what to collect or perhaps what to focus their collections on. While many compact collectors have a little bit of everything in their collections, you'd be surprised how many collectors focus on just Deco, or enamels, or figurals.

MM: Can you share some of your favorite compacts?

A: Sure! Here's a 1920s F&B sterling floral/scenic enamel tango compact.

1920s F&B enamel tango

A 1930s Evans mesh purse with an ornate beaded/pearl/enamel compact lid:

1930s Evans mesh purse w ornate compact top

A 1930s green floral enamel double compact with tango lipstick:

1930s double enamel tango compact

A 1958 Chicago White Sox compact. Back then, Tuesday's was ladies day at the ballpark and the owner of the team had a give-a-way of this compact! The other teams that I know of that had a similar promotion with compacts were the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and New York Giants.

1958 White Sox compact

Finally, a 1920s celluloid lady compact, the top "dress" slides and there's a mirror and powder puff inside.

1920s celluloid lady compact
(all images provided by Andra Behrendt)

Andra, thank you so much for taking the time to answer the Makeup Museum's questions and for your incredibly valuable insight!  I encourage everyone to check out the Perfume Passage website and sign up for their newsletter. If you're in the Chicago area and can visit in person, so much the better.  And if you're a collector, be sure to add Lady A Antiques to your shopping list!

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