By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian
THE COSMETIC COVER UP
Since “makeup” in the early 1900s was considered daring and perhaps not-quite-respectable, early compacts were sometimes disguised as lockets or lapel pins or hidden in the top of hatpins, umbrellas, or walking sticks. With the advent of World War I a massive change took place. As more and more women were working outside the home they no longer had the pleasure or time to linger at the dressing-table mirror. Convenience and practicality ruled the day and the compact became a woman’s necessity. More social freedom spread throughout the women’s movement with the liberated woman at the wheel of an automobile, smoking, dancing and attending movie and nightclub entertainments. The high flying flappers personified the age of rebellion and vividly made-up actresses became style icons. In the roaring 20s and 30s compacts went public and were very much on display.
A LITTLE TREASURE
Manufacturers kept coming up with new gimmicks to attract new converts to compacts. Vogue described a new one as being ‘made of black metal, with a single bright line of color at the top and a smart marcasite motif.’ The vanity contained rouge, powder, lipstick, and mirror, as well as allowing space for cigarettes. Consider this extract from an advertisement for the Trejur, Queen of Compacts, 1924. “Powder, Rouge and Lip-stick Complete! A case as lovely as a gem. It opens at the touch! Inside---a full size mirror and powder of true quality, scented seductively with Joli Memoire. Below—a drawer which yields to a magic touch, revealing the best of rouge and lip-stick! In your bag—securely closed; in your hand—three swift allies to fresh charm. $1.25.” Lucille Buhl’s cosmetic gimmick was doubles—a face powder box containing two drawers of powder, one for day and one for evening.
A COMPACT FOR EVERY OCCASION
COMPACT’S TO SHELL CASES
With the advent of WWII many famed compact makers converted to manufacturing shell cases. It wasn’t the total demise of the compact because fashion-conscious women could scoop up military-themed novelty compacts embellished with flags, anchor, officer’s hats and service insignia. One such compact that I cherish is a gold metal compact with royal blue enamel and in the center of the blue cover sits a miniature white enamel life preserver and gold anchor. Despite its chipped condition I love to use it with my summer outfits. By the 1950s, compacts were taking a setback. For one thing, the powder, once an important cosmetic item, was replaced by cream or liquid makeup that wasn’t easily carried or applied in public. In response to this cosmetic makers produced solid makeup which was sold in its own plastic container, further abetting the demise of a beautiful compact. In an effort to generate sales, cosmetic makers came up with small compact collectibles in beautiful animal or floral shapes, which contained only one item, a solid perfume or solid powder. They were a sort of gift with purchase idea.
AN ENDEARING COLLECTIBLE
The golden age of compacts may have ended, but there is avid interest in these little gems. So much interest in collectible compacts that I was able to sell on the Internet a particularly handsome Italian enamel case displaying a decorative engine-turned picturesque design coated with translucent colored enamel. Both Sotheby’s and Doyle New York have conducted auctions in which signed Tiffany and Cartier gold or gem-set compacts hit the hammer at prices from $2,000 to $7,000. If this feature has perked your interest the Internet is loaded with information. One popular site is the Compact Collectors Club www.lady-a.com/antiques/COMPCLUB.html. ♥
Polly Guerin honed her skills as an Accessories Editor at the trade fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily and later taught product knowledge as professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where her definitive textbook and video production, Creative Fashion Presentations, is used even today. In 2009 she was a vice-president of RWA/NYC and currently serves as a board liaison. Visit her at http://www.pollytalk.com/.