From Racy To Respectable: The Making Of Modern Cosmetics

Even if you're not "into" makeup, fascinating documentary The Powder and the Glory, which premiered on PBS on Monday, is 90 minutes seriously well spent.

TPATG is the story of the rivalry between makeup mavens Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, and the birth of the modern cosmetics industry. Whereas before makeup had been the purview of actresses and whores, and a clandestine secret of respectable women, these two dames took it public, made it chic, and brought women into the marketplace, all the while sporting some truly superb millinery. As Rubinstein put it, before them, "All the American women had purple noses and gray lips, and their faces were chalk white from terrible powder. I realized that the United States could be my life's work."

Elizabeth Arden (real name, awesomely, Florence Nightingale Graham) hailed from rural Ontario, was a suffragette and a self-made woman. Helena (Chaya) Rubinstein was Polish-born, and established her business in Europe before taking the rivalry to Fifth Avenue, only blocks from Arden's salon. Over the course of a fifty-year rivalry of products and image, the two doyennes avoided each other - and never met. Rubinstein famously said, "With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world."

While it's always fun to see imperious dames of a certain era sweeping around, making pronouncements, and generally ruling their respective roosts with stylish elan, it's also worth considering that this was the only way a woman could get ahead: by being larger-than-life, and to a degree probably sacrificing some of the personal for the image. It must have been a tricky balancing act: being grandes dames without threatening the men; being always "women" before "executives" yet careful not to expose any femininity that could be perceived as weakness. (See also "Chanel, Coco" and "Draper, Dorothy.") The film touches on prejudice they dealt with (although we don't hear much about the anti-semitism Rubinstein must surely have faced as a woman working in this era), but it's a side note...probably because they chose not to expose these things themselves in a time when a woman couldn't afford even perceived chinks in her armor. Could such characters exist today? Probably not - not least because they wouldn't need to.

The film's clumsy at points, and not always satisfying about the cultural implications of the evolving makeup industry, but as biography of amazing women - and a really good rivalry story - it's a very good watch. Then too, it's fascinating to consider the implications of cosmetics as early liberator - and to consider that in an era when female entrepreneurship was difficult enough, this was a particularly outre line of work. That said, the timing was right - and the doc does a lot with exploring the synergy of the development of makeup and film...and by extension, the deification of Hollywood as role model.

I can pay this film no higher compliment than to reprint Star magazine's disappointed pan:

But it gets a stuffy, academic treatment in this boring film. It should be fun but, instead of gossip by insiders, it's mostly a bunch of professors talking about it in dull, scholarly terms. The subject is fascinating - particularly the way the arrival of movies changed people's attitudes toward make-up (before movies, the only women who painted their faces were actresses - and prostitutes!). But this film finds ways to drain the juice out of every aspect of this subject that it looks at.

The Powder and the Glory [powderandglory.com]
The Powder and the Glory [Star]