I'm taking part in the Speakeasy Circus at Club Oberon tonight. I volunteered to be an usher so I could see it for free, and I ended up with a bit part -- primarily, I suspect, because I told them I already had appropriate wardrobe, which I do. My main function in the show is to be extremely loud in order to support an aerialist who isn't great at shouting.

I, of course, refuse to do costuming unless I can do it right, so I've gone out and scared up some flapper details. I bought a cheap cloche, because when do I ever not need more hats? And some knee-highs, because the proper place for a flapper's stockings is rolled down around her ankles, so she doesn't have to worry about them coming loose when she dances drunkenly. (There's also the option of not wearing them at all -- Clara Bow used to just paint her legs.) I already have appropriate shoes, an appropriate skirt, at least two appropriate sweaters, and if those don't work, a ruffly satin jacket that will.

I also bought a small powder compact. I happen to be out of pressed powder already, and I have a shoot on Saturday, but it'll help sell the costume. Cosmetics have existed for aeons, but things like powder compacts -- as opposed to loose powder in jars, applied at home with a giant fluffy puff -- didn't exist until the 1920s. Prior to WWI, respectable women didn't paint their faces. Any woman who did was immediately assumed to be an "actress", which at the time doubled as a popular euphemism for "whore". Flapper girls essentially invented mirrored compacts so they could piss their parents off by powdering their noses right at the dinner table.

We tend to think of compacts today as disposable. Buy new powder, get a new little plastic clamshell. Compacts from the 1920s and 1930s were not. They were status items and fashion accessories, and many of them were made of metal -- including precious ones like silver -- or ivory, and inlaid with cloisonné enamel, rhinestones, or even real jewels. And they were for a youthful crowd, so often the pieces were in that new-fangled Art Deco style, with bright colors and geometric designs. Most of the cheap ones you get today are either round or rectangular with plastic mirrors in them, but antique examples also come in shapes like oval and teardrop, and the mirrors were real silvered glass. A lot of them look like tiny cigarette cases, another thing that died out when the product they were meant to contain started coming wrapped in throwaway cardboard.

Some are even in the form of a tiny hinged mirror attached to the lid of a lipstick tube, which were also reusable back then. The pretend-chrome or -brass decorations on many brands of modern lipstick are a holdover from a time when lipstick tubes were heavy and real metal, and you were expected to replace the lipstick in them, rather than the whole tube. That seems to be falling by the wayside, though; more and more I see lip color in tubes with brushes or doe-foot wands, like the better grades of gloss, particularly as long-wear lipsticks usually use a mix of plasticiser and solvent as a carrier instead of soft wax.

Old powder compacts can be quite pretty and I wish I had a few, but I can't justify paying more than a few dollars for a trinket when I don't even know whether you can get someone to refill a pressed powder compact these days, much less how horribly much that would cost. I already think it's stupid I have to cough up $8 for some tinted titanium dioxide from Cover Girl.


  1. I have an enamelled Stratton powder compact that used to belong to one of my numerous great-aunts. It's beautiful, and I carried and used it for years - until the metal inside started growing verdigris, and I thought maybe I didn't want to be swiping that across my face. You used to be able to replace the powder easily, even 20 years ago; powder compacts came in a standard diameter, and Rimmel's plastic-cased compact had a handy-dandy little pinhole in the bottom, into which you could carefully poke a compass and push out the inner metal dish that contained the powder, and then slot it into your fancy compact. For all I know, you can still do that - I've been on loose powder for years, so I haven't checked.

  2. Actually, thinking about it, some compacts had a little mesh disc that fitted in under the rim, so you could fill it with loose powder instead of pressed powder. I think the mesh discs were a lot less durable than the rest of the compact, so I suspect most vintage compacts would be missing that component. The rim is a bitch, BTW - getting it open requires the sliding to one side of a TINY little latch, while flipping up the rim; two pairs of hands or a lot of co-ordination needed, and usually the sacrifice of at least three nails before you're done.


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