Sunday, December 21, 2014



We had the great honor of receiving an invitation to the opening night of Beauty is Power, The Jewish Museum's exhibition devoted to exploring the fascinating background of Helena Rubinstein (or Madame, as she was known to everyone) and her meteoric rise to unimaginable fame, wealth and influence through her cosmetics empire.  We didn't know what to expect, but were astonished and delighted by both the exhibition and the woman, and wholeheartedly recommend this exhibition to anyone.  Madame is a wonderful examplar of female self-empowerment at a time when powerful women making their way through the world on their own terms were few and far between.

Helena (nee Chaja) Rubinstein (1872-1965) was a 20th century cosmetics entrepreneur whose beauty salon empire, lifestyle, art collection, and luxury residences helped transform women's perception of themselves. The exhibit traces her rise from small-town Polish Jew to successful businesswoman, feminist and art patron with eclectic tastes in art, furniture and furnishings, clothing and jewelry. (You will observe throughout this post how she gives new meaning to the term "statement jewelry"!)

Among the most memorable personal aspects of the exhibition are Madame's portraits, which prominently feature her legendary wardrobe and jewelry, and often the color red. (Above: portrait by Toni Berli, 1947; below: portrait by Kurt Ferdinand von Pantz, 1944.)

Over a vitrine of jewelry containing a particularly striking necklace of silver-topped gold, pearls, and rose-cut and single-cut diamonds was this memorable anecdote and hilarious, yet telling, text:

On her honeymoon in 1908, Rubinstein had a fight with her first husband, Edward Titus. "I rushed out and for no reason at all hastened into the nearest jewelry shop where I bought myself an expensive string of pearls! Subsequently, whenever we quarreled over anything, I would go out and buy more pearls. Buying 'quarrel' jewelry is one of my weaknesses. Some women buy hats, but I am more extravagant in anger, as I am in most things."  (Titus, who published the then-scandalous Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence while they were living in Paris, helped Rubinstein gain access to avant garde society.)

Despite her incredible reputation for collecting, Madame had a very practical side, as evidenced by her re-purposing of the Balenciaga evening ensemble gown below into a suit wearable in daytime or to dinner. She often altered her formal clothing into more wearable clothing. (This suit is in the collection of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Roberto Montenegro's 1941 portrait "Helena Rubinstein in a Mexican Silver Necklace" captures Southwestern influences on her wardrobe and jewelry.

The silver necklace designed by legendary silversmith William Spratling was also on display at the Jewish Museum.

Likewise, this magnificent cabochon ruby gold ring with emeralds and round diamonds shown on her right hand in the Montenegro portrait was also on exhibit.

Madame wore and collected jewelry that she liked, not caring whether she mixed precious with semi-prescious stones. She is quoted as saying "I like large, beautifully colored stones, and I am not concerned about their value." This arresting Art Deco cuff bracelet, lent by Fred Leighton, combines a pink cabochon tourmaline, rock crystal, onyx, baguette diamonds, white gold and platinum.

In an interesting sixth-degree-of-separation connection, Helena Rubinstein met Andy Warhol in Tokyo during her 1957 world tour when she was in her eighties and he drew her portrait.  (Don't you want to know what he was doing there way back then, and how their paths crossed?  We do.)

 An avid collector himself, Warhol later acquired some of Rubinstein's jewelry, including this silver ring with the initials "HR" in rubies. Interestingly, the accompanying exhibition catalogue notes that Rubinstein, a lifelong master publicist on her own behalf "was constantly interviewed and rarely ended a session without giving a reporter a packet of products or a ring from her jewelry-laden fingers (chosen in advance for the purpose.)"

Her collection of art work is as multi-faceted as the woman herself, encompassing a range from African and Oceanic art to Surrealist paintings, photographs and sculpture.  Madame did not follow trends, she created them.  In 1935, having already been collecting African art for over 20 years, she loaned seventeen works to the Museum of Modern Art's seminal exhibition of African sculpture. This wood, brass and copper Bakota reliquary guardian figure (mbulu ngulu) is from Gabon (date unknown).  Although Madame collected what she liked, she also had access to the best known and respected artists of her time, from whom she delighted in learning.

Below, Madame with Brancusi's White Negress II.  One of Rubinstein's innovations was the beauty salon, where middle class women were taught not only wear make-up (previously the province of only actresses and prostitutes), but skin case, exercise and nutrition. Rubinstein's salons stretched from Europe to North and South America, and were decorated with pieces from her collection.  "Women who visit the salons on a regular basis develop a sense of discrimination and appreciation.  It is like visiting museums…  Every woman who can should have at least one salon experience", she said.  "It will teach her much and give her knowledge about herself."  Rubinstein famously used her art collection in her advertising as a way to distinguish herself from her competitors.

On display are works by Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Frida Kahlo, Georges Braques and Max Ernst, as well as a number of pieces by sculptor Elie Nadelman in a variety of mediums. This wooden "Hooded Head of a Woman" dates from 1916-1917.

Of course, THE artist of the century was Picasso, and Rubinstein approached the artist countless times to do a portrait of her.  Picasso, who did not do commissions, steadfastly refused.  Madame was not accustomed to not having her way, so one day she simply showed up at his doorstep.  As a result, Picasso finally grudgingly did a number of sketches of her.  Rubinstein's art collection was dispersed at auction not long after her death, but it is a testiment to her acumen that many of them were borrowed, for the purposes of this exhibition, from some of the most highly reputed museums of the world.

Making her way in the world as a Jew in overtly anti-semitic times (it is particularly notable that she never changed her name), Madame sought to show herself as a worldly, cultivated person.  Here she is photographed in a Paul Poiret dress that she wore in ad campaigns of the 20s.

The dress itself, in silk crepe de chine and velvet with metallic thread, is also part of the exhibition, lent by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Another Rubinstein garment on display is this Schiaparelli bolero, covered with embroidered dancing circus elephants and swinging trapeze artists against a background of decorative braiding from the surrealist designer's 1938 circus collection.  Madame wore it on her honeymoon that year with her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, who was some twenty years her junior.  She had divorced her first husband earlier the same year, completely reversing the usual male-female roles in conventional marriages and divorces.

Want a closer look at the workmanship?

A small room is devoted to Helena Rubinstein's ground-breaking cosmetics empire, empowering women to take care of themselves. One of her war-time ads declares "Beauty as a Duty" and advises that in addition to a woman's duty "to further the cause of the Allies", another duty "sometimes classed as an extravagance" is the Duty of Beauty. Women should surround the husband, brother or friend, after the horrors of war, with brightness and beauty, rather than "depressing unattractiveness".  In addition to advertisements and a video collage of news and advertising footage are actual examples from her cosmetics line.

In the 1939 classic The Women, we see the newly wealthy Joan Crawford indulging in a day of beauty in the comfort of her own home.  (Haven't seen the movie?  You MUST!)

You don't think Hollywood or Clare Booth Luce came up with that idea in a dream, do you?  Here is a shot from one of the film strips we saw demonstrating various treatments available at Rubinstein's salons.

Her packaging evidences Art Deco, Orientalist and Surrealist influences, with hourglass lipstick cases, modernist powder boxes and makeup product boxes featuring Dali-esqe floating eyes and lips. Madame loved Man Ray's 1924 painting "Observatory Time" and deftly repurposed the dramatic floating lips theme for her packaging.

Man Ray was a friend of her then-husband, Edward Titus, when this photograph was taken in 1924 of her wearing her signature pearls. Claiming to have created Theda Bara's Vamp style a decade earlier, Madame appropriated the haunting look featuring dark eye shadow and mascara and dark, bold lips with a white face. Many of her cosmetic products and treatments were focused on achieving a lily white complexion, encouraging women to use products "to refine and whiten coarse skin", asking "Have You a Smooth, White Neck?", and manufacturing a water-lily powder for any readers who might answer "no".  It is said that one of Rubinstein's first face creams, in Australia, where her business opened, cost ten pence to produce and six shillings to buy.

Jean instantly recognized the round gold rouge container on the left of the photo, the rectangular red Persian Black Mascara case on the right, and the sculptural lipstick cases as long-time fixtures on the mirrored tray on her mother's bureau. The clear red shade in the packaging was as strong and distinctive as the product's creator.

Readers will have noticed that all the portraits shown above portray Rubinstein as glamorous and youthful - even the opening portrait by Marie Laurencin, painted when Madame was 62.  By contrast, her 1957 portrait by Graham Sutherland was very realistic.  The accompanying text reads " '…Look at me… so old… so savage… like a witch!'  But after the painting was acclaimed at the Tate Gallery, she admitted, 'The picture grew on me.'"    This is the portrait that was chosen for her autobiography, "My Life for Beauty".  Here we see the Balenciaga silk evening gown (shown above in its shortened suit form), her signature pearls and several rings.

Okay, let us show you one more ring.  On her right hand in the portrait, she is wearing a gold carved ruby cameo ring surrounded with diamond and rubies. Here is what it looks like up close and personal.

This review hasn't even scratched the surface of Beauty Is Power. If you can't visit the show in New York before it closes on March 22, 2015, take heart. It travels to the Boca Musuem of Art, April 21 - July 12, 2015. If you can't see the exhibition -- or even if you can -- get the catalogue, exhaustively researched and documented by Mason Klein and published by Yale University Press in conjunction with the exhibition. Among his acknowledgements, Kline recognizes Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator, for managing numerous aspects of the exhibition, while also serving as chief coordinator of loans. Rebecca and Senior Publicist Molly Kurzius arranged our visit last Thursday evening to view the exhibition and take additional photographs for this posting, for which we are extremely grateful.

The cover, below, shows Madame in a 1934 publicity shot.  In a wonderful juxtaposition of cultures, she displays an Ivory Coast mask while wearing Chanel gloves in straw and velvet ("meant to suggest the accouterments of a conservator").

If you do go to see the show in New York, be sure to visit The Jewish Museum's gift shop.  As museum gift shop connaisseurs, we guarantee you will find all sorts of great things to fall in love with.  We did!  Including, among countless other things, Danielle Gori-Montanelli's felt tongue-in-rouged-cheek make up kit brooch.  (Seen here behind a lucite case.  Sorry!)

Or Maira Kalman's equally tongue-in-cheek pocket-sized Jewish Mother Gum.

For the more serious minded shopper, The Jewish Museum's store has a costume version of one of Helena Rubinstein's multi-strand pearl necklaces (not shown, but you can imagine!).

Listen to us: You have to go!  You'll thank us later.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Get Off the Holiday Gift-Giving Treadmill!

When you are as opinionated as we are, buying anything for each other as a surprise is especially challenging and fraught with too many potential pitfalls to count. Luckily, a few years ago, we decided to simply take the angst out of our mutual holiday gift-giving process. "How?" you might ask? Easy! We both agreed to make donations to each other's favorite charity in lieu of exchanging presents.  Besides, everything we really need, we already have.  And anything new we need won't wait for a special occasion.

This year, Jean chose Social Tees Animal Rescue as her charity-of-choice (big surprise there!) and Valerie selected the World Wildlife Fund. Although it doesn't entirely assuage all of the guilt associated with America's overly commercialized, product-driven holiday season, it can come darn close.

We encourage you to take a step back and take a page out of our book. Give to charity and pay it forward. There are so many people and creatures great and small in dire need. Give it a try and see how great it feels!

Of course, we don't rule out a little holiday celebrating. After all, we're not saints. But we're in the market to spread a little cheer.

Our checks really are in the mail!!

Sunday, December 14, 2014


We visit Death Becomes Her, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's look at widows' weeds in America and Great Britain

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we went to "Death Becomes Her", the exhibition of Victorian mourning clothing and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute which is on display until February 1, 2015. Foolishly, we picked a holiday weekend when the show and the museum were jam-packed with people, many of them tourists from out of town. But, being troopers who are used to crowds, we rallied and were able to view each item and read its signage.

Behind us is the mannequin depicting Queen Victoria, the British monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901 and raised the act of mourning to an art form.  When her husband Albert died of typhoid in 1861, Victoria spent the next 40 years of her life in mourning, giving birth to an entire industry devoted to mourning clothing and jewelry.  She subjected her court to three years of full mourning dressing.  Mourning clothing became an intricate part of 19th century life.  Mourning had its own language of colors, fabrics and behaviors.

Full mourning ran for one year and one day during which the widow wore dull black and no ornamentation; a black crepe weeping veil was the most visible sign.  The second mourning period ran for nine months during which minor ornamentation, fabric trim and mourning jewelry could be introduced.  The main dress was still of lusterless cloth but the veil could be lifted and worn back.  Half-mourning ran an additional three to six months, marked by elaborate fabrics and trims and all manner of jewelry.

Full "widow's weeds" consisted of a crepe dress with plain collar, broad weepers cuffs of white muslin; bombazine (silk and wool) mantle or cloak and crepe bonnet with veil outdoors and widow's cap indoors. The veil was made of gummed, tightly twisted silk threads, volatile and hazardous. Rain made it shrivel and practically disintegrate.

In these American mourning clothes dated circa the 1840s, black extends to everything, even the children. But mourning is not the only message here. As noted in the accompanying label, "Mourning dress served as a visual symbol of grief and of respect for the deceased while simultaneously demonstrating the wearer’s status, taste, and level of propriety." These people are shown in the first and deepest stage of mourning - no jewelry, no luster, no color. Even the elaborate shawl (second from left), ordinarily in a variety of colors, is a mourning shawl, in shades of black and gray.

An entire industry sprang up around mourning wear.  Jay’s of London, specializing in mourning wear, "published richly illustrated catalogues of the latest fashions, available in materials appropriate for mourning. Jay’s emphasized that the dictates of mourning and fashion could coexist".  This British black moire evening dress, dated to 1861, might have been worn during "the period of General Mourning ordered after the death of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, in 1861."

In the outfit below, the untutored eye sees a woman in deep mourning.  But an American in the 1870s, when this was made, would have detected a fashion statement, particularly in the highly decorated hem, popular at the time.  The exhibition room is lined with quotations about mourning wear, including this stunning statement:  "So many eyes have been injured by the persistent wearing of crape veils, that physicians forbid them.  The eyes that survive the bitterness of tears succumb to the poisonous rasping of crape." - The Delineator, 1895.   (Editors' note: we were both perplexed by the seemingly interchangeable use of crepe and crape.  There may be a difference.  If anyone can fill us in, please do.  In the meantime, we are using the spellings as we found them in the Museum's texts.)

This walking costume consists of a jacket in mourning crape and a skirt of bombazine, both mourning fabrics.  Bombazine was woven of silk warps and wool wefts.  The wool helped mute the inappropriate luster of the silk.  (While the name bombazine has a brash sound to it, it originates in the Greek and Latin for silk.)  Note how much detailing has gone into the skirt, despite its being mourning attire.  Before the rise of the mourning wear industry, ordinary clothes might be dyed black.

Little of the exhibition is devoted to men's mourning wear.    As noted in the Museum's labeling, "During an era when most men habitually dressed in dark, uniformly subdued fabrics, the attire of a man in mourning scarcely changed. The increasingly sober nature of menswear throughout the nineteenth century lay in stark contrast to the exuberant and rapidly changing styles of womenswear and reflected the status of the wearer more subtly, through nuances of cut and fit. Mourning was likewise signified through subtle alterations to a man’s wardrobe, such as a hat with a deep black band, often accompanied by black accessories, including gloves, cufflinks, and neckties. Mourning-dress requirements were more loosely defined for men than for women, and a man was less likely to be censured if he chose not to wear mourning. "

This American costume, dating to the late 1890s, also reflects the first and deepest stage of mourning, but has nevertheless kept up with all the latest fashion trends.  Before the perfection of chemical dyes, black had been a very expensive color to dye, and as a result had formerly been worn by the wealthier classes.  Early black chemical dyes faded to blue or black, and was a concern that makers of mourning wear had to address.

This suit dated 1915 very much reflects the fashions of the times.

After the first year in all black, a woman was allowed to introduce color into her wardrobe.  This Gay '90s period dress, in purple and black silk velvet, black and white silk satin, white silk faille and gold metallic thread, consists of fabrics, embellishments and colors consistent with "half mourning".   The Museum labeling points out that "[t]he availability of an expanding range of ready-made goods for women was facilitated by the invention of the sewing machine, increasing standardization of dress patterns, and the rise of department stores that capitalized on these innovations."

This satirical cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson, dated 1900, comments on the highly fraught status of widows.  Convention dictated that she dress to show that she was unavailable, but widowhood also left her unprotected, and a target of criticism and gossip.

The politics of death in the United States and Britain had a major impact on mourning clothes.  In one of those rare circumstances where the Museum was given the background story along with the donation, it appears that this was a wedding dress "worn in 1868 in West Virginia, the half-mourning colors chosen in honor of those who died during the Civil War", although neither the bride nor the groom had lost family members.

As mentioned above, the death of Prince Albert in 1861 had repercussions for decades.

The queen's widow's cap.

Below are two half-mourning dresses, one in mauve, the other in purple, worn by Queen Alexandra in 1902 in deference to the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901.  Queen Alexandra's decision not to prolong full mourning as Victoria did reflects not only the differences in their personalities but changing views toward mourning as well.  (As an aside, inquiring minds want to know how garments from Queen Victoria's and Queen Alexandra's wardrobes came into U.S. hands.  Surely some breach of protocol was involved?)

In 1910, Edward VII passed away shortly before the annual Ascot races.  Custom would ordinarily have demanded that the races be cancelled, but Edward had been a great aficionado of horse racing.  So it was determined that Ascot could proceed, with the proviso that everyone wear mourning attire.

It was with the advent of World War I that the mourning industry began to fade.  The Museum's labeling reads:  "The war accelerated the abandonment of strict codes of mourning etiquette, particularly in Britain and the United States, where the mass casualties of the war and women’s changing roles prompted a reevaluation of elaborate mourning rituals. As women were joining the workforce and contributing to the war effort, periods of seclusion tied to traditional forms of mourning dress lost their relevance.  After the war, fashion coverage of mourning diminished, yielding to increasing freedom regarding how, or whether, to display personal grief. "

The Metropolitan's choice of a weeping willow tree at the entrance to the exhibition was particularly apt.

In the mourning clothes industry, accessories played a large role. This vitrine contained a mourning veil, parasol and fan, all encased in black crepe. The Met's signage indicated that the accompanying veil is composed of "mourning crape".  Mass production of this material was perfected by English manufacturers during the first half of the nineteenth century. In order to achieve the fabric's distinct texture and finish, undyed gauze made from highly twisted silk yarns was first passed through a pair of rollers; one was engraved with a pattern that was impressed upon the textile. Next, the fabric was soaked in a hot liquid, relaxing the twisted threads and creating a crimped effect. It was then dyed and dressed with a gum or starch, giving it a stiff body and the dull appearance required of deep mourning.

The American parasol (ca. 1895-1900) is made of black silk mousseline, black silk crape, black silk taffeta, wood, metal and tortoiseshell; the American mourning fan (dated 1880-1885) of black plain weave silk and ebonized sandalwood; all are from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection. The parasol's canopy of black taffeta is overlaid with mourning crape, surmounted by rusched mousseline de soie and bands of lace. This application echoes the rich layering of airy fabrics characteristic of feminine garments of the period. This closeup photograph of the parasol gives you an idea of the intricacies of the fabrics.

Decorations on deep mourning hats were matte.

Even the grapes on this hat are colored charcoal.

This light and airy egret feather hat would have been worn much later in the mourning period.

Valerie gets into the mood of the exhibition.

Fashion journals of the times detailed what women might tastefully wear.  Below are mourning dresses from 1809 Ackerman's Repository of Arts etc. (British, 1809-29)

A walking dress.

Hair of a loved one was often incorporated into the jewelry as a cherished memento. This late 19th century mourning necklace and locket are made of gold, onyx, seed pearl and hair.

It was a pleasant surprise to read on the label that this gold, enamel, diamond and hair brooch from 1810 was courtesy of Lynn Yeager, our favorite Vogue writer and woman-about-town.  It was inscribed on the reverse, reserved in gold on black enamel "Charles James Ob: 30 April 1810/Phillip Ob: 7 April 1808".

Engraved "In memory of 17 May 1859" on the back, this gold locket contains a curled lock of hair behind glass.

This elaborate diamond and agate brooch from 1874 also incorporates hair.

Chains of finely braided hair of a loved one were woven into necklaces and watch fobs as the ultimate remembrance.

This jet and metal British necklace is circa 1860.  Whitby jet was considered the best quality.

Matte black bog oak was often carved and engraved and worn during periods of deep mourning.  This cross,  a gift to Jean several years ago from Kirsten Hawthorne, is a classic example.

Cameos were also a popular image incorporated into mourning jewelry. This black and butterscotch Bakelite cameo pin belonged to Jean's Scottish grandmother.

This black Bakelite cameo pendant with an identical image also was inherited from Jean's grandmother.

Likewise, this carved ivory and silver pin was passed down through her family.

If you are interested in adding some Victorian jewelry to your own collection, be aware that examples of mourning jewelry, such as this carved gutta percha pin, are available on web auctions.  (Fun fact: gutta percha was also used inside early golf balls.)

Hope you enjoyed this post.  Send us your comments.  Cheers!