“An Image-Making Maven: A Review of ‘Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power’”

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“Beauty is Power” is a somewhat controversial statement. Feminist of the past and even in modern day often dismiss cultivating “feminine” beauty as oppressive. Rarely, is beauty, femininity or makeup seen as powerful. The makeup industry itself tends to shy away from linking their products to a powerful image, and instead, imbues them with a dainty, graceful, and gentle persona. It took an unconventional and eccentric woman to see the great profitability in melding these two seemingly disparate terms into a slogan that sold not only beauty products, but created a much coveted lifestyle.

The Jewish Museum’s Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power unpacks this profitable and quite brilliant phrase that was vital to Helena Rubinstein’s success. Rubinstein’s famous mantra “beauty is power” was emphasized explicitly and implicitly throughout the exhibition. However, the exhibition focused more on not how beauty is power, but rather, on how Rubinstein and her company became powerful.

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The opening of the exhibition began with curator Mason Klein’s perspective on the poignancy of Rubinstein’s “beauty is power:” ‘“Beauty is Power’-The phrase emphasizes empowerment and is an early indication of Rubenstein’s distinctive blend of commercial savvy and inherent feminism.” A large portrait of a 62 year-old Rubinstein in front of a green theatrical curtain spoke to the glamorous, artistic identity that she cultivated throughout her lifetime. The portrait by Laurencin with Rubinstein as a “youthful maharani, a heavily bejeweled Indian princess” showed how the image that Rubinstein construed for herself was much like makeup: artificial, beautiful, and fantastical. A largely printed short biography on Helena placed next to this painting read as a biased encyclopedia account. This overview of Rubinstein’s life was as worshipping as the painting that depicted her as an Indian princess. Two elderly women next to me cooed, “ahh…a self-made woman,” “a modern-day woman” after reading the three-minute story of Rubinstein’s life.

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The first out of eight rooms in the exhibit quickly drew the connection between Rubinstein’s love of art and its centrality to her work and life; Baris Lovet-Lorski’s God Unknown (1926) had an information card presented next to it that read Rubinstein’s “universe both aesthetically and in business was the theater of the face.” Mason Klein points out from the beginning of the exhibition how Rubinstein developed a strong sense of self at a young age by noting, in a caption below a rare family portrait taken in Poland circa 1888, that Rubenstein “shows the flair, sense of self and image in the early stages of her life that would become essential to her when branding her products and developing her company.” An article called “Tiny Tireless Tycoon of Beauty” from a 1964 Life magazine, also in the well lit glass case along with the family portrait, portrayed Rubinstein as a lager-than-life personality who loved publicity: “She was 4ft 10 inches tall. She continued to run her vast company, taking morning meetings, in bed and regularly appearing in publicity photographs.” Also, in the first room was a 1957 House of Balenciaga Silk evening ensemble, with a caption beside it lauding Helena as a woman who “wore clothes by the most stylish couturiers.” This dress was out of context in the first room and would have been more appropriately showcased in the “glittering armor” room with designs by Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. The ensemble was successfully put on a headless mannequin that allowed the exhibition goer to imagine Helena’s face that was re-envisioned by various artists. In reference to multiple enormous portraits displayed on a plain white center wall in a linear manner, the curator acknowledges that many of the portraits of Rubinstein may not have conveyed her “real” self, but an idealized version of her self: “most of Rubinstein’s portraits made her look far younger than she was.” The William Spratling Helena Rubinstein Necklace circa 1900 that depicts Helena as the “Virgin of Guadalupe who is surrounded by Sunrays” again shows how Rubenstein used art to engender a goddess-like image. The exhibition suggested throughout its duration that Rubinstein knew that image, rather than beauty, is power. Rubinstein was well aware of the concept that lies at the core of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “whoever produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products wins the race.”

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The second room of the exhibit title “democratizing art” would have been more adequately titled “appropriating art for personal gain.” Rubenstein’s sponsorship of art can be seen as allowing women, who were her primary consumers, to be more aware and educated of what was then seen as “unusual” African art, but also can be viewed as her exploitation of this art for an exotic image of herself and her brand. Beside a row of Elie Nadelman’s heads of statues evenly displayed on crisp white iconic columns was a largely printed passage that read: “Rubenstein met Elie Nadelman in 1911 in London, and immediately realized that he would be the perfect artist to show in salons.” This again reminded me of Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO: “The effect, if not always the original intent, of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make it the star. It is not to sponsor culture but to be the culture.” Although, Mason Klein does not really view Rubinstein’s appropriation of art as exploitive, but rather as “genius.” For instance, the curator writes in a passage placed on the side-wall in the third room, “Makeup thus becomes a metaphor for modern art’s patina of enigma and symbolism. It was Rubinstein’s genius to sense instinctively that there was a connection between these two modernist phenomena.”

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Though he overlooked Rubinstein’s somewhat exploitive incorporation of art into her image and company, Mason Klein effectively showed how Rubinstein was extremely attentive to the carefully crafted image that she constructed. In the room “glittering armor,” the curator selected a quote from one of Rubinstein’s memoir to reveal Rubinstein’s awareness of this self-constructed identity and placed it beside an exquisite case of sparkling jewels: “I feel that these accessories, combined with my clothes, give a definite identity.” In the section “collector’s fantasy,” the curator builds on Rubinstein’s beyond-her-times ability to cultivate a public image. Precluding a sizable yet not oversaturated display of magazine articles and clippings of Rubinstein’s apartments, Mason Klein reinforced Rubinstein’s keen ability to develop a public image in a passage displayed on the wall that read: “As fashion and home-décor magazines proliferated Rubenstein began to use her apartments in Paris and New York for publicity. She knew that her home as well as her salon were essential to the prosperity of her company.” Likewise, in the last room titled “putting on a face,” which displayed various Rubinstein self-help beauty manuals such as My Life for Beauty, The Art of Female Beauty, and This Way to Beauty” along with a promotional video, the curator noted: “Beyond providing virtually every conceivable beauty treatment, Rubenstein’s publicity instructional books and innumerable brochures with advertisements on dangers of sun-tanning, the necessariness of good nutrition and other topics were personal and offered insight into her thinking.” While the exhibition hinted at how beauty was power by seeking to show how, in the curator’s words, Rubinstein’s “dual enterprise of modern art and personal beauty” gave women a “sense of individuality and independence” by emphasizing “self-invention,” it mostly exposed how Rubinstein became the image of a reputable, yet albeit uncommon beauty expert and master of marketing in the 20th century. The exhibition left me questioning if its title should be changed to Image is Power.

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Bibliography

Klein, Naomi. New Branded World & The Brand Expands. In: No Logo. London: Flamingo, 2001. Pp. 270-310.

The Smothering Shroud of Mourning Dress: A Review of the Exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning

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In the age of social media, rarely does anything have a single name. A hashtag becomes attached to most events, places, and people and functions as a secondary form of identification as it enters the whirlpool of cyberspace. This is true of the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning with its hashtag #DeathBecomesHer.

As I looked at #DeathBecomesHer printed underneath the title of the exhibition, I questioned how it altered the viewer’s experience. The hashtag allowed the viewer to have a voice and sense of authority in a discussion, albeit in an endless, massive one. On the other hand, #DeathBecomesHer also satisfies curator Harold Koda’s desire to promote his exhibition by expanding the exhibition beyond the confines of the Costume Center’s physical walls.

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#DeathBecomesHer was not the only attempt to make the exhibition more interactive and not just a handful of haunting mannequins embalmed in clothes of the dead. Quotes from works of 19th century etiquette books, magazines, literature, and diaries were projected on the walls. These quotes vanished with the projected shadow of a Victorian woman, but then reappeared after her passing. The metaphorical projection of the widow veiling and unveiling these quotes was clever but may have caused viewers to linger longer than they would have if the quotes were not shrouded by the mourning widow. One viewer pushed me aside as he tried to read the disappearing Edith Wharton quote.

The quotes that Koda selected conveyed that mourning dress was influenced by class, gender roles, and social mores. Quotes such as “mourning garments…are often a certain respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not” supported the subjective statement that mourning dress was more a form of propriety. Some quotes suggested that mourning dress confirmed women’s roles, like the passage from Edith Wharton’s New Year’s Day: “She seemed to see people and life through the confusing blur of the long crape veil in which it was a widow’s duty to shroud her affliction.” While other quotes revealed that mourning attire solidified class stratification and become a financial concern to many: “There is probably another reason for not donning mourning, it is very expensive now.” The projected quotes gave the exhibition a more critical edge as it attempted to look at mourning attire through the lens of gender, economics, and culture.

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The design of the exhibition complemented the melancholic, dreary title of Death Becomes Her. A diaphanous, veil-like gray curtain sectioned off the mannequins into tiny clusters of two, three, four or five. Unlike Dance & Fashion, Death Becomes Her seemed very sparse with the small amount of costumes on display. Since there were not many mannequins on display it was easy to piece together which information card belonged to which mannequin. The dim lights along with Gabriel Faure’s Requiem Op. 48 augmented the ominous atmosphere. Though the exhibition was dark, the mannequins were not swallowed by the dimness of the room since they were placed on a white stage with strategically placed lighting. The mannequins themselves engendered an element of death with their icy, statuesque faces of white plastic. There was an artificial liveliness to the mannequins with their white curly hair wigs of various coiffures, their titled heads, and delicate hand gestures that epitomized Victorian propriety, positioned as if posing for a portrait.

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However, not all of the costumes fell into the category of somber mourning garments. Two glittering, sequined mannequins reigned in a private section apart from the main stage. There was a crowd gathered around these two evening dresses expressive of “the opulence of the court’s tones of half mourning.” One of these evening dresses was worn by Queen Alexandra the year following Queen Victoria’s death. The exhibition was somewhat attentive to mourning dress and aristocracy as it also showed mourning attire worn by Queen Victoria. Unlike FIT’S exhibition Exposed: The History of Lingerie, Death Becomes Her did stray from using the ideal, modelesque mannequin by incorporating a mannequin that was true to Queen Victoria’s plump, stocky figure. However, Death Becomes Her only deviated from the miniature Victorian silhouette for the Queen.

The information labels regarding the garments were presented at foot of stage and provided extensive information on the type of garment, the year it was made and worn along with a detailed description of the make and the designer, listing names such as The House of Worth and retailers of mourning goodas James McCreery & Co. The labels included passages from magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. A clipping from Vogue underpinned the idea that mourning attire had a part in the volatile forces of fashion: “Black is more than ever the favorite color of fashion.”

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The information cards gave significant insight into the double-standard of mourning dress. Many of the descriptions seemed to imply that the mourning dress sought to control the autonomous widow whose unclaimed, alluring sexuality and body was a threat to the stability of a patriarchal society, Koda himself writes of the widow, “As a woman without material constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.” The exhibition depicted how female modesty and chastity were imposed through mourning dress that emulated “the humble habits of nuns.” Death Becomes Her did more than just skim the surface of mourning dress history by successfully examining the ways this type of dress affected the lives of women.

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“A Widow and Her Friends” by Charles Dana Gibson, placed in an adjacent room full of mourning dress accessories, photographs and fashion plates, seemed to suggest the policing and containment of the threatening widow. “A Widow and Her Friends” follows the life a young widow or “a sexually alluring and knowing figure who is potentially disruptive to the prevailing social order.” The illustration ends with the widow “unable to find a clear place for herself in society” and in a convent. This collection of prints, along with other quotes, photographs, style manuals, and illustrations, and even the title Death Becomes Her explored the problematic ideals of female modesty and chastity that mourning dress embodied and enforced. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning left me questioning if death really does become her when she veils herself in mourning attire? Does a woman figuratively die when donning this dress of death?

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Can Fashion Design Challenge Women’s Violence in Public Spaces?

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Fashion designers are increasingly imbuing meaning within their designs and using them as potent messages. A recent Parsons’ graduate designed an entire collection based on her frustration with violence towards women in public spaces. Can fashion be used to stop women’s degradation to sexual objects and treatment as such in the public sphere?

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Check out this Parsons’ graduate thesis collection “Masked for Battle” 

How Fashion, Power, and Women is still a Problematic Combination

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“Women, Fashion, and Power” at the Design Museum

Sadly, fashion is not seen as source of empowerment for women in a society that considers femininity as inferior and views it as “other” than or next to “masculinity.” It is as Simone de Beauvior would claim, “the second sex.”

This article makes the great point of how femininity and fashion are devalued and suppressed in today’s workforce. It’s still problematic to think of fashion as empowering for women. Fashion is far from frivolous, but today’s powerful women largely see it as degrading.

Is Makeup a form of Resilience?

Makeup is often viewed as a means to please the male gaze. However, Arabelle Sicardi   compares movies with resilient heroines to modern day runway looks. Sicardi points out how makeup in these movies and couture collections can defy a “pretty” look and exude fierceness, power, and determination. In this brilliant article, Sicardi shows how makeup isn’t about covering up insecurities, but is “about power and taking it back, about resistance and glamour.”

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The Liberating Effect of Fashion

In honor of International Women’s Day, AnOther Magazine dug into to their archives and selected past quotes from inspiring women. One of my favorites was a quote from Rei Kawakubo that touches upon the liberating effect of fashion.

“Dress is a way to express one’s personality and I thought it could be liberating to be able to express various sides of one’s character at the same time through clothes. It’s up to each person to be free ­– how they feel each day, how they feel in general, what kind of person they are, whether they want to dress up or be themselves or experiment with something new.” -Rei Kawakubo A/W 2006

 

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My Life in Vogue

The “My Life in Vogue” personal mini-films showcases how fashion shapes the lives of six brilliant, successful young women. These vignettes show that whether she is a curator, design guru, financial planner, actress, or composer, style plays a significant role in a woman’s life. While these women have very different stories, they all view dress as a creative outlet and expression of one’s personality. Check out these intimate portraits of the fashionable lives of these six unique women http://www.vogue.com/mylifeinvogue/.

My Life in Vogue Contest. (www.vogue.com)

My Life in Vogue Contest. (www.vogue.com)

The Row’s Pre-Fall Collection 2014

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The Row’s Pre-Fall 2014 collection is a mix of sophistication, restraint, complexity, and simplicity. Describing the pieces calls for many paradoxes because the collection is paradoxical, yet entirely practical.  While the collection has its fair share of luxury leather, cashmere, faux fur, and mohair, there is a heavy utilitarian theme.  The Olsens penchant for exquisite fabrics is juxtaposed by the pieces’ functionality. Take for example, the waterproof extra long and generously A-line trench with a fanny pack. The collection includes the fundamentals of a working wardrobe such as trim blazers in sturdy wool and slid-on leather loafers. Gender-blending designs like the faux wrap midi-length skirt in men shirting strips and simple bias cut shift may even seem a bit anti-fashion, though pieces like the aforementioned have been bombarding the catwalks as of late. These gender-blurring pieces in women’s clothing can help with leveling the playing field between men and women. The functionality of the collection with the fanny pack, trench coat, shoulder bag, and loafers also encourages women’s mobility and presence in the corporate world. The Olsens said they were inspired by “classic American pieces” and by images of elderly men and women in their gardens. Their timeless, ageless collection successfully showcased their inspiration. Tonal floral motifs on silk blouses gave the collection a feminine touch and preserved remnants of summer and spring. However, the collection didn’t carry a note of verdant richness with most of the pieces in black, gray, crème, maroon, and navy. This traditional collection catered to the sophisticated, yet hardworking shopper with the 60-something entrepreneur Linda Rodin starring in its lookbook. With their new store opening in Los Angeles this summer, this pre-fall collection will be particularly important. The store looks as if it is on the path to success since the functionality of the collection carefully complements a California lifestyle.

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Link

Suzy Menkes’ “Crossing Gender Boundaries Again”

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Suzy Menkes’ “Crossing Gender Boundaries Again”

Menkes’ article “Crossing Gender Boundaries” discusses the gender-bending designs of J.W. Anderson, Chistopher Raeburn, Richard Nicoll, and Craig Green. These A/W 2014 collections challenge Western notions of masculinity. According to Menkes, these designs elicit questions such as “if other cultures can present males in skirts and robes, shouldn’t they be absorbed into Western culture?” Read Menkes’ article in the NY Times to join the conversation on gender-playing fashion.

J.W. Anderson, autumn/winter 2014. Regis Colin, Nowfashion.com

J.W. Anderson, autumn/winter 2014. Regis Colin, Nowfashion.com

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