One of my current obsessions is with the fashion illustrations of Rene Gruau. The French artist is most famous for his advertisements for the perfumes and fashions of the House of Dior. He was the quintessential mid-century artist in that his illustrations are sparse and stylized but perfectly convey the subject. His drawings had a depth and soul to them that transcended mere commercial art. Dior was a major innovator of fashion after World War II, and Gruau was the artistic equivalent. They complemented each other perfectly.
Gruau’s most iconic work is from the Forties and Fifties, but his artistic collaboration with the House of Dior continued through the 1980s. His work from the Seventies maintains his distinctive illustrative style, but the sophisticated gowns and elaborate hairstyles that epitomized Fifties glamor have been replaced by long hair and (gasp!) trousers for women. In a decade where commercial photography overtook illustration in beauty and fashion ads, Gruau’s work during that era is a reassuring and perhaps wistful holdout of a more innocent time.
Gruau passed away in 2004 at the ripe old age of 95. Somerset House in London recently recognized Gruau’s place in the world of commercial illustration with an exhbition, Dior Illustrated: Rene Gruau and the Line of Beauty.” Today, the fine art of commercial illustration has taken a back seat to digital photography and manipulation. Whereas once upon a time illustrations could create what photographs could not, such as surreal or fantastic scenarios, today Photoshop can recreate almost anything. Thus, the need for illustrations is not as urgent as it perhaps once was. Which is a pity, because illustration in vintage advertisements is an art form in itself, one that is increasingly becoming lost in today’s digital world.
Young ‘n Free was a line of bodycare products aimed at teenaged girls who were “just learning to be pretty.” I didn’t know being pretty was something you learned, but whatevs. Young ‘n Free promised to take girls from tomboy to teenaged with their line of hair care products, deodorant, bubble bath, and cologne. The ad above, from 1970, shows a tween-aged girl trying on a sophisticated party dress over her tomboyish jeans and moccasins. Our little girl is growing up so fast! But take a closer look. Is this the girl who invented the “dress over jeans” look that girls today are sporting?
And check out the psychedelic product packaging! The pretty pink, green and blue bottles with white flowers were sure to grab the attention of the average teenaged girl. I miss skincare and makeup lines that are designed to be cute enough to appeal to young girls, such as Love’s Baby Soft or Tinkerbell. They made being a kid, or more specifically, a girl kid, more fun. Girls of today are more sophisticated than girls in the Seventies. Born and raised during the age of technology, influenced by cable television and the Internet, they might allow their attention to be diverted from their text messaging just long enough to scoff at a bar of pink soap or bottles with flowers on them. Then again, Sephora just came out with a Hello Kitty line of makeup, so perhaps girls of today aren’t that different after all.
And in case you’re wondering, I purchased several items of the Helly Kitty makeup from Sephora, allowing me to relive that childhood pleasure of buying cute, gender-specific personal care products.
Last week I reminisced about Candies, the shoes my mother wouldn’t let me have when I was a kid. But she did let me have a pair of Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Dr. Scholls Original Exercise Sandals were introduced in 1959 as a footcare device designed to tone the leg muscles, but in the 1960s and 70s they became fashionable as mainstream footwear. I remember the Dr. Scholl’s sandal display in the little pharmacy in our town. It featured footprints in the sizes that the sandals were available in. You placed your foot in the footprints to determine your size, then you picked out the color you wanted and grabbed the box from the display. Talk about self-serve. Every time my sister and I accompanied our mother to the pharmacy, we were drawn to the display, putting our feet in the footprints to determine the size of the sandals that our mother didn’t buy for us. Until one day she did. I chose tan, a boring color choice that I almost immediately regretted. My sister, always a little more daring than I, chose blue. I wore my Dr. Scholls’ during the entire summer before seventh grade, although they weren’t the most practical shoes to wear while riding your bike. They were, however, perfect for wearing to the pool.
In the 1990s, the independent neighborhood pharmacies began to be replaced by large drugstore chains that were impersonal and overpriced. It was also in the 1990s that Dr. Scholl’s rebranded their classic wooden sandals. Instead of being sold in drugstores as in the Seventies, they were now sold in upscale department stores like Nordstrom’s, with pricetags to match. I scoffed every time I saw the displays, because I still had my original Dr. Scholls from when I was a kid. Dr. Scholls sandals were the forefathers of FitFlops, Sketchers, and the host of other shoes that tone your legs and buttocks. I still wear mine occasionally, as my shoe size hasn’t changed since I was twelve years old. They remind me of summertime and the Seventies and that little neighborhood pharmacy with the Dr. Scholl’s display.
As with all kids, when I was young my mom bought my shoes for me. But my mom wouldn’t buy me a pair of Candies in 1979. As an adult looking back on it more than thirty years later, I can’t really say that I blame her. To be honest, backless stiletto sandals weren’t really practical for the seventh grade, nor were they age-appropriate, though that didn’t matter to me at the time. To make matters worse, the Candies corporate headquarters building was one town away from mine, and across the road from the ice-skating rink where my sister and I went skating with our friends. It mocked me every time I went ice skating. But even if I didn’t have a pair of Candies, my friend Marie did. Her mom was cool! (Did you hear that, Mom?). Whenever I went over to her house, I wore her Candies shoes all day until it was time to go home. When I walked around in them, I felt grown up, sophisticated, and really, really tall.
Today, I have for the most part given up on very high heels in favor of more comfortable shoes – not that I’m ready for orthopedic shoes, mind you. But thinking about Candies has rekindled my desire to own a pair. I don’t need my mom to buy my shoes for me anymore, and the vintage Seventies sandals that I coveted so long ago are available on eBay and Etsy. So I purchased these fabulous vintage Candies online.
I now have the height that I didn’t have in 1979, but with Candies maybe I can finally attain the glamour and sophistication that have eluded me all these years. Of course, now that I’ve bought them, I’m not sure what to do with them. They’re still a bit “dangerous” to me, because even though I’m no longer that awkward seventh grader who coveted them, I’m now the grown woman who doesn’t have the lifestyle that Candies would complement. Unless Studio 54 reopens. Then I’d be all set.
Fashion Fair is a line of makeup that specifically caters to the needs of African American women. In the Seventies, most makeup companies didn’t offer foundation shades for deeper complexions. Fashion Fair rectified that. An article from the Monday, June 29, 1970 edition of Time Magazine reflected on the new cosmetic lines created to address the problems women of color faced when purchasing cosmetics. An ad from 1976 shows Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, then “just a soul singer from Detroit,” extolling the virtues of Fashion Fair makeup. Both Fashion Fair and Aretha Franklin would become icons within their respective industries.
Fashion Fair cosmetics was started in 1973 by Eunice Walker Johnson. Eunice was the wife of publisher John H. Johnson. Together Eunice and her husband founded Ebony magazine in 1945 to cater to the interests of African Americans. A sister publication, Jet, was started in 1951. In 1956, Eunice started the Ebony Fashion Fair, a fashion show featuring haute couture fashions from around the world. It started as a fundraiser for a hospital and quickly became an annual traveling show to benefit many charities. The show used only African American models, and also featured upcoming African American desigers such as James Daugherty and Stephany Burrows. The Ebony Fashion Fair ran from 1956 until 2008. There were plans for a 2009 show, but the show was abruptly cancelled, a casualty of the poor economy. Eunice Walker Johnson died in 2010 at the age of 93.
Things happen when you wear Eleganza. What kind of things, you ask? Snickers of laughter behind your back immediately come to mind. It’s hard to believe anyone wore clothes like these. They look more like something from “Space 1999” than contemporary fashion. Seriously, what were they thinking? But the gentlemen in these ads exude the confidence that can only come from wearing the most fashionable eye-catching slacks, big flares, and doubleknits money can buy. And I’m sure the ladies loved it, because every girl’s crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.
The word “Eleganza” reminds me of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as in “Prepare to gag on my eleganza!” One thing’s for sure, this Eleganza certainly triggers my gag reflex.