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illustrative style, but the sophisticated gowns and elaborate hairstyles that epitomized Fifties glamor have been replaced by long hair and (gasp!)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.
Back in the Seventies, the Avon Lady was as much a neighborhood institution as the fire department or the Fourth of July picnic. In my neighborhood, it was Mrs. Peerless. I can still picture her today. I can recall the excitement I felt when she came to the door because she had two things I really wanted: the white paper bag containing my mother’s order from her previous visit, and the new Avon catalogue. Whenever my mom placed an order, she’d let my sister and I look at the catalogue and pick something out. Avon made fun, unique items that they don’t make today, like their famous figural perfume bottles, and plastic figural brooches that contained solid perfume. I would always get a solid perfume brooch in my stocking at Christmas, and often I’d find under the tree a wrapped box containing a jar of creme perfume shaped like a snowman, or a bottle of liquid perfume in the shape of a girl, her top half serving as the cap, while her skirt contained the perfume.
My two favorite Avon fragrances were Sweet Honesty and Pink and Pretty. Pink and Pretty has long since been discontinued, though Avon still makes Sweet Honesty. But the figural perfume bottles that made getting something from the Avon Lady so special are gone. I guess tweens and teens are more sophisticated these days, or more interested in celebrity-endorsed products like Hannah Montanah perfume. Today the figural perfume bottles are highly collectible, even if they’re empty. I recently purchased on eBay a bottle of Zany (1979), which I loved in junior high but which was discontinued after only two years or so. The bottle is shaped like a Christmas tree, so in a way I can still feel like I’m getting something special from Avon for Christmas.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Musk oil sure was big in the Seventies. Jovan, Bonne Bell, Coty, and Cutex all made musk fragrances, just to name a few. I remember radio commercials that might have been for Faberge’s Macho Musk Oil, but I’m not sure. I just remember the annoying jingle sung by a male chorus, who just repeated the words “Mucho macho” before breaking into the chorus:
“That man is mucho macho.
That man is mucho macho.
That man is mucho macho.
Mucho macho man!”
Does anyone else remember that commercial?
And what’s with the phallic logo and matching man jewelry? I can imagine the graphic designer coming up with that one: “It spells ‘m-a-c-h-o,’ but it’s shaped like a penis!” The ad says to try Macho Musk Oil on “your next encounter,” which I’m thinking took place in the public men’s room in Central Park. There is something to be said for subtlety, you know.