Vintage View: The glamorous history of the vintage compact

Vintage View: The glamorous history of the vintage compact
Picture: iStock

Kya deLongchamps examines the beautiful history contained in a vintage compact.

When a girl reached 16 in the 1950s, a pretty powder compact with a spring-loaded powder-plate and inset mirror was regarded not as a merely pretty gift, but an initiation into womanhood.

Slipped into a clutch bag, it was part of her essential arsenal — an exquisite, gentle shield against the déclassé (completely natural) shine on a female nose. Softly dabbing at the face with a puff was regarded with less disdain than an oily hooter or flaming cheeks.

Women have always been conflicted on the topic of war paint, but it’s important to remember that make-up was not just cosmetic, it was an unconventional rebellion in the 1920s, made popular in the late years of the First World War after its popular demise in the 18th century.

Women stepped out of their traditional round in the family kitchens and sitting-rooms, and into the factories and fields to do the work men away in the trenches of Europe were no longer available for. Suddenly, she had her own money — shillings and dollars she didn’t have to ask for from her father or husband.

The liberation must have been head-lightening. Hollywood and the giants of fashion had made the fully made-up face, not simply acceptable but absolutely necessary after dark and increasingly commonplace by day. Coco Chanel intoned:

If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.

Fashion, sophistication and luxury were implied with the elegant handling in a gloved hand of a gorgeous compact – even if their appearance and application in full view horrified older dames of society. The act had a certain unsettling, confident, self-absorption that rattled old stays.

Compacts for loose (with a fitted mesh sifter) or pressed power, have an exquisite, feminine retro glamour. Being so small, antique fair and boot sale finds can be kept easily in a small drawer or on a single shelf in a glazed cabinet. They form such a direct, personal connection to a single individual — finding a trace of scarlet lipstick licked into the corner of a tube or tray (even with a slightly tarry smell) — it’s faintly spooky.

Some compacts are devoted solely to powder but other compact/cases carry both powder and a position for lipstick in a tube or tablet. Other tiny tools and even a pencil might be fitted tightly into a lady’s portable vanity.

American Maurice Levy is credited by many makeup maniacs as being the inventor of the dial up metal lipstick tube for the ‘bullet’ of product we know today — but the claim appears to have no foundation (sorry, couldn’t resist). Lip “sticks” from the turn of the 19th century were previously kept in silk paper.

The variety and level of quality and detail to refillable powder containers have made them a popular target for collectors, so what should you look out for?

Vintage View: The glamorous history of the vintage compact

First of all — condition, quality and above all a sense of novelty, marks out the very best examples. The piece should retain its instant visual and tactile appeal and be all but usable today.

Some of the best boxes from the 1920s intended for both lipstick and powder came from France, offered with make-up by firms including Coty and Bourjois (still in the beauty business and owners of Coty). Bourjois started in the supply of theatrical make-up as far back as the 1860s, and delivered the first widely available power blush in a round box, a more skin-friendly version of which is available today.

A piece from the 1920 or ’30s should speak the time in terms of styling. Look for Art Deco notes — jazzy applied designs and shaping to early plastic compacts, brass, enamel and silver or even gold plating. Early compacts tend to be smaller.

Pieces from the ’40s and ’50s grew in size with handbag size — being carried around all day by every class of woman rather than being concealed in a beaded bag swung from a wrist strap by a flapper at a night club.

Vintage View: The glamorous history of the vintage compact

A well to do lady would have more than one compact of course, and they were soon regarded as socially acceptable if intimate gifts from friends, family and suitors. Globes, faces, small plush teddy bears, the dial on a telephone — the more eye-catching and witty the design, the more desirable it’s likely to be in today’s market.

The Victorians were not keen on flouting any gilding of the 19th century lily, but there are examples of small make-up containers held in the top of large hat pins and containers worn as discreet jewellery.

In 1934, Van Cleef & Arpels introduced the minaudière — a gorgeous tiny case that could be worn as an ornament and keep all a woman’s cosmetics within just a few tight centimetres. Jewel studded vintage examples in precious metals are now priced at tens of thousands. Gucci and Chanel still supply them as red carpet accessorising for the super-rich.

The ‘50s is regarded as the high point of compact production in both Europe and America. Innovative, glamorous and made to be seen, compacts inspired by the most expensive examples from top European and American jewellers flooded the market. Some are designed for loose powder (with a sifter and inner lid), others for pressed, and others are convertible.

Kigu of London created some of the most delightful mid-century fantasy compacts, including the holy of holies for mid-priced collectables – the round Flying Saucer compact, with its gilded, Saturn like belting, sapphire blue enamelling and constellation of stars. Some even had a musical mechanism wound by a tiny key.

This compact reflects not only the gaiety and superb styling of the times, but the utter obsession with space travel and UFOs. Not rare, perfect examples still sell for as much as €1,000. More affordable and still with rhinestone flash in many instances, look out for the work of the American makers Elgin-American, and the British house of Stratton (always well marked and with good mechanisms and attention to detail).

The Sonata grand piano compacts of Pygmalion (UK) are a gorgeous start from around €100 in fair condition from eBay. Compacts, thrown around in a woman’s handbags for years can be worse for loving wear and daily duties.

With any enamelled or gilded piece, check for damage or chips to the glassy surfacing and metal work — this can decimate value. If there’s a sticker on the compact – have the dealer remove it to reveal the area underneath, and go over the piece inside and out with a loupe.

If you fancy releasing your inner Dita Von Teese, you can use your vintage compact. Original swans-down powder puffs can be salvaged with a very delicate hand wash using minimum pressure or twisting of the feathers. Air dry.

To refill, try Max Factor Creme Puff, a pressed cream dating from the mid-1950s that can be prised out and placed in any standard six-inch compact (from €6). To revisit the colour, texture and scent of hand-made classic, luxury make-up visit Besame of California founded by Gabriela Hernandez at (delivery worldwide).

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