December 8, 2023

For Makeup Museum co-founder Doreen Bloch, the history of cosmetics is ‘central to how humans have evolved’ – here she shares glimpses of its prized treasures and reveals how the beauty trends of today connect us to the past

Taken from the winter 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Doreen Bloch was reading through transcripts of telephone conversations between Jackie Kennedy, then first lady, and dermatologist Dr Erno Laszlo when she became confused. The conversation was almost unintelligible, with both Kennedy and Dr Laszlo using cryptic language, trailing off mid-sentence and making oblique references to unspecified “circumstances”.

Unsure of what she had stumbled upon, Bloch consulted with presidential scholar Professor Barbara Perry from the University of Virginia and, after cross-checking dates and timelines, the reason for her secrecy and coded language dawned on them: the first lady was pregnant, but couldn’t say it outright in case the phone was tapped. Armed with this context, the underlying conversation revealed itself – pregnancy hormones were making Kennedy’s skin break out; it was changing every day, she told her dermatologist. He advised against applying excessive oils and creams to keep blackheads at bay and prescribed his Active Phelityl Oil for the president, who was getting breakouts himself on his back from taking his daily four baths.

In August 1963, a few months after the conversations with Dr Laszlo, Kennedy delivered Patrick Kennedy preterm, and he lived just two days before passing away. In November, JFK was assassinated. For Bloch, this context gave extra layers to the transcripts, making the reading bittersweet. “It’s very intimate, it almost feels uncomfortably intimate… She’s pregnant but we know what comes later,” says Bloch. “People always think beauty is just this fun thing but there’s politics, there’s culture, business. I mean, there are empires related to it.”

Bloch is the co-founder of the Makeup Museum. Opened in 2020, it’s the first of its kind – an online and sometimes physical space dedicated solely to make-up and the cosmetics memorabilia that goes alongside it. The museum’s collection dates back thousands of years and spans the globe. In the inventory you’ll find items like a 5,000-year-old kohl cosmetics jar from ancient Egypt, a Qingbai ware cosmetics box from the Northern Song dynasty dated AD960-1127, and actress Mae West’s blue enamel compact. The most recent acquisition is a carved wooden cosmetics box from the Kuba Kingdom (now modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) which once contained red tukula powder made from tree bark that would be applied to the face, body and hair. The box is one of the items which might be displayed in a future exhibition on cosmetics in Africa, which is on Bloch’s shortlist for upcoming projects. Through its collection and exhibitions, the museum documents and explores not just the history of the industry but the impact that beauty has on culture, society and politics.

Beauty trends across make-up, hair, fragrance, skincare and even body modifications like tattoos and piercings have always been an indicator of the times – a way to trace and chart what’s going on in contemporary culture. You can map changing attitudes towards make-up on to the arrival of electricity and then the rise of social media, both occasions which brought new attention to personal appearance. Growing sales in the 1940s mark the working women of wartime America having their own disposable income for the first time. Popular hairstyles from various decades have come to be symbols reflecting the sociopolitical mood of their times – bobs in the 20s (women liberated from societal constraints), Afros in the 60s (civil rights activists rejecting white culture), skinheads in the 80s (disenfranchised and disillusioned youth). Eurocentric beauty ideals and prejudice towards darker skin tones reveal themselves through the £9bn global market for skin-lightening creams.

It was intersections between culture and cosmetics like these that were explored in the museum’s debut exhibition, Pink Jungle: 1950s Make-up in America – a round-trip tour of the decade that birthed the modern cosmetics industry. Paying tribute to the age of glamour and Hollywood fantasy, the exhibition featured artefacts like Marilyn Monroe’s personal skincare routine from 1959, revealed for the first time and on loan from Erno Laszlo’s archives, and a bird-shaped compact designed by Salvador Dalí. At the same time, it offered a stark look at the racism and homophobia rife during the era, and the legacy of beauty standards which, as Bloch says, were overwhelmingly white, heteronormative and Eurocentric.

“As we started peeling back the layers, it became more and more interesting,” says Bloch about putting together the debut exhibition. “We could have never imagined the political layers and connections that unfolded for us… It’s fascinating to think how pervasive beauty is, even in ways that we don’t typically think about.”

Originally slated for a May 2020 opening, the pandemic forced Pink Jungle to debut online before eventually opening in New York that September. Located in the Meatpacking District, the space was as glamorous as you would want a make-up museum to be, with vintage magazine ads covering the walls and a red door paying homage to Elizabeth Arden. While the immersive, tactile elements originally planned were forced to be scrapped because of social distancing, an interactive app helped visitors engage with the collection.

The birth of the Makeup Museum came one day in 2018 when Bloch was sitting in a car park for her son’s paediatrician appointment and “a light bulb went off”. She called beauty editor Caitlin Collins, who confirmed it was a great idea, and the pair, together with make-up artist Rachel Goodwin, started putting plans into motion. Bloch was driven by her curiosity about how the beauty trends we see now connect us to the past, and believed there was a gap for exploring these historical throughlines and surfacing the artefacts themselves. Grooming and beautifying is one of the oldest human rituals but people today have a bias towards the present, Bloch says – “I’ve heard it called presentism although it really should be called past-ism” – and it’s creating blindspots. “There’s so much that people believe they own when it comes to a trend, not realising that, for centuries in many cases, people have engaged in that same way [with them].”

The Makeup Museum, and last year’s Beauty Stories, the museum’s first book, aim to fill these gaps in common knowledge, expanding the canon of historical make-up traditions and educating people so that beauty timelines don’t jump from Cleopatra’s eyeliner to Queen Elizabeth I’s painted face and then 400 years of white European trends. From teeth blackening in Vietnam to ceremonial facial paint from the Barasana people in Colombia, in Beauty Stories local writers tell the stories of their cultural beauty rituals.

More recent make-up history comes in the form of one of the museum’s key collections: a vast, previously unseen archive of the journals of Kevyn Aucoin. Widely considered the world’s first celebrity make-up artist, Aucoin had an unparalleled influence on the beauty industry, responsible for Christy Turlington’s arched brow and Cindy Crawford’s lipliner. An avid documenter, Aucoin recorded his daily life on camera and in scrapbook-style journals. The collection preserved by the Makeup Museum takes us from 1983, when he first moved to New York from Louisiana with his boyfriend Jed Root, to 1994, by which time he had established himself as fashion’s go-to make-up artist, regularly collaborating with Steven Meisel and Irving Penn, Linda Evangelista and Liza Minnelli.

The archive comprises more than 1,600 images and documents, from Aucoin’s Hollywood Rolodex to meetings with the biggest names in fashion, and candid Polaroids and outtakes taken from the sets of iconic photoshoots. Until Bloch and Goodwin reached out to Aucoin’s family, via make-up artist and Aucoin protege Troy Surratt, this important piece of fashion history was sitting in boxes in Louisiana. Still under lockdown in New York, they hired a local photographer to drive to the Aucoin family home and digitise the journals.

When the images started coming through, Bloch says it was breathtaking: “A photo from Cindy Crawford’s birthday, all these original Polaroid outtakes from the top photographers in fashion… it was a very exciting discovery. It feels like something that will evolve over the coming years, [then] we’ll better understand the themes and takeaways, but we felt like we really came across a treasure.”

Aucoin’s legacy continues to this day, his touch present in the work of today’s beauty stars like Isamaya Ffrench, Mario Dedivanovic and Frederic Aspiras, who all cite him as inspiration for their careers and are now shifting attitudes towards beauty in their own right. Dedivanovic especially, says Bloch, is responsible for the make-up that encapsulates the last decade – the contoured, sculpted and baked Instagram face made famous by Kim Kardashian. But while the Dedivanovic legacy will always be intimately connected with Kardashian, Aucoin stands alone. “He was just so prolific,” says Bloch. “It is really hard to think of anyone else at that level who was responsible for so many different trends and who worked with so many different people.”

Looking to the future, Bloch is brimming with ideas for upcoming exhibitions and her continued exploration and study of make-up history, in which she sees endless possibilities and dichotomies. She cites philosopher René Girard’s mimetic theory – that our desires and actions are just subconscious imitations of other people’s desires, which leads to rivalry and conflict – as a lens through which to view cosmetics and the long history humans have of decorating our faces.

“Cosmetics create a differentiation, a uniqueness and ability to express the individual self and soul in one of the most accessible ways that the Earth gave us,” Bloch explains. “It’s so central to how humans evolved. When we look at our reflections in the water, we want to be able to see ourselves, not just in our facial features, but in how we adorn ourselves.”

Every day we all make choices about our appearance, about how we present ourselves to the world. Baked into those choices are layers and layers of meanings, signifiers of politics, gender, class, sexuality. Unpacking those, exploring the rich archive of beauty history and preserving the ever-shifting attitudes towards make-up, will keep the Makeup Museum in business for many, many years to come.


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