Compacts, long associated with Old Hollywood glamour girls like Esther Williams, Rosalind Russell and Mitzi Gaynor, are one small accessory making a big comeback with all the interest in retro fashion elements, including veiled hats, furs and fancy cigarette cases.
The compact also made a guest appearance on "Caroline in the City," and Madonna used one in "Evita." The '40s fashion influence has made its way into the mainstream, movies and television.
"Think of it as the new status accessory, as compacts are not just about makeup," explained Julie Berman, spokeswoman for Estee Lauder cosmetics.
"Estee always said it was very feminine to pull out your compact in public to check yourself out and perhaps add lipstick."
Estee Lauder recently introduced -- and quickly sold out of -- its new Zodiac line of compacts with astrological signs. The company also makes cat and heart shapes and rhinestone-studded models.
Many other cosmetics companies are doing the compact thing, too.
From furs to platinum jewelry, the '40s influence is gaining, and that includes glamorous makeup that relies heavily on a perfectly powdered face.
You'll find numerous brands of decorative compacts. Even purse designer Judith Leiber has introduced Austrian crystal-covered compacts to match her pricey purses.
Leiber's compacts reflect the golden era of compacts when women went to jewelers -- not cosmetic counters -- to purchase a compact and bought refills at the drugstore, said Amy Fischer, archivist for Procter & Gamble, which produces Max Factor and Cover Girl cosmetics and also the new Powder Puff magazine for the makeup obsessed.
Sure, face powder has been around at least since the 17th century, worn by the likes of Cleopatra and Queen Alexandra of France, but it didn't always have society's or the Food and Drug Administration's approval.
Talk about fatal attraction. If the lead and mercury in it didn't kill you, polite society shunned you for wearing obvious makeup, even into the '30s. Heavily powdered faces (and the accompanying cupid's-bow mouth) had a long-standing association with fast women and actresses, wrote Kate de Castelbajac in "Face of the Century," a book that traces the history of cosmetics.
According to de Castelbajac, face powder was the most common element in a woman's makeup and offered by most cosmetics companies by the '20s, sold loose in boxes and later in a less messy "compact" form.
By the mid-'20s, department stores began furnishing expensive, personally blended powders at powder bars, and by the end of the '20s young women were taking their portable cosmetics -- compacts -- everywhere, including football games.
But it was Eva Peron, Argentina's unofficial queen, who turned the ritual into a Kodak moment. She often posed for the press while admiring herself in the mirror of a jeweled compact, a habit not missed by Madonna in the film "Evita."
Back in America, the concept of makeup for the masses was the work of Hollywood makeup man Max Factor, who translated his heavy theatrical makeup into more natural, easy-to-apply cosmetics at modest prices at his Los Angeles plant.
His first line was called Society Makeup, and he marketed it to the everyday housewife who wanted to look like a movie star, said Fischer.
"Women learned that this new powder evened the complexion and created a good base for cream rouge," said Fischer, and it was a forerunner of his still-popular Pan Cake creamy powder-based foundation, which he designed for Technicolor film and bright lights.
To promote the idea that his makeup had star quality, Factor launched a print-ad campaign featuring screen stars powdering their nose at fancy dressing tables. The ads ran through the '30s, '40s and '50s and included Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland and Mary Carlisle.
Makeup, when applied with a light touch, was gaining respect, and during World War I and II the U.S. government and polite society thought powder puffs and lipstick were not only ladylike but great morale boosters for women working in the factories while their men went off to war.
In the '50s, de Castelbajac said, women were back to more traditional roles as "goddess of the home, content in her role as accessory and impeccable social fashion object."
So she had plenty of time and money to create a perfect face through cosmetics that were now sold at department and drug stores at a variety of prices.
At first the powder puff was used discreetly for ladies' luncheons and big galas, but by the end of the decade no fashion-savvy woman left home without her makeup carefully applied and her little gold compact tucked into her handbag.
And then somebody snapped the lid closed and compacts went out of fashion favor, along with girdles and gloves. Now, after 30 years of the moist, natural look in makeup, the "finished face" is back again, said makeup artist Bobbi Brown, who added that this time around it's more user-friendly.
In Los Angeles to promote her new book, "Bobbi Brown Beauty," the author explained, "The right powder gives you a fresh, smooth finish, while the wrong type or shade will look caky and make you look older."
The right powder? Although many companies make translucent or colorless powders for all skin types, Brown thinks it makes most complexions look gray. She prefers a yellow-based powder, claiming, "Makeup artists have used it for years, but it's new to consumers."
Ditto on those washable fluffy puffs of yesteryear.
They've been almost impossible to find in recent years, but Brown has added them to her cosmetic line, and several small cosmetic boutiques such as the Body Shop now stock them -- next to a fresh supply of compacts.
Pub Date: 3/06/97