Small of stature, Helena Rubinstein, neé Chaja Rubinstein (4’10”) and Elizabeth Arden, neé Florence Nightingale Graham (5’2”) pressed a long-lasting, red-rouged imprint into the 20th century and beyond. PBS’s recent documentary “The Powder and the Glory” offered an intimate look at their personal and professional lives, and their lifelong rivalry. Rubinstein was a philanthropist, an art collector, and an early supporter of the State of Israel, where she founded the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art. Arden, an Episcopalian, Canadian immigrant, was passionate about thoroughbred horses. Each woman’s products were representative of the woman herself: a pink-clad Arden cultivated a feminine, elite clientele. The boldly dressed Rubenstein used her flair for the dramatic often, dropping small bottles of the “Heaven Scent” fragrance from the top of Bonwit Teller’s Fifth Avenue store and using kohl to line the eyes of movie icon Theda Bara.
“The Powder and the Glory” includes an interview with the late Kitty Carlisle Hart, the tastefully made-up actress and philanthropist, who knew Arden from the race track and bought a painting from Rubinstein, and ’60s model Twiggy, whose heavily-painted, come-hither eyelashes defined the sexual revolution of her generation. In the film, rare archival photographs and footage are interspersed with a narrative based on War Paint, a book detailing the lives of the two cosmetics titans, their times and their desire to best one another. It contends that their rivalry was, in part, the fuel that pushed these larger-than-life women to their enormous successes.
The two, who never met or spoke although they lived and worked only blocks apart in New York City, were similar in many ways. Tough, shrewd and intuitive, they successfully re-created themselves and offered other women the tools to transform their own images, convincing them that by using cosmetic products they could aspire to another kind of life. The cosmetics were, for these women and for many women after, not merely scented, smooth substances; they were their dreams.
These doyennes were born into a world where make-up was the province of ladies of ill repute, and therefore synonymous with sex. In World War I, as women were abandoning the ironing board and heading into the workplace, Rubinstein’s and Arden’s creams came out of the kitchen pots and into nicely packaged jars in the marketplace. Their creators legitimized a woman’s desire to put her best face forward. And therein lies the power and the glory.