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Is the key to beauty in the past? Product junkie Anita Bhagwandas trials a 40s look, and discovers what she really misses and what she can live without.
Imagine a beauty Armageddon. It’s the end of the world and all the superfluous stuff is gone – I’m talking lash combs, sheet masks and pre-serums – and only a few basic necessities remain.
You could: a) freak the hell out and run screaming into the horizon; b) reject beautification and go feral; or my choice, c) embrace your new pared-down routine and relish its simplicity. I pose this conundrum, because after a swift tally-up, I have discovered that I use a terrifying 58 beauty products a day – despite the fact that I’m relatively ‘low maintenance’. I know it’s not just me – every time I peer at a friend’s bathroom shelf, it’s laden with all kinds of things. And a beauty editor buddy told me recently that it takes her 20 minutes a day to perfect her skincare routine alone. Clearly, somewhere, something has gone awry. And unless your first name is Kim and your second is Kardashian, like me, you don’t have time for all this faffing around.
My solution? We need to strip it back in homage to a bygone age when women looked amazing with very little products – the 40s. I’m not rose-tinting those times (things were unequivocally tough for us back then), but from a beauty perspective, they remained incredibly elegant. That’s why I’m taking my routine back to that era for one week. And maybe, just maybe, my search for a more streamlined regime will be fixed by a sojourn into the past…
1. Reclaim your red lipstick…
Looking at iconic snapshots of vintage goddesses like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, they appear as effortless visages of perfection – all finished with a slick of scarlet across their bow-shaped lips. I want that. Screw these biscuity nudes loved by these nu-90s Instagram pouters – red lipstick is way more powerful. And back then, it was also an easy way for women to ‘put their best face forward’ and raise soldiers’ morale (this was over 70 years ago, mind – before PlayStations and PornHub). If you’re going to do a red lipstick authentically, it needs to be matte, pigmented and come from a beautiful gold bullet (rather than the beetroot juice British women had to use because lipstick didn’t make it into the rationing books). I spent the week switching between Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution in Red Carpet Red, £23 – a suit-all, vampiric blood red – and Bésame Lipstick in Cherry Red, £22 – a scarlet shade that would have been popular in the late 30s to early 40s and a must for dedication to the past. I come undone on two occasions: encountering a hangover burrito (I looked like The Joker by the end) and then on a night out (lipstick all over everyone – sorry, friends). Later in the week, I rediscover that a slick of the vintage favourite Lipcote, £9.75, really does work – although it does sting a little.
2.Here come the curls
Straighteners would have been total anathema back in the 40s. Pin curls – where you fashion a curl shape and pin it to your head overnight – were all anyone wanted. And ragging – where strips of fabric secure your coiled hair – were used most often. I gave both a go, and on two separate occasions woke up looking like the wanton offspring of Marge Simpson and Worzel Gummidge. But the worst was yet to come. I then recreated the effect of the 40s-style steel rollers women used to use with the modern-day version – Sleep-In Rollers, £12.76. Cue the most uncomfortable night’s sleep ever. When I did manage to get some shut-eye, I dreamt that a weird tree shaped like a penis was chasing after me through an enchanted Norwegian, goblin-filled forest. I can’t blame Sleep-In Rollers entirely for the disrupted sleep and strange dreams (I can blame Tinder and Vikings perhaps), but sleep is too steep a price to pay.
After reading Dita Von Teese’s new book, Your Beauty Mark (£25, Harper Collins), I realised that heated rollers (used widely in the 60s and 70s) are the key to mega-coiffured hair. My pick are Babyliss Boutique Salon Ceramic Rollers, £50, which heat up speedily. But on the final Sunday of my vintage week, I just opt for super-hi-tech tongs like T3 Whirl Trio Interchangeable Styling Wand, £149, out of laziness, as it creates long-wearing curls and comes with three different sized wands. Genius.
3. Lashes that last
Nowadays, you won’t see a starlet without giant strip lashes and gallons of spidery mascara – and I can’t lie, I do the same for a night out. But back then, cake mascara and a small brush were used (or if you didn’t have access or funds, a concoction of burnt cork and Vaseline). I tried a modern cake mascara by Longcils Boncza, £12, to coat my lashes, but found the effect too natural. I look like an over-ripe potato if I don’t wear mascara, so I risked nearly gouging my eyes out while trying to curl them with a heated spoon (please DO NOT try this at home) for added ‘authentic’ lift. Suffice to say, it wasn’t hugely effective.
By now I’m pining for my Chanel Le Volume Ultra-Noir De Chanel Mascara, £25, like it were my own spawn. But one tip I do take from this encounter with lashes of the past, is to create separation for true impact. Audrey Hepburn’s make-up artist used a safety pin to separate her lashes – but a Tweezerman Folding Lash Comb, £8.50, does the same, minus the risk of spearing your eyeballs. Ouch.
4. A return to simple
In the 40s, looking after your complexion was basic: regular folk just washed with soap, moisturised with cold cream and made face masks with the contents of their kitchen cupboards. Meanwhile, the A-list – Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Jackie Onassis – all visited Dr Erno Laszlo, a renowned Hungarian skin doctor. In the name of investigative journalism, I followed the routine Monroe used, which involved rubbing Erno Laszlo Phelityl Pre Cleansing Oil, £49, on to my skin to dissolve make-up. Then, I had to cleanse with Erno Laszlo Sea Mud Deep Cleansing Bar, £45, and finish by splashing my face with water around 30 times. She also used Erno Laszlo Light Controlling Lotion, £49, during the day to keep shine at bay, which I’d recommend if you have oily skin. Finally, I round off with a modern-day equivalent of cold cream – Kat Burki Vitamin C Intensive Face Cream, £72, a cold-pressed hit of moisture that sinks straight in. I could get used to not applying an essence, pre-serum, serum, antioxidant and face mist. Really, I could.
After a week of trying to dip into the beauty routines of women from the 40s, I’m convinced it’s time for a clearout – of both our product stashes and routines, which helps everyone. An extra 20 minutes every morning? That’s truly liberating, as opposed to a ten-step cleansing ritual.
There is also a rather pleasing simplicity to my new arsenal – if anything, it’s made me feel more youthful and carefree than any beauty products ever have. Bring on the end of the world, I say.