We may be in the era of #BTS everything on social media, but the beauty industry continues to be built on mystique. Sure, we might spot a snap of Kylie Jenner touring her Kylie Cosmetics factory, or the founder of a natural beauty brand sourcing argan oil, but for the most part, we don’t get to see how the products we put on our faces are actually made. This explains why this vintage British newsreel segment — which shows the magical mixing process for face powder — has already racked up millions of views. In the video, a beautician in a Mayfair, London, salon mixes and bakes a compact of bespoke face powder right before a customer’s eyes. We’re not sure if we’re more entranced by the way lavender, mint, and pink powders are cut into a neutral shade of beige, or the fact that after the powder is put into a pan, it’s baked and pressed (in the cutest little countertop oven we’ve ever seen) before being transferred into a compact — right on site. But we’re dying to know more. According to Cosmetics and Skin, a site devoted to beauty history, the segment shows a service and technique developed by Charles of the Ritz, a brand that was born in the beauty salon of what’s now the Ritz-Carlton in NYC, and expanded to department-store counters in the most fashionable of cities. The video is thought to have been produced in 1958, but the brand had put bespoke powder-blending services on the map years earlier, according to the site, offering loose powders in shades to match a customer’s skin tone in the late 1930s.
Face powder was a staple for women who wore makeup at the time. New innovations, like liquid foundation (which debuted in the '40s) and stick foundation (which debuted in the '50s), emerged, but many women continued to use powder as their primary base makeup. “It’s a different way of thinking about base makeup,” says Gabriela Hernandez, founder of vintage-inspired makeup brand Bésame Cosmetics and author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup. “It was important to have it match your complexion. You would use a thick moisturiser cream to give the powder something to stick to, then add powder as the foundation base.” According to Cosmetics and Skin, in 1956, Charles of the Ritz added custom-blended pressed-powder services, in addition to loose powder, to the menu. The print advertisement from the same year promised, “For the first time...pressed powder made to order for your coloring while you watch! Now get your perfect shade right from the unique press at the beauty bar.” Once finished, it was placed into an elegant compact and sold for $2 plus tax — what amounts to $17.69 (£13.44) plus tax today, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. “Everyone was using [powder] at this point, and lots of brands were jockeying for positioning with the public. So it was about creating an experience,” says Hernandez. The experience remained an alluring one in the beauty world: Charles of the Ritz continued to offer its customised powder bars into the '70s, according to the site, and Prescriptives revived this type of service with its 1988 introduction of Custom Blended Powder.
But back to the video. Why has a newsreel that showcases a technology that's over 60 years old struck a chord with savvy beauty lovers today? Yasmin Halim, better known by her stage name Shurlee Sweet, a pinup model and manager of the Bésame Cosmetics store in Burbank, CA, played a big role in making the video go viral. She shared it about a month ago via the brand’s Snapchat account, as a way of explaining Bésame’s own mixable brightening powders. “It’s about getting the most personal experience,” she says. “The extra time makes you feel more special and worth what you’re spending money on.” And she’s right. The idea of that attention to detail going into our purchases does make us ache for the bygone era of glamour. The fascination seems to be about tapping into a time when specialised services — not necessarily logo-covered bags — defined luxury. The way companies make complexion-matching powders hasn’t changed all that much since those early days, according to Gregory Arlt, director of makeup artistry for MAC (and an artist whom Dita Von Teese singled out as “one of maybe three makeup artists in the world I trust to do my look right”). “It actually is made the same way — by combining a multitude of shades to achieve a natural one,” Arlt explains. “Beige is usually made with white, yellow, and small amounts of raw umber, black, red, and violet to adjust the colour to get to beige.”
And what’s more, made-before-your-eyes makeup is having a major comeback. Bésame employees show customers how they can mix their own brightening and colour-correcting powders to personalized specifications in the brand's L.A. stores. Prescriptives has brought back its custom-blended loose powder and foundation for purchase online, with consultation by live chat and webcam. And Lancôme debuts its Le Teint Particulier Custom Made Makeup, on-the-spot foundation mixed right at the Nordstrom counter, this month. These days, technology — and a clearer worldview — is equipping us to mix makeup for all skin tones on the spectrum, not just the fair ladies. “Products back then that were made for darker skin were actually made for people who got tans on vacation, not because they had darker skin to begin with — and the tan colour of powder wasn't very dark,” says Hernandez of the limitations. Sure, today’s techniques, like a skin-reading device held to the face, may not be as theatrical as the one in the video, but we’re okay with that. If you ask us, women in 2016 are getting the better deal in almost every way.