Monthly Archives: October 2008

Josephine Baker and the “hot” style of the 20th century

Vintage Powder Room is a blog about vintage cosmetics ephemera and vanity accessories:

My collection is comprised of items such as cardboard face powder boxes, hairnet packages and magazine advertisements from 1900-1950. It was the beautiful art that drew me to the items, and it is why I continue to add to my collection. The artists were frequently hired by the cosmetics manufacturers to develop advertisements and containers for their products. Most of the artists remain unknown to us – but their work is still exquisite. There were some famous artists who became involved in the design of cosmetics packaging – most notably Rene Lalique who designed the gorgeous Coty face powder box with the powder puff design. The Coty box and powder are still in production today. If you want to own a piece of cosmetics history you can buy one of the boxes for just a few dollars at your local drugstore.

When women first began to powder their noses in public, and to apply lipstick, eye shadow, and rouge it was up to cosmetics companies to get their attention, and their dollars, with advertisements and packaging. The advertising and packaging of cosmetics left a rich legacy of design.

It is amazing how many of these beautiful and fragile items have survived – some of them for more than 100 years. Rather than discard the face powder boxes, women frequently held on to them. Particularly during the years of the depression when beautiful things were hard to come by – for a few cents a woman could go to the drugstore and purchase face powder, lipstick, or a compact. Once the product was long gone, many women kept the containers and used them to hold safety pins or buttons.

What catches my eye here is that she is, like me, an amateur historian and collector of pop culture. There’s a fascinating essay on a Duska face powder box from 1925 — how did she find so much to say about it? But then again, how did gurdonark and I spend weeks following the journeyman guitar arranger E. Pique from Austria to San Francisco? And her essay on the powder box brings up the singer Josephine Baker:

Josephine Baker
Many of the people who came of age during the years following WWI rejected 19th century values, and its art, and earned the moniker the “Lost Generation“. Some of the Americans who gravitated to the expat’s life in Paris would become international literary superstars: Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos. Others of them were artists and performers, like Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker embodied the hot (musical) style that was the negation of the 19th century culture of elaborate social protocol and layer after layer of manners. She was black and outwardly incredible during a time when blacks in America were forced into the ritualized cringing of the minstrel style, and she was openly sexual at a time when public sexuality was still defined by Victorian style.

Compare her mid-20s version of a tune called “Bam Bam Bammy Shore” (from Breezin’ Along ) with Thomas Craig’s 1898 version of “Old Black Joe” (from Lost Sounds: Blacks.)

And here’s a 1925 version by a pop band called “The Revellers”:

The Warner Chappell publishing company, by the way, thinks this tune is still copyrighted, which goes to show how the entire 20th century is off limits to free culture.

in the woods yesterday, on art walk Thursday

I played a strange and amazing gig yesterday in deep woods north of LA, put on a by group called Natural Stage that describes the shows this way:

Hikes without Mics is an event usually held on the first Sunday of the month (but always check the calendar as that may change). Locations vary but generally involve a mild 1-4 mile (roundtrip) hike to a “Natural Stage” where a concert occurs. Some concerts will include a mix of short folk, jazz, classical, experimental, etc. sets by various performers.

In practice what this meant was a longish walk on a barely-visible trail by a creek, at the the end of which was a pretty waterfall with a woman standing in front of it to sing indie-rock type songs while she accompanied herself on ukelele. I did the hike with my Estralita on my back in a gig bag for bass, and instead of the bowler and brogans I usually wear I had a coonskin cap and psychedelic emerica sneaks. I ran into Pamita halfway up the path. She was rocked out in cowboy boots, a dress, and fishnets, which is an outfit that’s just slightly better adapted to scrambling over boulders than the corset she usually wears.

There was no real crowd to speak of, but there were plenty of musicians there to play and play for. The acoustics out in the forest were special and listening to the other acts was a profound pleasure.

Because the issue is lurking, I should point out that this was not a Grateful Dead setup like a drum circle. These people knew irony. The tactic is along the same lines as a dance party on the subway, where a group meets up at a subway car and dances to electronic music on a boom box for a few stops, then gets off and disperses. This was an acoustic flash mob.

Next show for me is on Thursday night 6:30-7:00 on the Hippodrome bus on the Art Walk in downtown LA:

WHAT: The Hippodrome, a rolling curated salon on a custom vintage school bus

WHEN: Every Second Thursday (October 9, November 13 etc.) during downtown LA Art Walk, 6-10pm nightly

WHERE: The shuttle route circles Gallery Row (Main and Spring Streets between 9th and 2nd Streets)

If you live in LA and you haven’t done the art walk, you oughta. It’s the closest thing to vibrant street life downtown. The people watching is untouchable, and hanging out on the Hippodrome gives a sense of connection and community. The whole thing is the opposite of the Bergamot Station / Santa Monica vibe for looking at art.

It’ll never make sense to play resonator guitar on a street corner or on a festival stage, but then again it’ll also never make sense to set up a drum kit in a rolling curated salon on a custom vintage school bus, or to drown out a little waterfall with electronic riffage from a laptop. I love getting to make art in these deeply un-digital situations.