Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Greatness of Grey Gardens

Decades before reality TV shows made celebrities out of the unknowns who appeared on them, a riveting documentary entitled Grey Gardens transformed two reclusive eccentrics into enduring cult figures. Its stars were a pair of American aristocrats – the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis no less – living in squalor in their crumbling, cat-infested Long Island mansion.

As brothers Albert and David Maysles filmed them, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, bickered, reminisced, sang, danced, bickered some more, served highly suspect snacks and sipped cocktails from jam jars.

While Mrs Beale sang old songs and shouted orders from a bed strewn with cats, litter and mouldy books, Edie – a vision in homemade “costumes”, always involving a lot of 56-year-old leg and a scarf fashioned into a turban – flirted with the filmmakers, served Wonder Bread to the resident raccoons, and performed dance routines, one of which was briefly a YouTube favourite, set with brilliant precision to Madonna’s Hung Up.

Watching speeded-up footage of the now-deceased Edie earnestly performing her military manoeuvres might sound sick, but, as with every other manifestation of the Grey Gardens phenomenon, the video was made with affection for an astonishing real-life character who has inspired a Broadway musical and a Hollywood movie.

As Albert Maysles explained to me in 2007, the making of Grey Gardens – which is being screened on Channel 4 this week and is also available on DVD – only came about by chance.

“We were originally going to make a film about Lee Radziwell [Jackie Kennedy’s sister] and her childhood. We had just started filming when she got a call from Edie saying she needed some help because the Board of Health was after them. We were filming when we met her, and we just switched over to making a film about her and her mother. I think Lee felt a little upstaged!”

The 28-room seaside mansion was so overrun with manky cats that the Maysleses wore flea collars round their ankles during the six-week shoot in 1974, yet the house had been through a major clean-up just a couple of years previously. Sanitary officers had found that the house, with no running water and cat faeces and rubbish everywhere, violated every building code.

In the film, the Beales refer to this part of their story as the time they were “raided”, putting a kind of romantic, Prohibition-era, spin on events that would have shamed most ordinary folk.

But then, these were no ordinary folk. Not only were they the eccentric branch of a prominent American family, but they were also, according to Maysles, “really talented people”. Indeed, one of the reasons that fans remember huge chunks of the two Edies’ unscripted dialogue is that they were very intelligent and erudite women with a colourful turn of phrase.

Their house may have gone to rack and ruin, but their minds hadn’t – though, as Edie muses at one point, “it’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”

Given that neither woman had been out of the house for more than 20 years, it’s easy to dismiss them as a pair of Miss Havishams – except that they weren’t bitter and twisted. Informed by Edie that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, the imperious Mrs Beale argues: “I did. I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” This despite the fact that she has already said: “I was going to be a professional singer. When I met Mr Beale, the jig was up.”

Edie, meanwhile, complains continuously about her mother nipping her career in the bud and chasing away her suitors, but she clearly doesn’t hate her for it.

So what was Albert Maysles’s take on the relationship? Did Mrs Beale stop Edie from having a life of her own? “Absolutely not,” he said. “Edie just adored her mother, to the point that she couldn’t get away from her. I think that they each got something good and something not so good out of it. The whole thing was in a delicate balance.”

While both women criticise each other, there is also plenty of mutual admiration on display in the film. Edie is fiercely proud of her mother’s singing and desperate to show what a beautiful bride she was (cue another fight, with the wedding picture being torn).

Mrs Beale, admiring 30-year-old photos of her daughter – a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe in her Norma Jean Baker days – points out that “it’s perfectly foolish of Edie not to look like that now!”.

While Mrs Beale and Edie may have been recluses, they were probably the most sociable recluses imaginable. Which helps explain why they agreed to be filmed.

Maysles said: “There’s an odd sort of psychology there. They left the aristocratic family behind them so they could really be themselves. Mrs Beale couldn’t be a singer, and Edie couldn’t be a dancer, and still be a Bouvier. So they stay in the house and revel in their singing and dancing and being themselves. Then we come along and say: ‘We like you just the way you are.’ What could be better for them?

“They loved the whole idea of the film, and they loved it when it was finished. We brought a projector to the house and showed it to them. When it was over, Edie shouted in a very loud voice: ‘The Maysles have created a classic!’ ”

Having stayed in touch with the women for the rest of their lives – Mrs Beale died in 1977 and Edie in 2002 – Maysles was adamant that they were the same whether they were being filmed or not. “Yes, they were aware of our presence, but our presence is an accepting presence where they feel quite comfortable about continuing just as they were.”

Only a handful of times in the film does either of them refer to the fact that they’re on camera – most memorably when Edie hisses: “the movie, the movie!” at her mother when Mrs Beale threatens to get naked.

Occasionally, the squabbles become quite vicious, and one wonders whether the filmmakers were tempted to step in. “No,” said Maysles emphatically. “You don’t intervene.” Nor was he ever embarrassed by the Beales’ antics. “I started out as a psychologist, so my understanding and acceptance of people was greater than that of most people,” he explained to me.

Given how fond the Maysles brothers quickly became of them, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mrs Beale and Edie have not endeared themselves to successive generations of viewers. The cult began in the late 1970s when Maysles began to hear about Grey Gardens parties.

“People would dress up like the two of them and trade quotations from the film. Gay men especially relate to them. They have such an appeal to outsiders.”

Edie loved the celebrity that came with the film’s cult success, and was thrilled to find herself being hailed as something of a fashion icon. Indeed, her unique look has inspired fashion spreads and catwalk shows.

For his own part, Maysles rated the film as one of his personal best and was particularly proud of the fact that it deals with “the most profound human relationship – the mother-daughter relationship, which cinema, literature and even psychiatry have neglected.”

This year the Grey Gardens cult peaked with TV screenings of the movie of the same name, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing Mrs Beale and Edie. And there’s talk of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical coming to London.

What on earth would Edie have made of that? Maysles laughed and said that the musical seemed like a natural progression. “After all, Edie always wanted to be dancing and singing.”

* Grey Gardens, Wed/Thurs, Channel 4, 12.45am; Eureka DVD (£19.99)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies, Style, Uncategorized

Christmas Crackers, Hollywood-style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

3 Comments

Filed under Movies

Remembering Kenny Davern (1935-2006)

There can be few sounds as thrilling as clarinettist Kenny Davern cutting loose with one of his characteristically passionate and exhilarating solos – as anyone who heard the American jazz star during one of his countless visits to Scotland over the last 20 years of his life will testify. Davern was widely regarded as the foremost exponent of his instrument in the world; a musician whose sound was immediately identifiable and who brought a touch of class to everything he did.

Amongst regulars at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals, and at the former Glasgow Society of Musicians, Davern was also known as an intimidating character who did not suffer fools gladly, and who reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who tried to make him play in front of a microphone. Woe betide any sound engineer who hadn’t been alerted to Davern’s strongly held views on acoustics.

Similarly, festival organisers were known to vanish mysteriously when Davern went on the attack – and he never let anything like an audience get in the way of a rant. Indeed, he often treated his listeners with derision too: one trick was to ask for requests and then shoot them down with an acerbic comment.

However, the cantankerous clarinettist was a part he enjoyed playing. It wasn’t the whole story. The intimidating Davern was my first-ever interviewee. Forty-five minutes into the nerve-wracking session, the significance of the fact that the wheels on my borrowed tape recorder weren’t turning dawned on both of us: I had forgotten to lift the pause button.

After a terrifying five minutes, during which I was ready to jack in journalism for good, the unthinkable happened: he softened. At 11.30pm, as I tried to make a break for the door, he offered to start the interview again. Not only did the second version turn out better than the original, but, years later, I learned from mutual musician friends that Davern was dining out on the story of how he launched my career in journalism.

The soft centre shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Davern was a player of great warmth and passion. He routinely sent shivers down the spine and made hair stand on end when he broke out of his hitherto controlled solos and let rip. There was absolutely nothing like it when he soloed, exploding unexpectedly into the upper register and then swooping back down again.

Playing ballads or blues tunes, he had a seductive style, coaxing the sound from the horn the way a snake charmer would draw the reptile from a basket. His playing embraced extreme musical characteristics in the same manner as his personality was, by turn, intimidating and charming. His sound was sweet, fluid and polished one minute; thrillingly spiky, raw and plaintive the next. It is impossible to think of his signature songs – especially Sweet Lorraine – without hearing him playing them.

Born in Huntington, New York, the self-taught Davern began his jazz career at the age of 16. He played with many older greats, including Jack Teagarden, and despite flirting with avant-garde jazz during the 1950s, his primary influence was always Louis Armstrong. In the 1970s, he and fellow clarinettist/saxophonist Bob Wilber formed the super-group Soprano Summit. Davern then formed The Blue Three with pianist Dick Wellstood, before operating as a touring soloist after Wellstood’s death.

He leaves an impressive, though not vast, legacy of recordings. He once told me: “Just to record for the sake of being in a studio is masturbatory.” He is survived by his wife, Elsa, his two step-children and four step-grandchildren.

* Kenny Davern, jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, born January 7, 1935; died December 12, 2006.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Viva Biba

Designer Barbara Hulanicki may be in her seventies but – with her shaggy peroxide blonde bob, dark glasses and black jacket, jeans and boots combo – she looks like a rock star; which is appropriate as she is treated with the same reverence as a pop icon.

The woman behind the legendary fashion emporium Biba is now the subject of a documentary which, when it was recently shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre, proved to be a magnet for anyone interested in fashion. The scenes at her post-screening book-signing session were what you’d expect at the stage door after a pop concert.

No wonder Hulanicki drew an impressive crowd: Biba  is still a huge influence on today’s fashion – not only in terms of its look, which drew on the styles of the past while setting new trends – but also in its ethos of “disposable fashion”, which paved the way for today’s High Street shops. Barbara explains: “The idea was to buy things and then, when you were done with them, give them to someone else. Everything was £3.”

Biba began life as a mail order catalogue in 1964 and by 1969, the shop was the second most popular tourist spot in the capital (only the Tower of London attracted more visitors). “People would travel from all over the country every Saturday, because the fares were so inexpensive,” says Hulanicki. “There was a sort of club atmosphere about the shop – lots of people who went on to get married originally met there.”

During its heyday, Biba was to fashion what the Beatles were to pop music. It was also a mecca for the coolest celebrities of the day. Hulanicki recalls: “Anybody who was anybody at that time – whatever country they were from – would come in. Brigitte Bardot, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful … Barbra Streisand came in when she was pregnant. She went into the (communal) changing room with her great big belly, and took all her clothes off. But you know the girls in the shop were so blase about celebrities that I used to have to beg them for information on who had been in!”

As a student, Hulanicki’s style was very heavily influenced by two movie stars of the 1950s – Grace Kelly and, in particular, Audrey Hepburn. “Her style was just magic,” she gasps. “She was very simple and always wore black.” So, did she ever pop into Biba when she fancied a day-off from her Givenchy wardrobe? “No, but I heard she bought some of our clothes. Somebody told me that she actually said that the only place that fitted her shape was Biba. I was so thrilled! Of course, she was already quite old then…. she was 28!”

As Hulanicki moved on to her Biba period, she fell under the spell of movie stars of an earlier era: Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, neither of whom would have looked out of place lounging around in the decadent art deco fabulousness of the most famous of the Biba stores, all of which were designed inkeeping with their architecture.

Hulanicki walked away from Biba in 1976 after a prolonged period of difficulties with her new business partners. She and her late husband, who had worked with her at Biba, lived in Brazil for a while but, in 1987, wound up in Miami, a city which captured Hulanicki’s imagination – thanks, largely, to its once-glorious Art Deco architecture which she has helped to conserve. Over the last 20 years, she has worked as an interior designer, designing Miami Beach night clubs for the likes of Ronnie Wood and Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

Is she surprised by the ongoing, worldwide fascination with a shop that closed its doors over 30 years ago? “Isn’t it bizarre,” she says. “It keeps growing and growing. My son says that I get rediscovered every two years. It goes quiet then it starts again.” Of course, part of the reason for this is that the coolest, hippest celebrities all seem to own some vintage Biba.

Which of today’s famous fans does she think wears it well? “I love Kate Moss. I love all the bad girls – Amy etc. Everybody seems to collect this stuff, which is interesting – and very nice. But it’s strange because it started out as throwaway fashion!”

* Beyond Biba (November Films; £35) comes out as a special, limited edition (only 1000 copies) DVD on December 7 from http://www.beyondbibamovie.com. The standard edition of the DVD will be in shops in the New Year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Style

Darn That Dream

Louis Armstrong as Bottom and Maxine Sullivan as Titania in the ill-fated 1939 Broadway show Swingin' the Dream.

The history of jazz has many fascinating footnotes, but few as intriguing as an event which took place 70 years ago, and which has been glossed over in most of the biographies and autobiographies of those involved.

The event was the opening of a unique musical – a jazz version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at the end of November 1939. It starred jazz’s most important innovator, Louis Armstrong, as Bottom, and the vocalist Maxine Sullivan, who was enjoying popular success with her swing versions of Loch Lomond and other folk songs, as Titania.

Entitled Swingin’ the Dream, the show boasted musical supervision by clarinet king Benny Goodman, whose sextet was one of three bands playing in the production, and it had scenery based on Walt Disney cartoons (with Disney’s permission).

If the name of the show is familiar, it’s probably because its only legacy – and the only reason it is ever mentioned in sleeve notes and books – was the classic ballad, and jazz favourite, Darn That Dream, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange. Reference books, the internet, and record notes yield little information about Swingin’ the Dream, and nothing comprehensive appears to have been written about it – undoubtedly because it was a huge flop, running only 13 performances.

There is some photographic evidence of the eccentricity of the whole affair, however. The superb 1987 documentary profile of Maxine Sullivan, Love to be in Love, showed two still photographs of Sullivan and Armstrong kitted out in togas and hamming it up for the camera. But neither is as amusing as the one that is included in the booklet of the Chronological Classics Louis Armstrong CD – of the trumpeter in ass attire.

Swingin’ the Dream had a predominantly black cast which, in addition to Armstrong and Sullivan, included Butterfly McQueen – who was about to find fame as the hysterical maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind, released in mid-December of that year – as Puck, and Dorothy Dandridge as a pixie.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s score borrowed themes from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the rehearsal pianist was no less important a jazz figure than the stride pianist James P Johnson. While Benny Goodman’s group was positioned in a box on one side of the stage, Don Voorhees conducted the pit band, and the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, a hot Chicago band which boasted such talent as guitarist Eddie Condon, clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and saxophonist Bud Freeman, was stationed in a box on the opposite side from Goodman’s outfit.

The project, the brainwave of a European producer called Erik Charell, was clearly viewed with much cynicism by many of the musicians involved – even before it opened. Eddie Condon, in his autobiography We Called it Music, devotes only half a page to the show which he portrays as an enormous waste of talent. It had, he says, ”a cast large enough to found a small city” and was a complete shambles. By opening night, the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra’s involvement had been cut to two numbers, leaving time for the musicians to go for a drink.

Condon says: ”I got into the white uniform I was forced to wear and went across the street to Dillon’s bar. By then I knew we were swinging a flop; it was the first time I had ever worn white to a funeral.” The reviews confirmed what Condon and his colleagues had suspected (Billboard described the show as ”an orgy of wasted talent”) and the band – convinced that they would soon be out of work – began scouting for other work.

Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz includes a telegram, dated December 4, which he sent to a friend in Chicago. It says: ”Swingin’ the Dream not going over. Goodman leaves next week and although we are contracted until December 29 we could leave any time too.” However, before the Summa Cum Lauders could jump ship, it sank – without a trace. Having grossed a measly $12,000 in its first week, Swingin’ the Dream swung to a halt on December 9, leaving little in the way of evidence that it had ever existed…

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

November Jazz Reviews

Judy Carmichael, who wowed her Glasgow audience on Sunday night.

JUDY CARMICHAEL, CITY HALLS RECITAL ROOM, GLASGOW, 29.11.09

A touch of New York sparkle came to the City Halls Recital Room on Sunday night when the vivacious pianist Judy Carmichael made her Scottish debut as part of Jazz International’s busy winter programme. With her witty and engaging repartee, Carmichael had won her audience over before she even began playing, and it was clear from her fast-swinging, playful opener, Lulu’s Back in Town, that her sense of humour translated fluently into her music. Like the late, great Fats Waller – who, to judge by the way she occasionally seemed to tickle the ivories, producing little flurries of notes, is a hero – she has the lightest, most delicate of touches and a warm, rich tone.

Carmichael, who was nicknamed Stride by no less a jazz piano legend than Count Basie, cut quite a dash as she tapped her leopard-print stilettoes to keep time and bobbed her blonde curls along with the music. She has made a name for herself as a purveyor of this early style of jazz piano, but such numbers as an evocative, bluesy Lazy River (and, no, she’s not related to its composer, Hoagy) and her own Boisedale Blues, which had a rollicking boogie-woogie section in the middle, demonstrated that she’s more than a one-trick pony. She even sang on a few tunes; apparently a recent addition to her CV.

That said, it was her Earl Hines and Fats-flavoured output which most delighted the enthusiastic crowd, and it was a treat to hear such rarely exhumed gems as Love Is Just Around the Corner, Christopher Columbus and Gladyse being played with such affection and panache.

MADELEINE PEYROUX, QUEEN’S HALL, EDINBURGH, 25.11.09

Madeleine Peyroux has some following in Edinburgh. The Queen’s Hall was packed for the singer’s first concert in the capital in four years, and her welcome couldn’t have been warmer. In fact, the Queen’s Hall, with its relatively intimate, cabaret-style, atmosphere, proved to be the perfect venue for a 90-minute programme described by the 36-year-old American as “booze, blues and ballads”.

Peyroux has come a long way since her last appearance in Edinburgh. Back then, she barely spoke to the audience and looked uncomfortable when all eyes were on her. On Wednesday, she was ebullient, chatty, relaxed and very witty indeed. A handful of characteristically sad songs into the concert, she said: “I’ve made a pact with myself – that I’ll do two happy songs in my show…. Here is my happy break-up song – I’m Alright”.

That number, a sort of upbeat, uptempo torch song, was one of many which benefitted from the top-notch quartet that Peyroux had with her. Given her propensity for playing about with songs to the extent that they are sometimes unrecognisable, the presence of a band (including Hammond organist-pianist Gary “Liberace” Versace) playing the arrangements from her records acted as a sort of anchor and kept the songs from straying too far from the familiar recorded versions – though Peyroux always takes it to the limit.

There’s still something slightly unsettling about listening to Peyroux live: while her albums (notably the current one, Bare Bones, which was not much featured) are sublime; her choices – of notes, of how far behind in the lyrics to let herself fall, etc – are far from predictable, and there’s still, in the way she twists final notes and increases their volume, hints of the dying Billie Holiday about her voice.

MELODY GARDOT, QUEEN’S HALL, EDINBURGH, 18.11.09

She may have kept a busy Queen’s Hall waiting before she appeared onstage on Wednesday night, but, boy, did singer-songwriter Melody Gardot make up for lost time. Showing absolutely no sign of the physical frailty that regularly bothers her, the glamorous 24-year-old – with the Mae West sense of humour, and figure to match – sang continuously for 90 minutes and easily filled the hall when she performed her bluesier numbers.

Mind you, it didn’t start out too promisingly. Gardot’s opening song, The Rain (probably the weakest song on her superb current album, My One and Only Thrill), took a while to get going because she spent the first few moments onstage on her hands and knees doing something New Age-y with sand (only the front row and balcony seats could have seen what was going on), and then the song was preceded by a lot of seemingly random plucking of piano and bass strings, and clashing of cymbals while Gardot gyrated against the keyboard.

Once all that was out of the way, though, the concert was a revelation: here was a singer who sounded better live than on her sublime CD; her gorgeous, pitch-perfect, effortlessly agile vocals a joy whether on such exquisite ballads as Baby I’m a Fool, If The Stars Were Mine and Deep Within the Corners of My Mind or on raunchy blues-style numbers.

Gardot really came into her own once she dispensed with the theatrics and the slight aloofness of the first ten minutes and began chatting with the increasingly adoring audience.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Scarlet Woman

 

Estee Lauder has a range of ravishing reds for Christmas 2009.

Whether it’s danger, drama or street cred you’re after, only one lipstick shade will do for 2009: red. The most classic of lipstick colours often pops up in the Christmas collections but this year it’s making a proper comeback for autumn and, with more shades and formulations available now than ever, there’s no excuse for not finding your perfect red.

Just as fashions in clothes go in cycles, so do trends in make-up – and red lipstick is one of the oldest trends there is. In ancient times, women painted their pouts with sheep’s blood. No doubt this vogue was inspired by the erotic appeal of red lips to the opposite sex; an appeal said to stem from the resemblance of the painted mouth to another part of the female anatomy.

In the Victorian era, woman pinched their cheeks and bit their lips in order to look flushed. Early in the 20th century, red lipstick came to represent more than a state of sexual excitement; it became a symbol of liberation. Red lipsticks were first marketed in the 1920s, just after American women were granted the vote, and were dabbed on to the centre of the lips to create the “bee-stung” effect made famous by movie star Clara Bow.


By the 1940s, the red lipped look also represented power, and it’s no coincidence that the strongest, feistiest women on the big screen were the ones best known for their full, red pouts. Celebrated screen bitch Joan Crawford exaggerated her lips with lip liner and blood red lipstick – a shade which, along with her trademark shoulder pads, enjoyed a major revival in the power-mad 1980s. Both the lip colour and the shoulder pads are back in vogue again just now.

In the 1950s, red lipstick – corally reds, scarlets, tomato reds, cherry – was every Hollywood starlet’s essential make-up item but by the 1960s, it had fallen from favour; replaced by the pale, frosted lip look or no lipstick at all.

These days, anything goes and some style icons have become known for their signature scarlet: accessories designer Lulu Guinness and burlesque star Dita Von Teese are two of today’s most influential poster girls for painted red pouts. And they’ve been joined recently by such A-listers as Angelina Jolie, Sienna Miller and Cameron Diaz in sporting 1940s-inspired lips on the red carpet.

So, how to pick the right red? After all, it’s not just a case of which shade matches your favourite top/dress/coat. Choose the wrong red and you could well pass for a clown, an Elizabeth I impersonator, a drag queen or a wee girl playing with her mum’s make-up.

We’ve asked various experts and the common consensus is that the first step is to identify your skin tone – because it is the key to whittling down the range of reds to the one which suits you. If you’re pale, prone to flushing and find it difficult to get a tan, then – like red lippie-fans Diane Kruger, Gwyneth Paltrow and the afore-mentioned Dita Von Teese – you have a cool skin tone, and should stick to cherry reds which have a blue or pink undertone, and blood reds for a dramatic look, especially with dark hair and pale skin.

Women with warmer-toned complexions – honey blondes with sun-kissed skin and brunettes with Mediterranean colouring – can pull off the orangey shades better; the classic tomato reds, rusts and brick tones. Think Cameron Diaz, Catherine Zeta-Jones or Scarlett Johanssen. Girls with dark skin should opt for deep reds, berry reds and burgundies for a touch of Hollywood glamour – as Naomi Campbell often does.

But, alas, once you’ve got a fix on which shades should suit you, there is still the question of texture. Alan Pan, Estee Lauder’s make-up artist, says: “Choosing which texture of red you want is crucial. You have to choose whether you want a matte, satin or glossy finish. For smaller lips it is best to go with a glossy finish as this gives the illusion of a fuller pout.”

Matte red is notoriously tricky to wear as it can emphasise thin lips and have an ageing effect. It can also be very uncomfortable for dry lips. Generally, the drier your lips, the shinier you should go with your lipstick, and if you’re really stuck for one that’s comfortable, then follow international beauty guru Bobbi Brown’s advice.

She suggests: “Don’t feel constrained to wear red found in a lipstick tube – create your own customised lipstick by combining a red you like with a favourite neutral or brown lipstick”

Of course, there’s always the option of ditching the lipstick entirely, and opting for one of the new, richly pigmented glosses that are around this season. Just as long as it’s red.

BEST FOR PALE SKINS

* No7 Wild Volume lipstick in Forever Cherry (£9.50)

* Dior Addict Ultra Gloss Perfect in Red Stockings (£17.50)

* Estee Lauder Limited Edition Signature Lipstick in Simply Red (£16)

* Estee Lauder Double Wear Stay-in-Place Lipstick in Stay Scarlet (£16)

BEST FOR FAIR-MEDIUM WARM SKINS

* Chanel Rouge Allure in Enthusiast (£21.50)

* No7 Stay Perfect Lip Lacquer in Flamenco Red (£9.50)

* Bobbi Brown Rich Color Gloss in Ruby Red (£14)

* Guerlain Rouge G in Greta (£25)

BEST FOR MEDIUM & DARK SKINS

* Revlon Matte Lipstick in Really Red (£7.29)

* Dior Rouge Dior in Celebrity Red (£21)

* Bobbi Brown Rich Color Gloss in Merlot (£14)

* Chanel Rouge Allure Laque in Dragon (£23)

2 Comments

Filed under Beauty, Style