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Cosmetic Changes : Collectible compacts are affordable--but appreciating. Dorie Wheatcroft of Crofton Antiques in Costa Mesa reflects on the evolution of vintage vanities and their previous owners.

July 21, 1994|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Dorie Wheatcroft picks up one of her vintage compacts by its "tango" chain and puts it around her finger, she's transported to the Roaring '20s, when compacts were the "bees' knees" and the well-dressed flapper had one for every ensemble.

"I try to imagine who owned the compact before me," says collector Wheatcroft, who owns Crofton Antiques in Costa Mesa with her husband, Norman. "Did she take it on a transatlantic cruise ship in the '20s or perhaps dance the tango with it in one of the '30s nightclubs? Each one has a special mystique to me."

In the early days of this century, compacts were more versatile than they are today. Often called "vanities," they contained not only powder and a mirror, they also had compartments for rouge, lipstick, perfume, eye makeup and even money. They could be hung on a finger or wrist while dancing the night away and were meant to be seen, not just shoved into an evening bag.

"I began collecting about seven years ago when a friend got me started," Wheatcroft says. "She really created a monster. I'm very compulsive about buying them and I have around 300."

She doesn't sell from her collection. The two dozen compacts for sale in her store duplicate ones she already owns.

"The value of compacts depends on the materials used and their rarity. I have some made from 24-karat gold and sterling silver," she says. "The advantages to collecting compacts are that they are small and can fit easily into suitcases if you buy them when you travel and they aren't exorbitantly priced. Some can be found for as little as $10."

But their value is rising.

The most current Schroeder's Antique Price Guide shows that one silver mesh vanity with a sapphire thumb piece and fringe sold for $400. Others have sold for thousands. Value is affected by condition, provenance, design and workmanship, much of which would be too expensive to duplicate today.

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Powder was one of the first cosmetics to be developed. It was made in ancient times by pulverizing flowers and fragrant leaves. Before there were compacts to hold powder, people used Asian ointment jars, Egyptian kohl pots, Etruscan cosmetic containers or French and English coffers.

But before World War I, makeup was frowned upon in the United States. A proper diet, fresh air and exercise were all women needed for beauty, said the experts. The Dorothy Gray cosmetic firm introduced a face "patter" to pat the skin and cause the skin to naturally turn pink. Pinching of cheeks was also recommended.

After World War I, attitudes changed when women saw heavily made-up actresses appear in motion pictures. This began the golden age of the compact.

In illustrations in Vogue and other fashion magazines, a compact was prominent. Often a model was depicted staring into her color-coordinated vanity as she freshened her makeup.

There were compacts to fit the budgets of women working in factories as well as wealthy society types.

Cosmetic houses such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein created ones in varieties of materials, colors and shapes.

Manufacturers of affordable compacts included Volupte, Elgin American, Yardley, Evans, Whiting-Davis and Coty. They were made of gilded brass, petit point, tapestry, ormolu (gilded bronze), vermeil, plastic, enamels and cloisonne.

Jewelry companies such as Tiffany, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels produced expensive ones using gold and precious and semiprecious stones.

There were compacts in the shapes of hearts, hands, telephone dials and tiny purses. Some commemorated World's Fairs or had scenes of lovers painted on the front. Others had music boxes that played when opened or watches to tell the correct time.

They were hidden in bracelets or cane handles, or could be attached to the inside of luxury cars and a woman's garters.

Modern cosmetic companies still offer various compacts. New ones for the fall are expected from Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder, Clinique and others. Yves St. Laurent brings out a new heart-shaped compact every year with a different stone on it.

"When Ivana Trump was photographed for Vanity Fair holding a Yves St. Laurent compact, they became a very collectible item," said Tamara Steffen, color specialist for Yves St. Laurent at Bullock's, South Coast Plaza. Costing $140, they are refillable and have matching lipstick cases.

Yves St. Laurent also has a non-refillable gold-plated model ($33.50).

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These two books offer more information: "Ladies' Compacts of the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries" by Roselyn Gerson (Wallace-Homestead Book Co., $34.95) and "Compacts and Smoking Accessories" by Roseann Ettinger (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., $29.95).

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