rope ladder and the Revlon cosmetic bag

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?

We all related to the media and to movie stars. We all emulated them, trying to look our best. In my early 20s, we were at war. It was WWII, and I enlisted as an army nurse. When I enlisted, they were encouraging nurses to join the army. So they said they would give you a free overcoat and a Revlon cosmetic bag.

Cosmetic bags at that point were very popular. They were like little suitcases with a mirror inside, maybe 14” by 18”. Revlon produced the cosmetic bags. We as a group of nurses, every place we traveled, the cosmetic bag went with us. In certain places, we had to climb up and down a rope ladder to get on a ship, and the cosmetic bag was in one hand. In the cosmetic bag, I’m sure we had rouge, lipstick and powder – those were the things we used then. Maybe hairbrushes and bobby pins. That cosmetic bag went everywhere.

In terms of beauty, you were just trying to look your best all through life. Afterward, I raised a family and then worked as a nurse. You were so busy, but you just tried to look your best all the time. I don’t think there are any special beauty tricks. I never plucked my eyebrows or used mascara. I tried mascara but I didn’t like the feel of it.

In those days working as a nurse in the hospital, we wore white uniforms and white oxford shoes. I wish that was true today. I think the clothing nurses wear is very demeaning to their status and what they do. We wore white uniforms all the time, working 48 hours a week and then having a family on the weekend.

In those days, we didn’t have many clothes…maybe one or two dresses, a couple of skirts and that’s it. High heels were always important to me. When I was young, I was considered to have flat feet. My mother took me to a clinic where they used to strap your feet with adhesive. Then you get fitted for special arches to put in your shoes.

When I reached 16 or 17 (at nursing school away from home), the first thing I did was to go out and buy a pair of pumps. In the summer, the pumps that were popular were either black and white, navy blue and white or brown and white. The tip and back were colored. The rest was white. Spectator pumps, we used to call them. When you wore your spectator pumps, you really felt like the cat’s meow.

I never used much make-up. In the 1960s, everybody was piercing their ears. As nurses you were not allowed to wear jewelry. It was very strict. My children and their friends encouraged me, and so I pierced my ears myself which was crazy. I tried to hide the piercing with my hair when I came into work. My boss scrutinized me and saw it. I was reprimanded. I wasn’t allowed to wear the earrings but I left something in (to keep the hole open).

When I was young, we all wanted to look like Lauren Bacall. She wore her hair on the side in a page-boy. That didn’t quite work for me. In the hospital, you had to wear your hair shoulder-length. I was a brunette. As the hair started to fade, I decided to use a tint in my hair because I thought my hair was mousy. I’ve been using a tint ever since. Maybe that’s how I get away with being percepted as younger.

What does beauty mean to you now?

As you get into your 80s, your eyebrows start to disappear. I won’t pluck my eyebrows but I draw them in a little bit. I use eyeliner, and I think that enhances (although it smudges during the day). As far as my skin goes, everyday after I shower, I use lotion on legs and arms. I’ve been using aloe vera gel on my face. I don’t use nail polish because when you work in art, it’s really hard on the nails. If there’s anything I hate, it’s seeing chipped colored nail polish.

If different, why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?

My youngest daughter is really into fashion. I think being around young people has kept me more contemporary. I want to be stylish. I want to be a knock-out if I can. I don’t buy that many clothes. I work with what I have.

Emily, 88

San Francisco

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