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The Shipwreck Rose: Jungle Red

Wed, 03/13/2024 - 17:32

Have you noticed a parade of women of a certain age emerging with pink cheeks from the alleyway next to the grassy patch in front of the Double RL barn on Main Street? Next time you have reason to be in the vicinity of Bonne Nuit or Tutto Caffe, be on the alert for rosy-complexioned women carrying small shopping bags, looking pleased with themselves, and glancing around for strangers’ approval.

These will be customers who have succumbed to the online ads for Bobbi Brown’s Jones Road Miracle Balm, a little pot of tinted facial gloss-blush — “a wash of soft-focus moisture to perfect and enhance skin” — that has garnered 45,000 reviews online. Miracle Balm is a hit, a trend among the ladies like me of a certain age. I wandered into the shop, curious, a few weeks ago after a coffee meeting and it was so crowded that customers were waiting about for a chance to speak to a salesperson.

The Miracle Balm trend brings to mind the Hollywood classic movie “The Women” (1939), in which Rosalind Russell tells Norma Shearer to go to Sydney’s beauty salon to see a manicurist named Olga for Jungle Red nail varnish: Soon all the women of Manhattan are emerging from Sydney’s with nails that make them look, as Florence Nash remarks, as if they’d been clawing at one another’s throats. The ladies of East Hampton this season are strolling around looking flushed, like they’ve all had a facial and a brisk walk. It makes me laugh, but I also want Miracle Balm.

I actually interviewed Bobbi Brown once, back when I worked at Vogue. In those days, the late 1990s, I dressed exclusively in genuine-vintage clothing dating to the late 1930s through mid-1940s and my makeup, such as it was, was chosen for a vintage look, as well. I remember using an eyebrow stencil! You held a plastic eyebrow-shape plastic stencil to your forehead and painted over it with a color-loaded brush! I never went in for the pencil-thin arches that all the ladies wore, and I preferred a bold, classic, pure-red lipstick to the nude lip in vogue in that millennial moment. Anyway, Bobbi Brown told me about how all her lip formulas had brown undertones because brown was the natural pigment-undertone on the human face, and I asked her what the customer who preferred a vintage look should wear, if they didn’t want a natural-lip look, and she was clearly annoyed with me: “Wouldn’t you rather look good than look retro?” (“No” was my unspoken answer.)

I’m not 100 percent sure, but I believe that the Bobbi Brown interview may have been for the story I was asked to do by the beauty director of Vogue about being a pale, freckled, red-cheeked person who didn’t ever wear foundation but who should have worn foundation and was learning to wear foundation. For a month or two, afterward, I did wear a full face of makeup. The next article I wrote for Vogue was about the fashion closet of the wife of a tech billionaire, and when I flew to Seattle to interview her, my old friend Antonia met me at the airport, looked at my face, and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!”

I realize in retrospect that the Someone at Vogue who wanted me to start wearing makeup so I presented a more Vogue appearance — and to have my hair dyed a real redhead red in a shade that matched exactly that worn by the model Karen Elson — wasn’t the beauty director, who was only the messenger, but the big boss, Anna, herself.

Like all forms of self-improvement enforced from the outside, it didn’t stick.

I’ve only very belatedly become a happy habitué of traditionally uber-feminine spaces like Sydney’s beauty parlor or the John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman (which is, I think, if memory serves, the salon where I and Karen Elson got made into redheads). I am a product of the feminist 1970s and while I stand by the principle that our identity and self-worth shouldn’t, obviously, rely on our physical appearance or the label on our clothes, having a daughter has taught me how affirming a hat shop, dress shop, or makeup store can be.

Nettie and I have been shopping for a prom dress this month. Her boyfriend, a senior, will be wearing a navy tuxedo to the Phillips Exeter Academy prom in June. Should she wear yellow?

Nettie and I spent two hours trying on overpriced prom lewks made out of weird, shiny, surely flammable fabrics in a formalwear store in Washington, D.C., last week — “appointment only” — and yesterday she and I drove UpIsland to Commack to try on a dozen more. It was my opinion, and I told Nettie so, that it would be better and far more chic to find a unique secondhand designer dress made from actual silk or actual satin at the Bargain Box or the ARF Thrift Shop, rather than buying new a stretch-polyester number at a ludicrous markup, but she really wanted a prom-dress prom dress, and I have to admit that she was right. Forget natural fibers. Prom dressing is a rite of passage.

We made an appointment at a store called Dress Gala — I kept calling it “Gala Dress” by mistake, making Nettie laugh for some reason — in a strip mall on the Jericho Turnpike, a magical wonderland with an all-female cast, crammed with racks so tightly packed with dresses that you could barely pull one out to examine its beads and sequins. The tags bore brand names like Alyce Paris, Sparkle Prom, and Cinderella Divine. (I didn’t make those up!) I loved Dress Gala. I want to move into Dress Gala. Short dresses and quinceañera dresses to the left of the door, long dresses for proms and moms of brides to the right. The dresses were arranged by embellishment and color: blush dresses, pink dresses, coral dresses, rose dresses, red dresses, burgundy dresses . . . ice-blue, sky-blue, royal-blue, aqua, navy, teal, emerald, lime. . . .

Dress Gala has two mirror stations with pedestals on which the customers stand to swivel, looking at all sides, like they do on “Say Yes to the Dress.” There are upholstered chairs for moms and bystanders to voice opinions from. During our appointment on Monday, I sat on the zebra-striped chair next to a white-haired grandmother of the groom and got right into it, giving firm opinions on not just Nettie’s unsequined, unbeaded, body-hugging choices but the bedazzled off-the-shoulder duchesse-satin gowns being tried on by various mothers of the bride or groom.

“Stunning!” the white-haired grandmother of the groom boomed when Nettie came out in her first look, Atria style #6842H, an acre of jungle-red stretch-poly with a strapless bodice, a high-thigh slit, a train, and a peekaboo cutout across the clavicle. “She should try that in an ice-blue,” the grandmother of the groom opined authoritatively when Nettie came out in look two, Atria #6833H in a butter-yellow, with double spaghetti straps and an open back. “Beautiful. Gorgeous.”

When I was at Vogue, one of the words we were forbidden by the Big Boss to use in print was “gown,” which she deemed to be too old-fashioned. This was an old-fashioned attitude, I thought. Antique. I don’t think I ever did manage to sneak the good word “gown” into a print edition of Vogue, not that I recall, though I did manage to slip in “pantyhose” and “purse” out of pure spite (and because I thought it was funny). Take that, Anna Wintour!

Nettie and I spent two hours at Dress Gala. I offered my thoughts to two mothers of the bride trying on major gowns in jewel tones. One stood on a pedestal facing a mirror as a seamstress added a shoulder shrug of black tulle to a heavily silver-sequined bodice. A ninth-grader chose a powder-blue mini with a thick, swinging fringe of beads that clicked like paparazzi cameras as she moved. She did some dance moves on the pedestal and posed for a photograph holding a hand sign that said “I said yes to the dress.” A girl Nettie’s age, a junior in high school, came with her mom and swiveled in front of the mirror in floor-sweeping lace-and-bead gowns in scarlet and baby-blue. “Beautiful,” I said. “Lovely.”

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