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Curious Colours and Collectable Makeup: Vintage Biba Cosmetics

Although ingredients may have changed over the years, people have made up their faces for tens of thousands of years - from the Aborigines and Egyptians to members of the French court and beyond. Did you see the first episode of Makeup: A Glamorous History on BBC Two this week? If not, you might like to take a look at this preview of the show by presenter and makeup-artist, Lisa Eldridge, or catch up on the iPlayer.

There’s obviously a huge gulf between Georgian styles from the 1780s and those of the 1970s, but the looks are equally as dramatic. From the 1920s to the late 1950s, Hollywood glamour-inspired makeup was frowned upon for being overtly provocative. Even the doll-like coral, pastel, pink and peach-painted visages of the 1960s failed to reflect the psychedelic hot pink and citrus shades of an adventurous new era. Imagine the public shock when girls started wearing blue, green, purple and black lipsticks.

Biba Cosmetics

When Biba launched its cosmetics range in 1970, their dark ‘auntie’ inspired colours, including chocolate brown and mulberry lipsticks, were completely novel. This was the start of a new trend, where ‘ghoulish’ young women, later joined by (punk) men, looked like they’d come from a gothic horror movie. Some of these very lipsticks are included in our Biba Vintage collection, along with a selection of thirty eye shadows, whose mysteriously dark sounding shades are perfect for retro colour inspiration.

Barbara Hulanicki and husband ‘Fitz’ had zero experience in the area of cosmetics manufacture when they produced their first makeup collection in 1970. Biba cosmetics became hugely successful, but inevitably experienced problems with production and distribution. In her autobiography, From A to Biba, Hulanicki recounts a story of one manufacturer filling glass decanters with cologne, sadly unaware that the liquid expanded in heat, so the bottles should not be filled to the brim. “The first sign of trouble was when the girl representing us in California, the first place to become hot that summer, called to say that all her bottles had burst. Before we could work out why, there were calls coming in from all over the world.”  A couple of the original – unexploded – apothecary style cologne jars are available at ShopCurious.

Biba Design

Another reason for the success of the Biba cosmetics range was the packaging. Uniquely, this incorporated elements of Art Nouveau/Celtic and later Art Deco design in conjunction with modern plastics to create something different from anything ever seen before. The associated advertising shared this curiously cool, retro-futurist aesthetic, as can be seen from this image in the promotional newspaper for Big Biba's 1973 launch.

With marketing as inventive as design, the multifarious uses for henna were expounded via a leaflet distributed in the store. Sadly, the trademark typeface fails the 'easy to read' test, but is certainly in keeping with the brand's iconic, antiquarian-cum-art-deco style. 

Items from the cosmetics range were the first Biba products to be sold outside their own stores. Initially, in hundreds of Dorothy Perkins stores, once the firm became their major shareholder; whereupon - according to my sources – a man by the name of Mr Moxey took over the cosmetics division. Elio Fiorucci launched Biba cosmetics in Italy, and the range was sold through his store in Milan. Eventually, the cosmetics line was sold across the globe; from St Tropez, to Japan and the USA. This was in its heyday, before Barbara relinquished the Biba brand name and moved with her family to Brazil, where among other things, she went on to work for Fiorucci.

Whilst Biba may have revolutionised makeup colours, black and blue lipstick wearers aren’t a regular sight even today. They may appear on the catwalk –notably in Giles AW15 show, inspiring a trend that seemed to peak in AW19 - and at Halloween. Dark-coloured lipstick remains singularly unpopular IRL. Is this because it is considered too daring, or just a tad scary? The same can’t be said of black and blue nail varnishes, which have become relatively common, especially in winter.  

Whether or not you are a fan of such colours, vintage pieces from the Biba cosmetics range are curiously collectable. Perhaps these sort of items are best kept in a museum or a memory box for future generations to treasure forever?

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