Month: March 2012

Volupte deco compact

I’ll keep this one.

As I’ve said before, once in a while I’ll purchase a compact fully intending to sell it. But once it gets here, I change my mind and decide it belongs in my collection.

This lovely Volupte compact, which arrived in the mail today, is a perfect example. Look at the lovely details: no missing rhinestones, a good mirror, and the original fabric sleeve. Sometimes I just can’t resist.

Volupte deco compact

A rhinestone beauty from Volupte.

1940 Dodge Kingsway ad

Budgeting, AKA I really DO want to own that car.

Last week, my husband and I went to the accountant to file our taxes. When I changed jobs last year, I also changed my witholding so we’d have more money up front. Tax time opened the door for a conversation about how we WANT to spend our money and various long-term goals. Our house was built in 1944. Things break. Sometimes big things. We need to be ready.

Retro Reporter’s budgeting blog post offered some helpful tips, and Tim and I had a really fruitful discussion on where we are, where we want to be, and how to get there.

This also got me thinking about the Dodge. Tim and I have always operated on a mine, yours, and ours model with money. We have a joint account for household expenses, then each of us keeps a percentage of our paycheck to spend as we please.  

A 1940 Dodge would please me beyond belief. For a while, I’ve been thinking about the timeline. How soon can I reasonably expect to make this happen? Now that I have a budget and a plan, I know I can save up a decent amount of money within five years–sooner if I save more aggressively or get raises along the way.

Yes, five years seems like a long time. Then I remind myself without a plan and some discipline, that five years could easily be never. For me, it’s worth the wait.

1940 Dodge Kingsway ad

A 1940 Dodge. Going from "someday" to "within five years" feels good.

swap shoes

Spring wardrobe refresh

Last Thursday night I went to a clothing swap. I LOVE clothing swaps. Vintage wearers obviously have no qualms about wearing somewhat used items, and there’s no cost. Free clothes? Sign me up.

swap shoes

Strappy print peep-toes from a previous swap. They go perfectly with one of my favorite shirtwaist dresses.

Much like poking around vintage shops or browsing etsy, you never know what you’ll encounter at a clothing swap. The group I usually swap with has five or six core participants, but each swap draws some new faces with different styles and stories. Women of all shapes and sizes join in. New mothers who’ve returned to pre-baby weight pass maternity clothes on to pregnant friends. Clothing kids (or husbands) have outgrown, uncomfortable shoes, too-big belts, that bag you loved but got over, things that shrunk in the wash: all fair game.

The Lowell swap set typically rotates hostesses. Everyone shows up with a bag of clothes to swap and the beverage of her choice. We get comfortable around the room and once most of the participants show up, the swapping starts. Each guest goes through her bag and tries to sell the items: “Really cute dress, I love the color, but I just don’t wear it any more.”  

Several things could happen next.

1. Someone pipes up and says, “I’ll take it!”

2. Mutliple people show interest, in which case they try things on and negotiate based on who has less stuff thus far.

3. Someone declares that so-and-so needs to try it on and we strong-arm her into trying on the item.

4. A bunch of, “It’s cute, but I don’t think it’d fit me.”

5. Silence.

6. Instant good-natured ribbing. “You don’t wear it any more because you have way better taste now. Put it down and back away. Next, please.” “Has the aunt that gave you that ever met you?” “There is no excuse to wear those shoes anywhere other than to a bridal shower for someone you don’t like.”

I like seeing my cast-off clothes go to a good home. A few swaps ago, I brought a tailored navy-blue suit with cream contrast stitching. I loved it and wore the hell out of it for years, but it no longer fit. There were no takers at that particular swap, but my friend Bernadette couldn’t bear to send that suit to Goodwill. “I’m going to hang onto this. We’ll find someone it fits.”

A few months ago, she found the suit a new owner. One of her friends is going through a divorce and starting over. There may have been a new job involved, but no money for a new wardrobe–forgive me for forgetting the details. Bernadette instantly remembered the suit. “You have to try this on–it’s perfect.” The woman looked at it and swore it wouldn’t fit. B challenged her to prove it. A few minutes later the woman emerged from the bathroom, wearing the suit with tears in her eyes. She looked great. Confident, professional, and, well, great.

At this swap, I watched my friend Amy claim my magenta wrap dress. I can’t wait to see it on her because I’ll bet that cut works well for her and the color looks fantastic with her skin tone. Some skirts and dresses I’d picked up at earlier swaps also found new owners and some of my husband’s button-down shirts got new homes. At the end of the night, anything unclaimed goes to the closest Goodwill drop box. 

blue swap dress

My new awards banquet dress. The color and the bustline make me feel pretty.

I did all right for myself as well. I found a gorgeous special event dress someone’s mother bought for a wedding but never wore. In May, I have a work event with a formal awards ceremony–now I already have the perfect dress. Better yet, I didn’t have to spend any money. I also picked up a pair of jeans, some black patent-leather shoes, and a few cute tops. A pair of pants and a sweater set came home with me, but went back in the swap bag as soon as I tried them on. And that’s ok. I’m sure someone else will love them. Hopefully she’ll be at the next swap.

vintage cocktail recipes

The lost art of mixing a Manhattan

Several times this month, I’ve ordered a dry Manhattan and had the bartender give me a blank look and ask what goes in it. Sigh. “How dry do you want it?” Acceptable question. “How do I make it?” No.

I realize that variations on drinks exist: lists two different dry Manhattan recipes (one of which includes an olive. Olives do not belong in my Manhattans). Esquire swears that bourbon Manhattans are unacceptable, rye is the only way to go. The Intoxicologist (brilliant name) has a recipe for a sweet Manhattan, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’m intrigued by the bar spoon of syrup from the maraschino cherry jar.

vintage cocktail recipes

The Martini, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned.

When I ask for a dry Manhattan, I expect dry vermouth. ONLY dry vermouth. Even the vintage recipe above offers misguidance on that front. A Perfect Manhattan contains half sweet, half dry vermouth, according to the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. Either way, my Manhattan should have bitters and a cherry. I confess a preference for bourbon, usually Knob Creek. Do I expect bartenders to know my bourbon preference? No. Just the difference between classic, perfect, and dry.

Rex Fifth Avenue

Compact makers: Rex Fifth Avenue

Rex Fifth Avenue happens to be one of my favorite compact manufacturers. Rex used bold colors–while the company made some plain goldtone pieces, one of their most recognizable collections featured giant flapjack compacts in deep blue and vivid red.

Rex Fifth Avenue

A wonderful blue Rex Fifth Ave compact.

Some of their compacts exceeded four inches in diameter: that’s giant. And opulent, as one might expect from anything associated with the Fifth Avenue moniker. While the quality didn’t always live up to expectations, according to Laura Mueller’s Collector’s Encyclopedia of Compacts, Carryalls and Face Powder Boxes, Rex was the most popular of the Fifth Avenue compact lines, which also included Dorset, Columbia, Dale, and Zell. During WWII, Rex maintained popularity and worked around the metal shortages by producing lucite cases. These plastic compacts also use color, though often in more muted tones. Look at the pansies in the compact below as an example. Sadly, the pins fastening the lucite plate to the compact top make the corners of these pieces vulnerable to cracking and chipping. If you find one of these compacts with corners intact, consider yourself lucky.


Rex Fifth Avenue spring flowers supercompact.

Rex (and most of the other Fifth Avenue lines) did not always print hallmarks on compacts themselves–instead, Rex signed the ribbon across the puff. Zell typically signed the puffs themselves. This can hamper identification as puffs often fade, deteriorate, or get separated from their compacts. To further complicate matters, the Fifth Avenue lines occasionally shared design elements. For example, a pink flower that graced the lid of a Dorset compact might also find its way onto a Rex piece.

I like to think of researching unmarked compacts as the educational component of collecting (as opposed to the frustrating part, though sometimes it’s exactly that).

Rex Fifth Avenue hallmark

A puff with the Rex Fifth Avenue label.

In the 1940s, Rex compacts sold for between $2 and $25. Ads played up both femininity and functionality. A 1944 ad for the “Reverie” compact (the round version of the pansy-printed piece pictured): “Memory of romance captured on a huge round of frosty white…so dresden-like, so feminine. The soft, gentle colors of Spring flowers, the coolness of clear porcelain. So much of beauty, yet so much of utility. Once you see ‘Reverie’ you’ll say, ‘This I must have.'”

In 1951, Rex merged with Dorset Fifth Avenue to become Dorset-Rex. Lucite and metal handbags from Dorset-Rex produced in the 1950s are highly collectible and seem to target a higher-end buyer than the typical Rex compact customer. Rex made compacts for the everyday woman who wanted something pretty, feminine, and functional.  

Rex ad: 1946

1946 Rex ad from Mademoiselle

finished hair

Coloring your hair with henna

I am meant to be a redhead. My skin tone and personality both support this hypothesis. Sadly, my god-given tresses didn’t follow suit–they’re a really nondescript light/medium brown. Deep in winter = dreadfully mousy. No good. About 10-12 years ago, I started coloring my hair with drugstore kits. Some worked better than others. While I loved having red hair, the color generally faded quickly, leaving me with reddish highlights. Still better than mouse brown, but not ideal.

The white patch in the middle of my bangs shed dye even faster than the rest of my hair, which bugged the hell out of me. Some co-workers recommended a product called No-Gray: you mix it into your dye and it improves the way the dye permeates the gray. Or something. With the No-Gray, the color stuck to my white hair for about three weeks instead of four days, but I still found those results disappointing. And sometimes wound up with burgundy hair. Sigh.

Then my friend Bernadette said the magic words. “You’re looking for really red hair, right? My friend Kerry uses henna. She’s got great color and her hair looks natural, you should talk to her.” B was right on all counts. Kerry directed me to a website with body-art quality henna, all kinds of great instructions, and a forum where people share their before and after photos and mixing secrets. Perfect. I ordered some henna. Two years later, I believe that was one of the best beauty decisions I’ve made. My hair looks thicker and shinier. The color lasts longer–even on my stubborn white spot. The red looks more natural–no more burgundy. My husband likes it better. I get compliments on my hair color from strangers on the street. Definitely the right choice.

Last weekend Tim did my hair and I took photos throughout the process. Henna requires some patience; you need to mix the powder with some acidic liquid like lemon juice and let it develop overnight. Then it needs at least two hours to works its magic on your hair. If you’re a “Hey, I think I’ll do my hair today!” pop-down-to-the-drugstore-and-grab-10-minute-dye kind of gal, henna is not for you. It’s also not for those folks who want to switch up their color frequently–if you go from red to blonde to black to fuscia, avoid the henna. Using chemical dyes on hair colored with henna will get you unexpected results. Don’t do it.

On the other hand, if you’re ready to commit to a rich, glossy red for the rest of your life, the stuff is a dream. Let me walk you through my typical hair-coloring process.

henna box

The color I use, along with the mixing tools.

 I order henna from the website (as does Kerry, the friend who inspired this adventure). The site has fantastic instructions and offers far more information that I will ever provide in this blog. Henna comes as a powder. Since you mix it yourself, you have some control over the color; you can also mix up just the amount you need. Chef Alton Brown weighs dry ingredients for recipes; I weigh the powder to get the right amount in my mix.

I have chin-length baby-fine not-so-thick hair. I need about 50 grams of powder. Kerry has waist-length hair–she needs 200 grams. If you’re somewhere in between, 100 grams is a safe starting point.

powdered henna

Powdered henna with special secret ingredients.

Here’s the powdered henna. It looks green and kinda smells like hemp. I spice the mix up, literally. Paprika cranks up the red some more, while turmeric lightens it a little. (They also improve the smell and taste great with lamb.) The concoction needs to go in a glass or ceramic bowl–something non-reactive that won’t add other elements into your mix.

henna with lemon joiuce

Add lemon or orange juice.

Add lemon or orange juice. I’ve also added some cinnamon here, because I like the way it smells and the paprika and turmeric really did get me thinking about lamb, and I like cinnamon on my lamb. Anyway. The acid in the lemon juice reacts with a component of the henna to create magic hair-coloring stuff.

Now the fun part: mix everything together. DO NOT GET IT ON YOUR HANDS. Aim for something about the consistency of mashed potatoes. I realize mashed potatoes vary dramatically in consistency. Some folks like them creamier, some like thicker…however you like your potatoes, that’s fine. This isn’t rocket science. Feel free to add some warm water to create the desired consistency.

Mixed henna

Your mix should look like something that came out of the back end of a cow.

You now have a bowl of stuff that looks like poo. You didn’t mess anything up, that’s really what it’s supposed to look like, and yes, that vile greenish brown slop really will turn your hair a lovely shade of red. Trust me. I’ve been doing this for two years. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit somewhere warm and out of the way. If you have a spot where you put bread dough to rise, your henna will be happy there. Let it rest overnight. Now you’re ready for the fun part.

My husband colors my hair and over the last few years we’ve worked out a pretty good process. Add a few tablespoons of water to your poo-like mashed potato mess, stirring them in one tablespoon at a time to create a yogurt-like texture. (Not Greek yogurt. Too firm.) You need to be able to put this in your hair and work it through without dripping all over yourself. Err on the side of not quite enough water: you can always add a bit of water when you put it on your head, but if you put too much in now, the color will drip all over you, run down your neck, and generally make you miserable for the next few hours. Tim and I learned this the hard way. Once you’ve created something yogurtish, spoon it into a zip-top bag. Typically, Tim puts gloves on and holds the bag open while I spoon in the mess. Next, he collects plastic wrap, a bottle of water, and paper towels while I slather petroleum jelly all over my ears, forehead and neck to keep the henna from staining. While henna doesn’t stain clothing, it will discolor your skin. Do not skimp on the petroleum jelly.

Now we go to the designated salon area. Your hair should be clean and dry for this. Tim cuts a corner off the bag of henna and applies it to my hair, working it in from the roots. If the yogurt-paste seems too thick, dump a little bit of water on your head (this is what the bottled water is for). The mix may feel a bit gritty, which is fine. Throughly coat your hair. Wipe up any drips with a paper towel. Do not let the henna paste hang out in contact with your skin. There’s a reason I keep reiterating this.

When you’ve got all your hair covered and thoroughly coated your hair with the poo-yougurt-paste, wrap your head in plastic. This keeps the mess from dripping all over and retains heat to help the henna do its thing. Tim likes to secure my Cling-wrap turban with a few strips of painter’s tape. He’s an engineer. He’s thorough. It works.

henna turban

The cling-wrap turban. This is what I look like sans make up. Also, please ignore the bra strap.

Hang out like this for at least two hours. It will not be your most glamourous moment. To counteract this, I try to do other things to make myself feel pretty, like give myself a manicure or read some fabulous beauty blogs. I realize in the photo here I do not look even remotely appealing and you have no desire to emulate my hair or take beauty advice from me. You can see that without makeup, I’m quite plain. I have light gray eyelashes and a dorky smile. Thank god Tim finds these things endearing. This picture will hopefully make the next one all the more dramatic. Once your two hours are up, rinse the henna out of your hair and shampoo. Again, it may feel gritty and will smell like wet hay. You’re doing it right. Rinse, rinse, rinse until the water runs clear.

Your work is done. Over the next three or four days, your hair color will fully develop, getting richer and deeper. Yes: the opposite of chemical dyes, which fade out. Enjoy your gorgeous new long-lasting color. When your roots start showing, it’s time to repeat. Until then: rich, natural-looking red.

finished hair

The finished product. And lipstick. Big difference.