I posted a 1960s advertisement for Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass fragrance (1934) a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a visual that evoked cool, grassy scents for summer. In that search, I found the ad above, which ran in several major women’s magazines in 1941.
It would be an understatement to say I was puzzled…
For one thing: “Fashions for Blue Grass”? How and why did that come about?
Well: during World War II, Elizabeth Arden expanded her reach as a lifestyle brand, working with fashion designers who created women’s wear to be sold alongside Arden fragrances and cosmetics. (She would solidify this enterprise in 1943, when she opened “fashion floors” in select Arden salons and hired Charles James as her house designer.)
In 1941, the Elizabeth Arden fashion offerings included everything from day dresses, hostess gowns, and nighties to accessories like hats and handkerchiefs. The theme was Arden’s fragrance Blue Grass, an olfactory evocation of the dewy pastures and flowers of Kentucky’s horse-breeding country.
Textiles for the Blue Grass capsule collection (as we’d call it nowadays) included playful horse motifs (seen above, on the model at left) and an abstracted grass pattern (on the model at right). There was also a pink clutch purse in the horse pattern and a horse-shaped “perfume pin” that could be worn as a wrist corsage or lapel decoration.
Here’s the Blue Grass horse-shaped perfume pin or “lapel decoration” again, this time interpreted larger than life and ridden by a woman in a horse-print “negligée.” This illustration is by Marcel Vertès, beloved among fragophiles for his work for the Schiaparelli perfume collection. I love the detail of the single bare foot and the loose watercolor effect of the background.
Yeager’s department store in Akron, Ohio was one of many venues carrying “Fashions for Blue Grass” in 1941, and their own newspaper advertisements illustrated many items from the collection…including the perfume itself, paired with the Blue Grass horse motif. The Blue Grass horses usually sported extravagant floral wreaths or garlands, as though they were all Derby winners.
That floral motif, isolated from the horses who usually wore it, was used for another textile design in the Blue Grass Collection.
Here’s the ad that initially confounded me. It ran in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in May 1941. It doesn’t include any copy or name an illustrator. The floral-garland evening gown looks lovely. But what is all that impossibly towering bluegrass behind the woman wearing it? Why does she have one glove on, one glove off? Is that a unicorn horn made of roses on her head? What’s the point of the garden gnome? AND WILL SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN THAT HORSE HEAD…?!
Actually, I do have an answer for that last question, which shrieked through my head for a moment until I realized what I was looking at. The horse is a direct quotation from the seminal late eighteenth-century Romantic painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli.
The Nightmare‘s indelible cast of characters is limited to a tight trio: a sleeping woman who lies limply across her disordered bed: an ape-like or troll-like creature who crouches on her chest; and a horse with pricked ears, bulging eyes, and flared nostrils who watches through a gap in the red drapery.
The creepy croucher may be an incubus, a male demon who invades the beds of sleeping women and rapes them. The horse may be the incubus’s companion and means of travel; in the 1810 watercolor An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women (Kunsthaus, Zürich), Fuseli painted a demon fleeing two women whom he has just assaulted—on a flying horse.
As Noelle Paulson observes on the Smarthistory website, “The Nightmare’s stark mixture of horror, sexuality, and morbidity has insured its enduring notoriety. . . . [it] became an icon of Romanticism and a defining image of Gothic horror, inspiring. . .the writers Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe among many others.”
You can watch a five-minute video of the DIA’s director discussing this painting here.
Here’s a detail of that leering horse. His eyes are glassy and eerily blank, although he seems focused on the spectacle of the incubus and his unconscious prey, and his mouth almost seems to be open in a grin.
How did this voyeuristic equine end up in a perfume ad for Elizabeth Arden, one of the most deliberately genteel cosmetic brands of its era? The date actually makes sense for art history, since the international Surrealist movement had reached mainstream culture by that time, and the ongoing World War certainly brought its share of horrors for participants and nightmares for civilians.
But. . . Blue Grass?! I’d love to know more about this advertisement. Who was responsible for this ad’s concept and its artwork? Did anyone catch the Fuseli reference, with all its latent weirdness, or did they just say, “Oh, good, you included a horse”? We may never know.
I had some one-on-one time with The Nightmare in late 2018, when it visited the Morgan Library & Museum with the traveling exhibition It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200. That’s me, above, contemplating the painting up close. My husband took the photo at my request. I don’t usually bother to pose with works of art, unless they have particular personal meaning for me, which this one does.
My initial encounter with Fuseli’s most famous painting came through a recreation: the poster for Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, as well as a scene in the film. (All that’s missing is the sinister horse.) Gothic is a fictionalized (and fabulously lurid) imagining of a weekend in the country shared by real-life writers Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson, pictured above), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), and Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne).
A year or two later, I took my first art history class and realized that Fuseli’s Nightmare had been the source material for these ads. I pinned a black-and-white reproduction, cut from a friend’s discarded textbook, onto the bulletin board in my dorm room. I’ve never stopped loving it, despite its familiarity.
One last note: some of the department store ads for the Blue Grass collection seemed to draw from Arden’s own illustrated ads, adapting them for local audiences. The Vertès ad was made more pedestrian for Montreal’s Gazette, and the above vignette seems to borrow the woman’s blank expression and backward-leaning pose from the uncredited illustration (which borrowed them from Fuseli)…adding the “perfume pin” as a tiny hovering horse that sprays her passive figure with Blue Grass.
Even though I’ve spotted references to Fuseli’s painting in some unlikely places over the years, I never expected to come across it in an Elizabeth Arden ad. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually tried Blue Grass. Maybe I will now, just for the sake of research.
If you enjoyed this post, buy me a cup of coffee!
Jessica this was just great! I’ve been mulling it over the past few days. My first glance at the May 1, 1941 (Derby Day was May 3 that year) picture was so disorienting. I could see all the mid-century elements, but if you had reported that it was from the Fall, 2020 collection of something or another, I would not have been surprised! I too have been fascinated by the Fuseli painting and intrigued that *whoever* did that shot modeled that horse after that. I hope your post will bounce around cyberspace and maybe someone who knew the art director or photographer will chime in! The other part of your essay that interested me was the way local stores added local touches. So many companies have become “branches” of some larger organization, and marketing by local talent, with all its ingenuity mostly has been swept away with corporate conformity.
[…] The Art of Perfume Advertising: Elizabeth Arden Bluegrass […]