Long before Nicki Minaj, there was Joan Crawford — the OG badass. An infamous diva with an aversion to wire hangers, Joanie was and is one of the most recognizable screen queens of the ’30s, nominated three times for an Oscar and starring opposite accomplished leading men like Clark Gable.
Besides the fact that she’s one of the most fascinating actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, what drew me to use Joan as my inspiration for this installment of historical beauty routines was her unique approach to primping. She was fastidious, bordering on obsessive (daily ice washes, anyone?) about her beauty routine and a trendsetter for her day. Pencil-thin brows and clumpy lashes (not to mention cheekbones that could cut glass) were her signature beauty look, and one from which she didn’t stray too far.
A close, personal friend of the legendary Max Factor, Crawford is said to have had a habit of overdoing it with her makeup — especially foundation. According to a 1934 beauty guide by Factor, Crawford was focused on hiding her standout features — like her freckles. After working with the artist, she learned the fine art of emphasizing her natural features using some of the tricks we still use today.
I recently did an interview with Susan Sarandon, who is starring as Bette Davis opposite Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford in Ryan Murphy’s new Feud anthology. While the two legendary actresses had very different personalities, Davis and Crawford both played up their strengths to their advantage. “The difference between the two of them is how they’ve presented themselves to the outside world,” notes Sarandon. “Bette Davis was very straight-to-the-point, and Joan Crawford played a little bit more the victim. She was very smart and got what she wanted in a completely different way.”
Living up to the Crawford legend was one of my hardest beauty experiments to date — and that’s not just because of all that ice. Keep reading for the play-by-play of my week as Joan.
The first thing I found in my research was that Crawford was not messing around with her skin. According to multiple sources, she would splash her face with ice water 25 times every time she washed it. The logistics were not in my favor for this one. I live in a pre-war (fancy way to say “old”) apartment with a sink that hasn’t been updated since the ’60s. It’s small, it’s low, and the stopper no longer works. I wound up filling a large bowl with ice water and kneeling naked in my bathtub while awkwardly throwing freezing water into my face. In addition to hitting myself a few times with an ice cube because I was frantically trying to get to 25 in the least amount of time possible, I also let out a few screams and “Dear God, why?!” yells that brought my husband running into the bathroom. This was followed by a cocked eyebrow and a quick exit from the room.
Once my hands regained their circulation, I moved on to step two of her facial care — a buttload of heavy cream moisturizer. It just so happened that around the same time I started this experience, I had the pleasure of meeting physician Dr. Barbara Sturm, famous for her bespoke blood cream. It involves her taking your blood, running it through a centrifuge and isolating a specific protein, then creating a face cream out of it that you can get for the low, low price of $1,400. Basically the most diva cream in the world. I think Joan would have approved. It also had me fainting in the middle of a conference room while getting my blood drawn — which seems about right for a dramatic dame of her era. Swooning à la Scarlett O’Hara was all the rage.
One of the steps of her routine that scared me at first was “cleaning” her eyes each day with a boric-acid solution. The stuff they use in house-cleaning products. Sounds painful, right? I did some research, and turns out that a small amount mixed with sterilized water is actually what most conventional eye drops are made of. So I bought a box of Refresh Tears and went through about a vial a day. Considering I was on my last month of Accutane and suffering from extremely dry eyes, this was probably one of the most beneficial habits I picked up.
Post-freezing wash and cream application, I ventured into Joan’s makeup routine. The woman had some of the most boss brows around, but she kept them very thin and arched to the heavens. Not blessed with that kind of brow game, I instead opted to fill in mine with a heavy application of MAC’s Penultimate Brow Marker followed by a coat of Grande Cosmetics Brow-Fill. The result was, shall we say, intense. People on the subway did a double take, and my coworkers very politely ignored my Oscar the Grouch arches.
According to excerpts from Factor’s book, Joan used a soft, dove-gray shadow — a new shade for the time. She would apply it heavily on the lid and then blend it out so it was soft on the outer corners. She would then use a light brow pencil and create an extending line on the top and bottom outer corners of the eye to elongate it and fake an almond shape. The proto cat-eye, if you will. Gray is not my best color, but I dutifully applied CoverGirl’s Eye Enhancer shadow in Silver Lining to my lids, followed by light brow pencil. I’ve tried this trick before, but because of my deep-set, downturned eyes, the effect is pretty underwhelming. I finished the look with a healthy layer of Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation and four or five (I lost count toward the end) coats of Rimmel’s Super Curler Mascara.
Because of the thick coating of cosmetics covering my face, my makeup was not going to come off easily. I grabbed some Pond’s Cold Cream Cleanser (it’s been around since the early 1900s, so was quite common in the ’30s as a beauty aid), slathered it on my face, and let it sit for a few minutes, then used a washcloth to wipe it off. I ended up having to do this process three times to get most of the makeup off. I then climbed into the tub for my nightly ice torture.
Another of Joan’s tricks was to chew gum — a whole lot of gum — with the belief that the chewing action helped tighten and define her jawline. I enjoy gum as much as the next girl, but after going through two packs of Orbit Sweet Mint in one day, I was afraid I was going to get lockjaw. By the time dinner rolled around, I was having a tough time opening my mouth to eat anything. Does this mean I can eat milkshakes for dinner?
I skipped the ice wash today in favor of a shower. It gave me the perfect opportunity to try Joan’s mayonnaise hair mask. Full disclosure: I hate mayonnaise. It’s disgusting, it smells gross, and the thought of putting it on a sandwich makes me nauseous. So standing in the shower with a bowl of mayonnaise that I am running through my hair is basically my version of hell. I powered through — mostly to get out of the tub and stop shivering (Joan finished her showers with a cold-water blast to “shrink pores”) — but I wound up sticking my head under the showerhead after I got out because I was convinced I still smelled like a $5 footlong. My hair was shiny AF, though, so there’s that.
Joan wore her hair swooped back, as was the fashion of the time. And as much of a fan as I am of the pinup-girl look, I had just cut my hair short, so I made do with a baby pompadour. I think I look more like Clark Gable this way, but hey, I tried.
My jaw hurt. It felt like I’d been doing squats continuously with my chin for the past three days. I really should have bought stock in Orbit.
It’s the freakin’ weekend baby and I’m about to have me some lips. Over-lining was Joan’s trick for maximizing her pout, so I decided to go full-Kylie and draw outside the lines. It did not go well. For one, I should not have started with a classic red — I looked like one of those toddlers who has been slurping Kool-Aid and has stained their face red. I dutifully filled in my lips, looked in the mirror, and immediately started rubbing it off. I started over using Charlotte Tilbury’s Re-Size & Re-Shape Lip Liner and a lipstick that is closer to my natural lip hue. MUCH better. Between the brows and the lips, though, I felt a bit too Kardashian. Not my usual look, that’s for sure.
The joy I felt after that last splash of water was what I imagine runners feel after finishing a marathon. I only imagine because running is something I actively avoid.
Looking back, I’ve got to admire the dedication these glamour girls had to their beauty routines. Sure, we wax and zap and inject, but I’d take a shot of Botox any day over that daily face-freeze hell. I will say, though, it definitely perked me up in the morning, and after a week of it, my skin looked much more even-toned. The benefits of getting your circulation pumping, I guess. The mayonnaise is a hard pass — outside of the gross factor, it also weighed down my fine hair. And I was beyond happy to ditch the gray shadow.
The brows, while intense, did make me realize how much I do love a bold arch on myself, so I headed over to my fave Brooklyn primping zone, Shen Beauty, and had brow wiz Lara fix me up. You really can’t go wrong with a good tint and shape.
It’s also interesting to note that many of these beauty “secrets” are ones that we still use today. We take a lot of these tips for granted since we know them so well, but we can thank women like Joan for going to great lengths to experiment with their routines. And you know she would have been first in line for that blood cream.