Pretty in the Past: Theda Bara

Theodosia Burr Goodman figured out long before Madonna, Gaga or even Norma Jean that transforming yourself into a character (or caricature) was the best way to succeed...
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Theodosia Burr Goodman figured out long before Madonna, Gaga or even Norma Jean that transforming yourself into a character (or caricature) was the best way to succeed...

Actually the name of this regular feature is slightly misleading as none of the women who will be included were really ‘pretty’ in the conventional sense – pretty is far too insipid a word to describe these bold beauties – but it’s pleasingly alliterative, so whatevs.

In the age of silent films, your face had to tell the whole story. There’s no better example of this than the great Theda Bara – nicknamed ‘the Vamp’ for her femme fatale roles in films like Cleopatra, Salome, The Siren’s Song and A Fool There Was.

Theda – born Theodosia Burr Goodman in 1885 – figured out long before Madonna, Gaga or even Norma Jean that transforming yourself into a character (or caricature) was the best way to succeed in showbiz. Her ‘mysterious past’ (was she “the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara” er… no) and fondness for daringly diaphanous costumes made her the silver screen’s first sex symbol. Ms Bara was draping herself in snakes decades before Salma H. and Britney did their own serpent dances.

theda-bara

Theda Bara

The mistress of reinvention, this sweet blonde Jewish girl dyed her hair black, developed a fondness for witchy, bohemian clothes (Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Florence Welch take note) and went a bit emo on the make-up front and before she knew it, she was the darling of the studios, earning $4000 a week. Apparently she had a goth house in Beverly Hills to match - I'm imagining it as a cross between the Addams family's crumbling pile, the Osbourne's residence and Dita Von Teese's home with Marilyn Manson ie. really cool.

But it’s her maquillage I’m chiefly interested in here. Can somebody say ‘smoky eye’? Her way with a stick of charcoal was impressive, highlighting her huge, round eyes which would effortlessly express fear, flirtation or anger. The over-the-top eye make-up combined with heavy, brooding brows (yes, I am jealous) focussed all the attention on the top half of her face, creating the illusion that it was delicate and heart-shaped, when in fact it was not. A lesson to us all – when in doubt, apply more eyeliner.

Think Liz Taylor camped it up as Cleopatra in 1963? Look at Theda’s 1917 take on the Egyptian queen. I see hints of Sioxie Sioux and Helena Bonham Carter here – both beauty icons in their own right – proving you can’t keep a good look down.

Dead white, matte skin and an inky lip completed Theda’s signature look which still feels so iconic and relevant today. Just look at the models at Yves Saint Laurent’s A/W08 show with their ghostly pallor, black lips and wigs.