Every decade has its retro fixation, but it's the Golden Age of Hollywood, in particular the 1940s and 1950s, that has really captured our imaginations during recent years. Not only do we have celebrities such as Dita von Teese, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera who have based their whole fashion and beauty aesthetic on the period, but there are also youth subcultures of burlesque and rockabilly girls who emulate the looks of the era too. Agent Provocateur's sales assistants tend to have the pencilled brows and perky fringes of Bettie Page. And it's on the runways too.
For autumn/winter 2007 Valentino's hair and make-up was heavily influenced by Veronica Lake: big voluptuous waves falling down one side of the head and deep ruby lipstick, it was the epitome of old-school glamour. The autumn/winter 2008 shows followed suit. At D Squared the inspiration was 1950s pin-ups, at Roland Mouret, hair and make-up was a modern take on Ava Gardner, and at Roksanda Ilincic the reference point was Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
If you want to style your hair and make-up in similar fashion, it helps to have the right accoutrements to get you in the mood. That's why retro fetishists will delight in the new West Coast US range Besame, which has recently arrived at Selfridges in London. Not only do they have a fabulous range of shades faithful to the era, but the packaging is delectably nostalgic: in ladylike gilt and embellished with scrolling flowers.
"I collect many vintage products since they provide ideas and inspiration for new products," says the 43-year-old founder Gabriela Hernandez, who launched the range in 2004. "I have Max Factor ... Hazel Bishop, Harriet Hubbard-Ayer, Houbigant, Lucien Lelong, Princess Pat, Richard Hudnut, Yardley and many others. I have most of the reds manufactured during the 1920s to the 1950s, and I chose the best to include in the Besame Collection." Hernandez is fascinated by the women of that period. Her favourite stars from the time are Rita Hayworth, Dolores Del Rio, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. "I love their sense of style, their strength of character, and the fact that they embodied the feminine ideal that is still current today."
Some of the Besame products are direct replicas of the ones those women used. "The cherry red and noir red are from the 1920s, based on Theda Bara and Colette, and many silent film stars. Red Hot Red is based on Marilyn Monroe's Some Like it Hot red lipstick. Besame red is based on colours used in the 1940s by many MGM and RKO stars." Hernandez, a former graphic designer and illustrator, believes that women back then, especially movie stars, spent a lot more time on hair, make-up and general grooming.
Looking pristine and elegant was considered more of a social obligation, unlike the more relaxed attitude many women have to their appearance today. "There was definitely more upkeep," she explains. "Women were more aware of personal grooming and would do it religiously. It was common to visit the hairdresser once a week to set your hair. Nails were kept clean and manicured. Clothing was pressed and accessorised with gloves and hats. I think women paid more attention to details, that now with our busy schedules we seem to forget."
The make-up artist Alex Box has also studied the Golden Age of Hollywood era closely. For Gareth Pugh's autumn/winter 2008 catwalk she created a look she dubs "Garborg": Greta Garbo high-arched, pencilled brows coupled with bold, coloured lips all executed in a nuclear winter or cyborg-blue tone. "For those old black-and-white films they would paint make-up on in purple and yellow and blue to create different tones of grey. They often had dark blue lips. That's what the Gareth look was about – it was like someone from black and white stepping into colour – RKO's Colorama."
Box feels that modern make-up artists can learn a lot from that era. "People were a lot more craft-based and a lot cleverer about what they did," she suggests. "They would really mould somebody with make-up. Plastic surgery was in its infancy then so the reliance on make-up was heavier and they even used prosthetics. Looking back at those images you can learn so much from the shading. People like Max Factor were amazing." A new biography, Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World (Arcade, £15.99) by Fred E Basten, is essential reading for anyone interested in the era.
The make-up artist Val Garland, who created a look based on Marilyn Monroe for YSL's Rouge Volupté ads says, "to achieve this look yourself and still keep it modern, ditch the blush: it's all about brows and lips. Eyeliner moves away from Amy Winehouse. This time around it's the superfine line with the thinnest of ticks, more straight and sharp – no bat wings. Try YSL Easyliner for eyes in black and keep mascara to the upper lashline only with emphasis on the outer corners for a film noir flick."
Well-defined brows are the cornerstone of the look. Garland suggests using an angled brow brush by Suqqu or Mac, and sweeping on a colour like Laura Mercier's Brow Powder. "The trick to getting a superb shape is to draw individual lines that arch upwards and outwards," she says.
The leitmotif of a retro face is red lipstick. "Keep it simple and apply the colour straight from the bullet," advises Garland. "For the faint-hearted, a stain is a good introduction – pat it on with a fingertip. My essential Hollywood lips come in the form of YSL Rouge Volupté n16 or Chanel Fire. To make it last longer, blot with a tissue and reapply. The hardcore Hollywood heroine uses MAC Cherry lip pencil all over her lips for that dense matte pantone pout."
Samantha Hillerby, who created the Marilyn Monroe meets Ava Gardner hair for YSL's Rouge Volupté adverts, asserts that 1940s and 1950s hair, like the make-up, takes a lot more time and effort. "We wanted to achieve that glamour, that richness, that expensiveness that women back then gave off, via painstakingly groomed hair." According to Hillerby, a lot of tools are required to create the look. She lists rollers, heated rollers, old-fashioned scalloped rollers and hot tongs as just a few of the things you might require to create the right look, and cites the return of old-fashioned techniques such as barrel curling and pin curling.
"To create a pin curl, curl the hair around your fingers to whatever size wave formation you want then sit the curl flat on the head, then pin with an old-fashioned pin clip," advises Hillerby, who explains that to set the hair you can use setting lotion or styling spray or even hairspray for a modern look.
However, creating truly polished hair is incredibly difficult, and ultimately you might wish to visit a salon. "Unless you are very clever with hair, to get the full retro look you really need a hairdresser to do it," says Hillerby. "Back then women went to the hairdresser once a week and [the hair-do] would last the whole week too."
The problem with a lot of modern salons is that the hairdressers have not been trained in older techniques. But there are specialist retro salons springing up. If you are based in London, pay a visit to Nina's Hair Parlour (ninasvintageandretrohair.com) in Alfie's Antiques Market where a 1940s or 1950s cut and set will cost only £45 and they also teach lessons in doing your own 1950s hair and make-up. Pimps and Pinups in Spitalfields Market also do a retro hair service, payable by the hour. "This sort of hair is more time-consuming and takes more skill," confirms Hillerby.
The drawback with sporting a retro aesthetic, is that it's much more labour intensive and high maintenance than merely popping into Topshop or getting a bob cut at Toni & Guy. However, the satisfaction comes from achieving a classic, sophisticated kind of glamour.