History of fragrance and perfumes by Revlon

Excerpt from an editorial by David DeNicolo, The Face Makers.

Charles Revson with model Suzy Parker

The overarching question Revlon cofounder Charles Revson asked in his long career was this: What do women want? At every point in our turbulant social history, through the minefields of ever-changing sexual politics, he seemed to know the exact answer. And he made sure women got precisely that. Around the time of his 1950s Fire and Ice campaign, which advertised bright red nail polish and matching lipstick (a Revlon staple), women wanted permission to be seductive without the bad-girl taint. Shot by Richard Avedon, the ads featured sultry brunette model Dorian Leigh in a soigné silver sequined dress and operatic red cape, looking sexy and demure at the same time, accompanied by cheeky, slyly suggestive copy.

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Fire and Ice was said to herald "a new American beauty," but Revson's achievement was more complicated than that. He didn't dictate trends, but he was able to anticipate them with uncanny accuracy. He saw makeup as fashion, the colors and styles changing with the season, just like hemlines. More change meant more ideas, more products, and more sales.

Revlon's Fire & Ice campaign: Dorian Leigh, 1952 (left), Jessica Biel, 2010 (right)

Revlon's Fire and Ice Campaign, original 1952, new 2010

Perhaps the most memorable example of Revson's perfect pitch was the 1973 launch of the fragrance Charlie, featuring the first fragrance ad to show a woman in pants. Charlie -- a man's name, and Revson's own, let it by noted -- made feminism feminine. And not scary. And fun. As Bobby Short sang in television ads for the scent later in the '70s, the Charlie girl was: "Kind of young, kind of now... Kind of free, kind of wow." Throughout the decades of his dominance, Revson always made sure his customers felt that frisson of excitement in their own beauty. He made sure they felt sexy, or smart, or young, or spirited. Or, in short, whatever they wanted to be.

Charlie Perfume by Revlon - Shelley Hack, 1980s

Charlie by Revlon, Shelley Hack, 1980s

Resources: DeNicolo, David. "The Face Makers." Allure Mar. 2011: 226-231.

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