Roscoe Dellums and her high school pals used to race to the drug store for each new Hazel Bishop lipstick but the tubes sat in a dresser drawer because the colors made them look like clowns.
When the hosiery saleswoman slipped her hand into the stocking, asking, "Now isn't this an attractive shade?" Jewell Shepperd would walk away, laughing, "Yes, but not for me."
Before the late '60s, if a black woman wanted to buy lipstick, powder or foundation, her choices were minimal - mostly bleach creams and oils in the five and dime and drug stores.
Major cosmetic companies virtually ignored the black comsumer, offering at best a token darker shade to a custom-blender power line. Blacks who cared about cosmetics were forced to "make do" with what was available. Some even "enjoyed" the lighter look these cosmetics gave them.
Cosmetics companies weren't the only ones handing out racial insults. Wigs epitomized the hair texture of white women; stockings, though available in dark shades, were often a stale brown that had little to do with the color of black skin; and nude lingerie and nightwear was nude only for women with peaches-and-cream complexions.
All that has changed now. The black cosmetics market is expected to top $1.5 billion this year, $900 million in makeup and treatment items and hair products other than shampoos. It is a business growing at the rate of 15 to 20 per cent a year, twice the growth of the overall market.
So it's hardly surprising that fierce competition has developed to get a share of the business, competition so cutthroat that cosmetic salesmen have been known to snoop in the drawers of store buyers to get information on competitors. New companies have been formed, old companies have retooled to develop special product lines, and even those companies without a master plan to chisel out a large share of business are adding or reviving colors suitable to the black woman. Charges of unfair regulations by the federal government have also been aired.
The cross-cultural influence is now so strong that brown- and plum-toned makeup colors black women prefer are now a major theme in prestige cosmetic lines. Kinky or crimped hair, adopted as white afros two or so years back, has developed into the anti-coiffure trend that started in Paris and has began to catch on in Washington.
Even multip-pierced earrings, worn by trendy young blacks emulating styles of African women, has become a fad with white teenagers and young women generally.
The general interest in black beauty products is so huge that Beauty Trade magazine, directed to the black cosmetic business, will open to the general public its annual trade show Sunday at the Sheraton-Parkland Hotel. Fifteen thousand professional cosmeticians and 5,000 of the general public are expected to attend the three-day event.
Some call this black cosmetics boom the frivolous fallout of the civil rights movement, the soft side of the hard push for equality of blacks and women, the commercial spin-off of the "Black Is Beautiful" thrust. It seems too from a consciousness further leightened during the period of the Vietnam war and the women's movement.
"Even in the 1960s, many black women, if they had jobs at all, had jobs that didn't require them to wear cosmetics," said one executive of a company in the black cosmetics business who asked not be named. "So there were never any cosmetics around the house for the young ones to play with or experiment with." In creased employment after the late 1960s provided the income, as well as the need, for more cosmetics.
"It took the civil rights movement to make us see beauty in ourselves," says Jewell Shepperd, deputy director of the National Board of the YMCA. "We developed, by the late 1960s, an awareness that we could be ourselves and be beautiful."
"The civil rights movement made us grow up an awful lot," says Naomi Sims. "We began to accept our look, not as a mistake to correct but an attribute to appreciate. And cosmetics became something to enchance not to disquise what we are."
Adds Roscoe Dellums, development directors at the American Civil Liberties Union and wife of Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.). "We began to define beauty in terms of ourselves - me - Roscoe Dellums, not trying to duplicate someone else, but doing what I could handle and sticking with it," says Dellums. She credits makeup specialist Anna Martin at Flashback in Georgetown for helping her get a real grip on her own looks. ("We went bankrupt from that moment on." Dellums recalls her husband commenting after the first makeup consultation.)
The big commercial turnaround came in the early '70s when companies began to hop on the black cosmetics bandwagon and department stores began to give counter space to stores products.
Woodward and Lothrop is often credited as being one of the front runners, not just in Washington but in the country. In 1966 they hired a black makeup demonstrator for Charles of the Ritz. Other demonstrators never quit as some had threatened and Alice Montgomery still sells Charles of the Ritz Cosmetics at Woodies.
Flori Raberts, who had started making black cosmetics in the mid-60s, says Woodies was one of the very first major department stores to make room for her line. The success at Woodies helped her to get entree into other stores and her products have remained among the top sellers in that store. In 1971, Woodies added a second black cosmetics line. Barbara Walden, which still has a strong following there and in other Washington stores.
Johnson Products, which was at the vanguard of hair products for black women, added a makeup line in 1970 distributed through variety and drug stores. And John H. Johnson, (no relation in George Johnson, the head of Johnson Products), tapped the black cosmetics market in 1973, diversifying his Johnson Publishing Co., endeavors, which included Ebony and Jet magazines, to a cosmetic line called Fashion Fair.
Once Avon, Revlon and Max Factor became aware of the potential volume of business for black cosmetics, they too jumped on the bandwagon, with all the advertising and promotional movie they could muster.
Revlon's current campaign on Polished Ambers includes an oversized portfolio featuring the female form in African art and the faces of models and actresses wearing Revlon, of course.
Avon hosted a makeup seminar for finalists in the Miss Black D. C. contest, a promotion which they hold in other cities as well, prior to the televised finals of the competition this summer.
"The black cosmetics war is on," says Naomi Sims, the first black fashion magazine comver girl and author of "All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman." She has another book on modeling in the works.
Sims has for years been pushed by friends to go into the cosmetics business, but so far she has concentrated on wigs for black women and has built a handsome yearly volume of $6 million. But she is tempted, she says, because there are 35 shades of black women's complexions, and most of them are not being reached with the products available.
"I think I'll wait till the war dies down, though. There will still be plenty of business left for me," Sims said.
John Johnson says he used to nudge the cosmetics "biggies" to make colors for black women and, of course, advertize them in his Ebony and Jet magazines. "If any of the other companies had gotten into the business early, I wouldn't have had to do it myself," Johnson says.
The large companies didn't react fast enough for Johnson and in three years he developed a $10-million cosmetics business, one he expects to reach $50 million in the next three years. For many department stores, his is the fastest growing segment of their business and the company expected to come out on top.
"Those large companies didn't want to recognize the importance of the black woman," insists Johnson. "Besides, they had no concept of the size of the business."
According to Johnson, those companies only became interested in the black women as they saw others courting this consumer.
"It was like the husband who takes his wife for granted until another man flirts with her," laughs John Johnson.
Johnson had contracted with a private label cosmetics company to develop shades for the models in the Ebony Fashion Fair, a highly successful traveling fashion show, organized by Eunice Johnson, wife of the publisher. The show, which was started in 1956.
Johnson says his entry into the cosmetics business was like a personal invitation to blacks to buy products made specifically for them. "It is important for a minority to get a special invitation," says Johnson. "When someone says to me, 'Come over some day, I don't. But when someone says, 'Come Tuesday at 9:30 ,' I often do."
The prestige-priced Fashion Fair cosmetics line is now carred in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] major department and specialty stores. "Every store I want to be in," Johnson adds proudly. He has no intention of adding a lower-priced like for more general usage. "Black consumers will but what they really want to, whether it is white Cadillacs or Fashion Fair cosmetics. I make a quality product, have quality magazines, so I am interested in quality cosmetics."
It would never have worked without Ebony magazine, Johnson says. It gave customers a reason to trust the product, gave Johnson the capital to make the product, and now gives him the most important handle for selling the advertising.
"What others are buying to sell their products, I get for free," says Johnson. "How can I lose?"
George Johnson may have started the revolution. But he may not win the war.
Johnson Products, including Ultrasheen and Afrosheen, brought hair-relaxer products into the modern age with emulsified hair straighteners in 1957, and still more revolutionary, the no-base permanent cream relaxer developed in 1964.
He was hardly the first in the hair-straigtening business, however, Madame C. J. Walker straightened black women's hair with hot combs and curling irons in 1906, a technique she turned into a million-dollar beauty business.
Hair-related products make a large part of the black cosmetics market. "Black women are always concerned about their hair," says Bernice Calvin, editor and publisher of Beauty Trade. "Black women's hair grows far more slowly than the hair of white women."
While there were many companies in the hair-treatment business, until 1975 Johnson was the front runner by far, doing an overall volume of $40 million, $23.3 million in hair products, the rest in makeup.
The annual growth of the company began to decrease after 1974 when Johnson was asked by the Federal Trade COmmission for substantiation of advertising claims particularly on the potentially hazardous hair straighteners, advertised as gentle and easy to use, yet whose lye content had led to consumer complaints. In August 1975, Johnson signed a consent order requiring him to put a warning label on all products and to advise all distributors of his products and beauticians who use them of that order.
Johnson claims that the FTC dragged its feet getting to his competitors, and then cited Revlon far less harshly, resulting in Johnson losing his leading share of market - and sizeable profits.
Rep. Ralph Metcalte, (D-Ill.) raised these questions with the FTC and introduced a bill "to make clear that the FTC is not permitted to discriminate against competitors" in consent-order actions.
FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk has made a detailed response to the question of discrimination, indicating that the FTC's objective was "the protection of black consumers against the risk of substantial injury and that the racial identity of any company's ownership was wholly irrelevant."
Johnson's attorney apparently isn't convinced and is preparing documentation to support his client's position.
The black cosmetics war may be the first confrontation where almost everyone wins. Certainly the consumer - blacks, other ethnic groups and even a few guntanned white, have gained a strong and varied range of products, plus frequent and diverse elucation program to introduce products and develop sophistication in using familiar ones.
Just what product the customer choose to buy often has nothing to do with the color range, but the nature of the company's business. Gerre Maxwell, a fashion model in Washington uses some Fashion Fair but stays largely with Revlon "because they have been around a long time and I trust them."
Others pointedly choose products from back-owned business. Said a customer at the Revlon counter at Woodies recently. "I gave up Flori Roberts last year when I learned she, was white That's why I switched to Revlon."
A lot of untapped business remains for the black cosmetics companies, including allergy-tested products and more items for the black male. "What we need, almost more than anything else, is a good toner to even out the skin color," says Joe Morris, directory of Model s Extraordinate, a Washington modeling organization.
"We're certainly making up for a lot of lost time when we neglected the black customer," said a Washington retailer. "But we still have a long way to go."