Pin It
Erin Parsons private collection
Courtesy of Erin Parsons

Inside make-up artist Erin Parsons’ vintage beauty archive

From Marilyn Monroe’s lashes to 100 year old skincare, the make-up artist takes us through her vast private collection of rare beauty items

Take a scroll through Erin Parsons’ Instagram and you’ll instantly see the make-up artist’s penchant for all things vintage beauty. The New York-based creative, who regularly works with everyone from top models like Gigi Hadid to legendary designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, began collecting antique and rare make-up inspired by her obsession with Marilyn Monroe

Today, she’s built up a massive collection so big she can’t even count it all. “I have a pretty big office space and I’ve just put stuff on the walls,” she tells us. I have 15 drawers, like huge big cases that are filled with vintage. I have so much stuff. I couldn’t even tell you.”

On Parsons’ Instagram, where she posts many of her finds, archive magazine covers and ads mix with silver screen heroines from another time along with a healthy dose of some of the most incredible antique beauty finds you could ever imagine. Think: bottles of La Jac Liquid Face Powder and Leg Makeup, Twiggy lash collaborations, doll-shaped lipsticks, hat-themed compacts, and more. 

Parsons scours the internet for her finds most of the time. And if you thought she just collects them for aesthetic purposes, guess again. “I definitely try them on,” she says. “I won’t really use it on my skin, but I’ve definitely tried eyeshadows. I’m so curious to see what the colours look like. I have Mae West make-up, the same lipstick colour, that she used and I tried it on in one of my videos. I was layering that stuff on, wondering: What did Mae West’s lipstick look like?”

In fact, Parsons considers testing these products – lipsticks from the 50s et al – research. “A lot of the formulas are really, really good, but I think of course, they’re not vegan. They probably are using things that maybe are harmful, that maybe they didn’t know were harmful back then,” she adds. “A lot of the products, which is really interesting, have stained really intensely, such as lipsticks. Some of the lipsticks, they don’t smell bad, they still work amazingly. The products feel good a hundred years later, like it’s wild because you know, they talk about make-up expiring and I’m like, I see some of it. And some of it is, it smells or you can see that there’s something’s off, but a lot of this stuff is still good. It’s really crazy.”

Here, Parsons opens up and shares her archive and favourite pieces with Dazed Beauty.

How did you first start collecting all vintage beauty items?

Erin Parsons: Well, to be honest, collecting vintage make-up is a pretty expensive hobby, especially to find really rare pieces. It really started recently. Now that I have money in my life, that’s why I started. I had filmed a video with Emily DiDonato where I was going to transform her into Marilyn Monroe because I’ve always studied her make-up techniques. In that process, I reached out to a collector of Monroe items. He came to New York and he showed us all of the products. And of course, we started talking about how he won them at an auction. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s possible that I could own something of Marilyn Monroe’s,’ especially something beauty, because of course that’s what I love.

So, one of my first pieces that I ever collected was Marilyn’s eyelashes. After that, I just went crazy. It’s a full-on obsession. I got some stuff from Liz Taylor, a lot of things like that, but then also I started to realize, I could find listings from, let’s say the 1920s and see what that formula was like. Because even if the packaging was not so good, there was formula inside, but sometimes I collect things that maybe I wouldn’t display, I guess I like to touch the make-up and see the actual colours that existed back then. So that’s really exciting. I have to give a huge credit to Lisa Eldridge because she’s a big make-up collector and I saw a few of her YouTube videos where she was talking about the lipstick that Audrey Hepburn had, that she has now, and her vintage collection.

What are some of your most prized pieces in the collection?

Erin Parsons: Definitely of course, Marilyn Monroe’s items. I just want a couple more things from her, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, and an eyebrow brush. I have these Schuco Monkeys, that when you take the hat off, it’s lipstick, when you open it up, there’s a compact side and the compact is like the size of your pinky finger. It’s so, so, so adorable. I wish they just did stuff like that now. I also have amazing beauty marks. One of them is from the 1800s. I love collecting beauty spots, that’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore.

I have really special compacts that are rare, especially when I find them in the box. I have these lipstick dolls that are costing me fortune, but there were 12 of them made, they’re even lined with things like fur, so I just actually got two of them on eBay. I couldn’t believe it. 

How do you sort your make-up archive, by different categories or a style or date or even brand?

Erin Parsons: Yes. Yes, I do. I mean, to an extent, like for the brand, I have a full drawer of Maybelline, that’s all stuff in packages and things as far back as the 1920s. I know that they started in 1915, but I haven’t been able to get anything quite that far back. I have Revlon, Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein; I love those brands as a whole. So when you get a certain piece, that maybe is from a certain era, you can see how the brand progresses, and how packaging progresses. 

How do you find out about these more obscure items?

Erin Parsons: I definitely didn’t know at the beginning, I was just kind of collecting more, a little bit more of the actual make-up and it wasn’t until I got some books like a compact collectors and lipstick collector’s book, of course, Lisa Eldridge’s book (Face Paint: The Story of Makeup) that has a lot of great information. But then it could be just as simple as me searching vintage compacts and then hitting the highest price, then sorting by what’s the most expensive thing is because those are the rarest. I’ll just look through and there’s so many sites out there because you have eBay or Etsy, of course the auction houses. Ruby Lane Vintage is a great one, so you can just search for a random thing and then you’ll come across objects and you know, if they’re expensive, they’re rare. 

Do you have any specific brands that you really love to collect?

Erin Parsons: I’m collecting Maybelline because of course that’s who I work with, but it does have a special place in my heart. Especially, you know, because I did the research on the brand. I do have products as far back as the 1920s and seeing the make-up product, how it’s developed. But also then I read a book by the owner, the person who created Maybelline, I read a book by his niece and just finding out more about who he was, a gay man and his gay partner. I also like Elizabeth Arden, because Marilyn Monroe used a lot of her products.

But basically another reason I got into collecting was because I just tried to find products that Marilyn was using, this is what has started me on a search for the lipstick she used. I have it in every search button, saved. I hope to own one of her actual lipsticks one day. I have found a lot of the things that she used back then. There was a lipstick years ago called Bachelor’s Carnation, and I now have three of them. It’s the actual colour, of course not what Marilyn touched, but it’s the colour she used and now maybe I can recreate that one day, and we know it was what she was using because of what was sold at auction. 

Is there anything really surprising that you learned about the history of make-up through collecting?

Erin Parsons: One thing that was surprising to me, honestly, is that make-up during the war after pantyhose rations, they invented leg make-up. I have a few bottles of leg make-up, which was another thing that took me forever to get my hands on. I was so excited that I found it and it still has product inside. I thought that was an interesting piece of history that the women still wanted it to look like they were wearing nylon stockings to make-up for it and they would even paint lines on the back of their legs. 

How does vintage beauty in general inspire your everyday work?

Erin Parsons: I study the references so much, I draw, I also collect vintage, so I just loved seeing the way they would do the make-up, whether it be on the movie stars, magazines… I think those references helped me to do certain make-up looks when I’m on set or maybe inspire me to think of a new way, a new spin on how they did it. It shows such a range of knowledge in the forties, it wasn’t really about liquid liner, and then the 50s became about that groomed brow. 

Do you have a favourite vintage beauty icon?

Erin Parsons: Marilyn Monroe. I really, I really loved the vintage glamour back then. So I focused a lot on things like my muses or like women that I just find stunning that inspire me. I love Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, Jean Harlow, the list could go on and on and on. 

Any other really sort of surprising items that you’ve been able to get?

Erin Parsons: Another thing is make-up that comes in matchboxes, so they look like matches, but they’re little lipstick. So, little eyeliner. I find that really cute. The packaging was so fun back then. I don’t really see it as much now. Also, swan down powder puffs, that’s wild to me. I don’t know how they made them or got them, but to make like a powder puff out of swans down is wild.

In the 1940s, they made a lot of really bizarre compacts. I really, really love these compacts that have everything inside, but they’re so tiny. This is one of my favorite things to collect. Like a little contact that has lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, powder, eyeliner. Just the idea that you could carry everything that you need for your face in a tiny bag is so wild. During the jazz age when women would go out, they would just carry their little contacts, like on a finger. It was like a ring with a chain. And then you would do a dance with that little compact. 

Are there other pieces that you would love to have in your collection that you haven’t been able to get?

Erin Parsons: Yeah. But I think if I said what they were, then people would go out and search for them. So I might keep that to myself, but I can tell you, it usually has to do with a celebrity. As I mentioned, things from Marilyn, but my obsession keeps changing.