Makeup History Is Herstory

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So Lisa Eldridge wrote a book. I know it’s been a while since it came out but you know it’s been nearly impossible to get your hands on it if you live in Malaysia like I do. They’re always sold out in bookstores (or the bookstores aren’t stocking them fast enough, more like. Step ya game up, bookstores!) but thanks to Amazon, I obtained a copy.

I do like reading makeup tutorial type books but they kind of have to be from the right people. I read Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces and loved it, loved that there was sort of a narrative strung between the tutorials so it’s not just a non-stop barrage of Step Ones and Twos. Otherwise— I don’t really read tutorial books. I don’t even really read the ones in magazines. What for? I’ve got Youtube for that. So I was really thankful that I didn’t have to say that about Lisa’s first book, since Face Paint: The Story of Makeup is no tutorial book but instead is a vast and highly informative text on the actual history of makeup (duh) and the makeup industry.

It’s funny because before Lisa Eldridge (such dark times) I never really gave it much thought that there was actually a history behind makeup. I imagine that’s how it is for most women—isn’t it funny? Beauty and beauty products is something which largely consumes our lives (and I don’t mean this is in a sexist ‘women be shopping’ kind of way— more like a ‘this is how we were raised up and socialised to be’ kind of way) yet we rarely stop to think that there is actually a very big and dramatic history (or should I say herstory) behind these paints and potions that we put on our faces.

P6010023.jpgYomi observes the makeup of yesteryear. 

So Lisa first introduced me to makeup history through her ‘Vintage Week’ on her Youtube channel (this was so long ago! I wish she would do another one, actually) and that’s actually what sucked me into her channel. In the original videos she lightly treads the ground on makeup through (Western, but mainly British) history— the Victorian era, WWII, the Post-war Era, the 1960s and 70s— and Face Paint kind of reiterates all that, but deeper and it goes back further to makeup in ancient societies and how it was perceived back then, particularly by the men (very similar to how it is perceived by the phukbois of today, actually!).

One of the things that Mrs. Eldridge said (who am I, really, to refer to her in first term like we’re old chums or something) in one of her original Vintage Week videos which really stuck with me is “the history of makeup is the history of women”. Now, to be honest, I’m really not the type who finds makeup to be empowering or liberating to women or anything— to keep it simple, if it’s making me broke then I’m not empowered, but then no one’s accusing me of making wise choices— but nevertheless it is still kind of undeniable that you can trace a lot about women’s lives and how things were for them through the makeup that they wore— or were allowed to wear.

P6010030.jpgThese two pictures side by side stuck out to me because it got me wondering if there such a thing as being inherently beautiful? 

I’m no professional reviewer, but I’ll say that when I finished this book it left me kind of emotional. It’s not stupid! But makeup really has been a big part of my life (why does it feel abnormal to say that? I wear it everyday and I’m interested in it. So it’s a big part of my life.) ever since I discovered it in my late teens so finally having a book which not only lays down the history of makeup but makes the explicit connection between that and the history of women… It’s a really valuable thing, and I’m so grateful to Lisa Eldridge for having written it. Did you know that we barely know anything about women’s lives in Ancient Greece, and what little information we have was written by and for men? Imagine that. Ancient Greece is a concept which is so pervasive in pop culture, like literally everyone knows Ancient Greece… yet we know scrap about the women of the time. Besides, of course, what was written by men. And that would be like trying to learn about women of 2016 by reading Maxim.

Okay, so to get back to Face Paint, the book isn’t entirely about the sociological aspect of makeup— it also gives valuable insight to the history of the industry. This was one of my favourite parts, when it goes through several huge, defining brands and how they got started: Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Revlon, Max Factor… some names we still recognise, some names that have been somewhat forgotten. Now, Lisa herself is a part of the Beauty Industry (she’s the Global Creative Director of Lancome), but she keeps a fairly unbiased stance when reporting on these huge players— especially since their actions largely mirror that of the current beauty industry as a whole.  A lot of false representation, marking up prices just for the hell of it, preying on women’s insecurities… You know, the usual. Capitalists at work. I’m just glad that she didn’t write about it in a way that’s all “these inspiring entrepreneurs started from the bottom now they’re here… and YOU CAN TOO!” She just laid it down that a lot of these people were just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and some of them might have stretched the definition of ‘ethics’ a little bit further than usual in order to succeed.

P6010032.jpgA Man Ray photograph shows what the cake mascara of yore would have looked like on lashes!

There’s also a segment on the history of makeup formulations and all that which I… uhh… I mean I read all of it, but some of it tends to be repetitive (like okay I get it they used lead) so I might have enjoyed it a little less than the previous chapters. But this is the part where she starts including more pictures of actual vintage makeup which is just WOW. It got me wishing that I could actually have these products and actually USE them even though they’re all rotten. Like, there actually used to be a brand called SAVAGE. If such a brand still existed I’d jump on that harder than I jumped on the 3CE bandwagon.

So overall I found Face Paint to be a highly valuable tome of information and I’m very, very glad that it was written— especially by such a popular makeup artist. I really think that we as women— and the main consumer of makeup— should really know at least a brief history of the entire concept of makeup and, even more importantly, of the beauty industry. I understand that we are currently living in a strange sort of Makeup Boom where girls and women are sort of… really consuming makeup more than they ever did before and Lisa Eldridge really is one of the women at the forefront of it (maybe not at the very front since she does cater more to older women but nevertheless she is still responsible for a lot of women spending more on makeup than they usually would) so to have her write this book on makeup history acts not only to record the makeup habits of the past but also, in a way, acts as a recording of our makeup obsessed present.

P6010027.jpgMore of this please!

However, my only criticism (not so much a criticism actually, just something I noticed) is that Face Paint is really, really focused on just Western makeup and Western women! I know that’s probably one of the easiest things to do but from her previews and teasers I was kind of expecting more information on makeup in the ancient East. I mean, there was but it was very, very lightly touched upon and we didn’t really go as in depth with it as we did with makeup in the Western world. I’m sure there’s tons of info to be found on makeup in ancient China, or the evolution of Geisha makeup (one of my favourite passages related to makeup in literature EVER is in Memoirs of a Geisha, when Sayuri observes Hatsumomo putting on her makeup. The book was apparently an Orientalist nightmare and totally inaccurate but I liked that passage!) or the Westernisation of Eastern women’s makeup wearing habits and maybe more on makeup in India or the Middle East. Or even here in South East Asia, although if we’re being real I don’t even know what the history of makeup is here. Did we even wear makeup before colonialism? I don’t know. That’s why someone’s got to write a book on it.

Maybe Lisa will do a follow up to her Vintage Week and include more history on makeup in non-Western cultures. I know I would absolutely LOVE that, but then she could spit on my one and only Naked palette and I’d still love that anyway.

P6010025.jpgThe book closes with the popular makeup of today.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup is available on Amazon for $20.36 for the hardcover edition.

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