II. A Limited History of Cosmetics

For a full history of make-up, clearly one would have to begin far earlier than the end of the nineteenth century and the growth of American cinema: bold cosmetics practices with regards both men and women have been documented as far back in history and far away geographically as ancient Egypt, not to mention those earlier times and other places where such records have been lost or left undiscovered. However, make-up usage has been far from consistently practiced, chronologically or universally, nor positively viewed – especially in the last few hundred years of Western civilization. In the seventeenth century, for instance, numerous religious figures such as the English pastor Thomas Hall, author of The Loathsomenesse of Long Hair (1653), protested the sinful vanity that women displayed with regards to elaborate hair design; just over one hundred years later in 1770, British parliament passed a law condemning the use of lipstick, stating that cosmetic-wearing women could be found guilty of witchcraft, for “seducing men into matrimony by cosmetic means”; in the nineteenth century, during the influential rule of Queen Victoria, cosmetic usage was publicly rejected by her majesty to be both unattractive and “impolite,” reserved only for the likes of “actors and prostitutes.” This effective banishment of make-up in the Victorian era, restricting its use to the degraded members the “entertainment” industry, is significant in light of entertainment’s later, major influence in returning cosmetics to its popular and, indeed, respectable position in Western society. For while cosmetic usage by no means ceased in the private world of women in the nineteenth century, in public makeup was agreed to be socially unacceptable and was henceforth rarely seen. Thus unlikely to encounter many, if any examples of cosmetically enhanced faces, Victorian women received most of their (few) make-up tips secretly and from questionable ephemeral sources, printed almost always under female pseudonyms with titles such as “Lady” and “Baroness.” Even these materials, however, did not advocate the free use of make-up, but counseled its use when necessary to hide egregious imperfection, or at most liberal, to restore the face to a lost condition of its former natural beauty. For example, not even “Baroness Staffe,” one of the most sympathetic late Victorian voices on the issue of cosmetics, was for the casual application of cosmetics, and tried seriously to warn her readers against “the deplorable and disfiguring habit of painting themselves, a habit which seriously detracts from matronly dignity, as it compromises beauty and youth.”


At the very end of the nineteenth century, however, one noteworthy and eccentric voice appears in self-proclaimed “Defense of Cosmetics” – that of English parodist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm. Brother of popular London stage actor Herbert Beerhohm Tree and close friend of the decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerholm shockingly praises an artistic, theatrical type use of make-up in his 1895 publication. “[W]e are ripe for a new epoch of artifice,” Beerholm writes. And further on:

Surely it is laudable, this wish to make fair the ugly and overtop fairness… [The] old prejudice is a-dying. We need not pry into the secret of its birth. Rather this is a time of jolliness and glad indulgence. For the era of rouge is upon us, and as only in an elaborate era can man … reach that refinement of highest excellence, and making himself, so the say, independent of Nature, come nearest to God, so only in an elaborate era is woman perfect. Artifice is the strength of the world, and in that same mask of paint and powder is shadowed with vermeil tinct and most trimly penciled is woman’s strength… And truly, of all the good things that will happen with the full revival of cosmetics, one of the best is that the surface will finally be severed from the soul.

Here, Beerholm’s connections to French decadence and the English stage are obvious, and furthermore, of the utmost importance to the quality of his insight. For indeed, while Beerholm’s predictions about “the era of rouge” and “the full revival of cosmetics” seem pure hyperbole compared to the yet-conservative cosmetic culture of the late Victorian era, when viewed within the context of the late nineteenth century art and entertainment industry, his statements could not be more timely. For example, in the same year as the publication of Defense of Cosmetics, a French inventor named Louis Lumière unveiled a portable motion picture camera device called the cinematographe, considered by many historians to mark the beginning of the cinematic era. Within five years, short motion pictures known as “flickers” became popular, especially among the American general public; and a further five years later, small filming halls known as “nickelodeons’ began popping up in response to the strong demand for film. It was the birth of an exciting new medium and industry, and likewise, an opportunity for artistic vision, acting, and, as Beerholm foretold, make-up to come towards the fore of society. The practices of make-up for theatric illusion had been upheld, even developed by stage actors during the low of nineteenth century Western beauty culture, and with the continued advent of feature length moving pictures in the 1910s and 20s, the general public was at last exposed to the dramatic power possible in the exaggerated made-up face. As Daniel Hill writes in Advertising and the American Woman, “Hollywood … candidly presented [its] stars on screen wearing every possible makeup advantage,” unashamed that such features were unnatural and adorned. Soon, growing cinematic conventions such as the close-up, that emphasized the cosmetic wearing faces of romantic female characters, seemed to fulfill Beerholm’s prophecy for the post-Victorian privileging of “surface.” Furthermore, with the mass-distribution of made-up female faces through film, a surge followed in the number of women desirous to emulate the physical look of their favorite actresses. As such, the demand for new and more readily available cosmetic products skyrocketed in the early twenties. By the height of the silent film era in the mid-1920s and early 30s, many glamorous Hollywood actresses’ made-up features – Jean Harlow’s hair, Joan Crawford’s mouth, Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows – were transformed by means of cinema and cosmetic advertising into international icons of beauty and pop culture. The parallel relationship between this cultural change and the growth of the film industry should not be underestimated. It is no coincidence that, where in 1904, Vogue magazine was still struggling to be open-minded about the controversial use of rouge and lipstick, by 1925 its beauty editors were absorbed with describing the “wistful look” of actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish: plucked and penciled eyebrows, shadowed eyes, and perfectly painted rosebud mouths. Make-up, after being underground for nearly a century, was at last “out in the open,” and, as make-up scholar Richard Corson notes, “it was destined to remain open for a long time to come.”


At the same time of course, the cosmetically enhanced female face was far from fixed in its development by the silent movie era. Specifically, as Richard Corson notes, after twenty years of acknowledging decadent artifice, “glamourizing movie stars into painted wax dolls, perfect in every detail,” Hollywood of the mid-1950s switched its beauty emphasis to celebrate “the Natural Look.” Contrary to its name, however, this so-called “Natural Look,” was not a rejection of the enthusiastic practice of makeup; rather, it was a turn toward lighter, softer colors, make-up accents without distinct definition, and the allowance of a few imperfections, like freckles, to show through the filter of cosmetics to the surface of the made-up face. The extensive but also subtler cosmetic fashion in the fifties marked a key moment in the cultural ubiquity of cosmetics, a redefinition of “natural” beauty around the acceptance of makeup. Beerholm’s wish to “overtop fairness” had been transformed into the wish to “overtop naturalness,” and no longer could any attractive female face be seen, that it was not still suspect of some cosmetic enhancement. Or alternatively – and in the entertainment industry, preferably – no longer was any made-up female face immediately perceived as unnatural. Visible but invisible everywhere, make-up had become part of a general social illusion, self-conscious only in moments of extreme imagination – in unnatural movies, for instance, that still looked to push the limits of visual agitation and special effects; movies, that is, of the future and fiction, of monsters and robots, that questioned what people saw and knew, and suggested what was still unknown.


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