Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Cosmetics Contemplations: The Purpose of Makeup

Women have long used makeup as a form of decoration, with the use of it documented as far back as ancient times with the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. It is possible that it also had a practical use in these hot climates, to protect the lips and hair from sun damage, and eye makeup was also believed to have the mythical quality of being able to ward off evil spirits. The original multi-use product, perhaps?! In any case, we have a distinction between something designed to alter your appearance (e.g. eyeshadow) and something designed to care for it (e.g. lip balm). But what of the stuff's origins? What was it originally used for?


It is well documented that some ancient makeup contained noxious substances, such as lead and mercury. However, cosmetics (using the term loosely) also had practical properties: perfumes and incense were used medicinally, as well as religiously for activities such as meditation (incense is still used today in High Church services). In China the colours used could represent social class, and this was also true of European women in the Renaissance (even today, the idea of skin lightening is still popular in China for sociological reasons). But how much relevance does this have today? These explanations for the usage of makeup and cosmetics are perhaps only marginal, with the main reason that people wear makeup being solely to look pretty.

And it is this idea of enhancing or altering one's appearance that leads back to the original question: what is the purpose of makeup, and what does 'looking pretty' actually mean? Is the purpose of makeup to maintain as natural a look as possible, or to make a bold statement? The early rise of makeup was highly influenced by film and theatre stars, who would have worn bold makeup in order to show their faces better on screen or in a large arena (where the Ancient Greek actors of the amphitheatres would have used masks), but this was more to exaggerate their natural features than to create a falsified image. Certainly makeup in the 1920s seemed to emphasise the enhancement of women's natural features, with metal mouth shapers being available alongside lipstick in order for women to best accentuate their lips, and with natural lip glosses also being very popular. Skin tone continued to serve as an indicator of social class, whether conscious or subconscious, when people viewed Coco Chanel's tanned skin as something to aspire to.

Certainly getting the right skin tone is very important for something to look natural; we have all sniggered, or at least looked strangely at, someone whose fake tan has gone wrong, someone who has chosen a disastrous shade of foundation for their skin, and followers of the gothic trend who insist on painting their faces in precisely the shade of death. However, while the former cases are clearly mistakes, one suspects that in the latter case, looking natural is not the aim anyway. But why? Is looking unnatural intended to scare, shock, turn heads, look 'individual', look like part of a pack, or something else? The goths certainly aren't the first to do it - the Elizabethans dyed their faces with white lead for social reasons, and don't even get me started on the punk and glam rock trends of the 1970s.
You can today buy makeup in just about every colour imaginable. This is clearly a successful strategy from the makeup companies: if nobody bought it, they wouldn't be able to continue selling it. L'Oreal's personalisation strategy has done extremely well in recent years, allowing makeup aficionados to select the right eye and lip colours for their skin tone, hair colour and eye colour. And yet alongside this we have glittery eyeliners, mascaras that come in blue and purple as well as black and brown, and colour-changing lipsticks (which also come in an almost infinite array of colours to begin with). So what makes us turn (whether from time to time, or always) away from a more sophisticated look of mere enhancement, designed to perfectly blend with the tones and colours our bodies have been given, to something clearly designed to alter our appearance altogether? Why do I own purple and green lip glosses alongside my natural-coloured lipsticks, and glittery eyeshadows alongside subtler and more matte colours?

I have already mentioned the desire for individuality, and this dazzling array of colours allows anyone to experiment and turn their own body into a work of art. It perhaps also springs from a general human desire for fun and variety, as well as, of course, the vicissitudes and fluctuations present in people's personalities - people don't always want to look the same every day, and just as people want to be able to have fun choosing different clothes and shoes, they want to be able to choose different makeup. Why not set off a purple dress with a purple lip gloss? Why not indeed. Certainly both of these trends (enhancement vs. alteration) are reflected frequently on the catwalk, indicating that everyone is simply following their own whims and needs. Environment is also to be considered; you might not wear Amy Winehouse-style eyeliner to work (depending, of course, what your job is), but cast aside such hesitations when preparing for a night out with friends.

It becomes clear, then, that makeup's principal purpose is to decorate, with care for your body (with products such as sunscreen) being secondary to this. And with decoration comes some sort of targeted choice, whereby the wearer wants to convey a certain impression, whether they are going for a job interview or attending a party. As we have seen from the goths and punks, this doesn't even necessarily mean matching your skin tone to what you've been given, though in most circumstances it may be advisable to do so. Makeup can be messy, fussy, time-consuming and expensive, but it allows people to express themselves, whether this is through a nude lipstick or a kohled-up eyelid, and this is a freedom that people value very highly.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

its an intereting article
i think makeup should not be at the cost of skin's health. Should be used to accentuate your lookswith good quality products

m.adrian.11 said...

I am doing a health project on makeup and it's effects on the skin, and I found your blog to be very useful and informational.

Melissa Ronson said...

I am using this article for a concept I am creating as part of an assignment: Cosmetology literary theory. Thanks for this excellent source of insight! :)