All Made Up


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The following is an excerpt from the newly released Getting Dressed: Confession, Criticism, Cultural History, by Paula Marantz Cohen. Read on below and buy Getting Dressed today from Smart Set Press.

As a teenager, I had acne. Not the acute kind that could be cured by Acutaine, but the milder variety that didn’t go away even with copious use of Stridex pads and Phisohex. My spotty face eroded my self-esteem and made it hard for me to look people in the eye. But something positive did come out of those painful, pimple-ridden years: I discovered makeup and my life became richer for it.

When you start to ponder it, you realize that makeup is a profound product. It plays a special and intimate role in the drive for self-improvement. Clothes cover and festoon a large expanse of the body, but makeup interacts with that smaller, more expressive part: the face. It is a unique prosthetic, having practically no volume and no density, no beginning or end with respect to what it assists. It melts into the flesh, it intermingles with the self.

Women’s application of makeup is an update of the Narcissus myth. It cannot be applied; or at least not well; without looking in a mirror. The self-reflexive gaze required has elements of the lover’s gaze: Eyes and lips are focal points and demand the most attention and care. Thus, applying makeup is a ritual of self-love, a kind of worship at the shrine of the self, though it can also reflect insecurity and even self-loathing. At its best, it is an exercise in self-critique, and, if you’ll permit me to be grandiose, a path to self-knowledge.

I suspect that people who get upset about makeup are displacing anger about something else. “I have heard of your paintings, well enough,” Hamlet rants at Ophelia. “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” We know that Hamlet was really angry at his mother for marrying his uncle, but he took it out on poor Ophelia, who probably wore little more than some blush and a little lip gloss. Or maybe the anger Hamlet expresses is really aimed beyond the parameters of the play at another queen, Shakespeare’s Elizabeth, who didn’t stint with the foundation: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.”

If the makeup of the Virgin Queen was abundant but one-note (lots and lots of pancake), that of another, decidedly not virgin queen, Cleopatra, was both copious and varied. I imagine her makeup area resembling the ground floor of Bloomingdale’s. Among her more original innovations were green malachite and goose grease for her eyes, crushed carmine beetles mixed with ant eggs for her lips, and liquid gold for her nipples. The cosmetic industry has certainly dropped the ball on this one; where is “nipple gold from Chanel?”

My favorite time and place for makeup was the court of Louis XIV. The Sun King loved powder, not just on faces but on hair and wigs, and also launched the most ingenious of all cosmetic accessories: the beauty mark or “patch.” This was a little piece of velvet or silk pasted onto the face for decorative effect. As the patch grew in popularity over the course of the 17th century, it acquired specialized connotations. Each patch had a name, according to where it was placed on the face: In the middle of the cheek was a gallant, on the nose, an impudent, near the lips, a coquette. Each also relayed a message about its wearer’s availability for amorous dalliance: Whether one was a flirt, a prude, a libertine, etc. Think of how simple the singles scene would be today if a beauty mark on a girl’s nose meant she was open for a one-night stand, and one on her cheek, that she wanted a ten-bridesmaid wedding. There were also patches, called recleuses, that had the more mundane function of covering pimples. Had I only had access to those when I was 16, my adolescence would have been less blighted.

During the 19th century, makeup ostensibly disappeared from the Anglo-Saxon world. Queen Victoria was a dowdy, didactic monarch, the sort of woman who never wore makeup and so decided no one else should. It may seem odd that body-distorting garments like corsets were encouraged in the 19th century when makeup was disparaged. Remember how Scarlet O’Hara spent so much time having her corset laced, then pinched her cheeks for color because rouge was forbidden? The reason for this paradox may lie in the fact that women were permitted to look artificial so long as they were weak and debilitated. In keeping with this assumption, one cosmetic procedure remained in vogue during this period: the ingestion of arsenic to whiten the skin. A woman with a deathly pallor and a corset that cut off her air supply was apparently just what the society needed to keep female power in check. Arsenic, however, also had the advantage of offering women a recourse from domestic enslavement: They could mix a thimbleful with their husbands’ coffee and thus achieve freedom without leaving home.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the unofficial ban on makeup began to lift in England and America. The general shift in taste brought with it a change in preferred skin color. Whereas earlier, the pale face suggested enforced leisure and life indoors, now the suntan suggested activity and an outdoor life. The new look was inspired by the American movie industry, centered in California. Douglas Fairbanks, one of the first great international stars, helped to glamorize the suntan both because he was an athletic outdoorsman and because his skin was naturally darker than the Anglo-Saxon norm (he was part-Jewish, though he didn’t advertise it). Nowadays, the spray-on tan, the sunless tanner, and the equivalent to arsenic-in-reverse, the tanning parlor, are part of the standard beauty regimen of many people; though I think we are also moving to accept a wider variety of skin colors, presaging perhaps an authentic tolerance for diversity.

In the 1920s, makeup made a comeback, largely for economic reasons. A huge potential industry was waiting to be tapped, and the capitalist engine, centered in entrepreneurial America, was ready to exploit it. Some of the new cosmetic moguls happened to be women — Helena Rubinstein and Estee Lauder, most notably. But women in general, as they grew more liberated, also took makeup into their own hands. They became more individually artful, both subtle and dramatic, in their use of it.

The idea of applying makeup may seem weird to the sorts of people that shop at L.L. Bean and love to go camping, but for many women, it is as integral a part of their daily routine as combing their hair or brushing their teeth. I know women who won’t go to the supermarket without “putting on their face,” as they say; who won’t let their husbands see them without makeup; who lug around heavy makeup bags in case of emergency (a sudden downpour, an unforeseen hospital stay, a kidnapping). I once watched a woman curl her eyelashes while switching lanes.

Personally, when I enter a department store that features those kiosks devoted to make-up, I always feel a heady sense of possibility. Here is a rich field for re-invention, and the opportunity, literally, of a makeover. If I am willing to climb up onto one of those ridiculously high stools, the cosmologists — or rather, cosmeticians — will have their way with me. I try to avoid this, since it means I will have to resist purchasing an entire makeup “system,” an ingenious marketing technique whereby the products fit together like a Rubik’s Cube. I feel the siren-call of this vast cornucopia of cosmetics — the promise that, amid the lip liners and under-eye cream, lies the secret to my ideal face.

The items that constitute a “basic” makeup regimen are variable from person to person, though the conventional prerequisites are as follows: moisturizer, concealer, foundation, mascara, eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. All the above also happen to be umbrella categories for a vast empire of additional products. There are many varieties of concealer, for example: for blemishes, for scars, for sun discoloration, for broken blood vessels, for dark circles. Lipstick can range from practically indelible to the sheerest gloss, in flavors from watermelon to key lime pie (an ideal snack for the anorexic), and have secondary functions like lining, moisturizing, and plumping. Foundation can be liquid, spray, or powder, under the assumption that the skin is a complex geographical terrain that must be treated with different agents for different strata. The eyes have an entire phalanx of products too numerous to go into. And I haven’t even started in on products to tighten pores, fill in wrinkles, and counteract redness — all minor industries in themselves. It is also possible to use makeup the way doctors use drugs off-label: blush as shadow, lipstick as blush. And there are folkloric co-optations with things like soy sauce and wasabi. I can personally recommend toothpaste as an overnight pimple remedy.

A relatively recent cosmetic innovation that intrigues me is foundation primer. Someone in the bowels of the cosmetic industry must have had the revelation that just as an artist primes a canvas before beginning a picture, one ought to similarly prepare the skin before putting on makeup.

One of the paradoxes of makeup is that it adds another level of concern to the one it is designed to appease. Wearing makeup means having two faces — a real face that threatens to be dull and unappealing if not given some assistance, and an artificial face that has to be maintained. If you wear make-up you have makeup worries: Is the foundation even, the eyeliner straight, the lipstick properly applied? By the same token, checking makeup is a useful rite. It allows for a respite from the hurly burly of life. It says, quite literally, hold on while I straighten up the mask that I’m showing the world. I suspect that men are more violent than women because they don’t have these “time-outs” in which to take stock and put their masks in place. If they wore makeup, they might think twice about going to war where, moreover, the opportunities to put on lip gloss are decidedly curtailed.

Enter a ladies room and you are sure to see a woman taking stock: smirking at her imperfections, admiring her attributes, turning her head to see how she looks to the world. Applying makeup is a small act of artistry, performed every morning and touched up throughout the day. It’s the same old canvas, to be sure, but it offers itself anew again and again. All art involves repetition with variations. Besides, the sameness of the face is belied by the fact that it contains a mutating consciousness, that it shifts in its relationship to the world, that it ages. I’ve always felt a little kinder to any woman whom I’ve seen put on makeup.

The return of youth that makeup promises is not really bought seriously by most women. We know that it is a frail stop-gap measure, a lame palliative. We don’t need Hamlet to tell us that we can “paint an inch thick, [but] to this favor [we] we must come” — we know it every time we look at ourselves in the mirror. We don’t expect makeup to stop us from aging, only to gussy us up a bit in the face of time’s relentless march.

One of the most poignant and wondrous spectacles I know is seeing a very old woman insist on having someone put on her makeup. It’s something I’ve seen numerous times in hospitals and nursing homes. I did it for my own mother before she died. Even as she knew she was close to death, she still wasn’t prepared to give up on art and succumb to nature. I loved that determination in her and cling to it in myself. If we are, as Shakespeare said, “this quintessence of dust,” let it at least be gold-flecked and luminous. • 15 January 2014


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her latest book is Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation (Princeton UP).