Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

Published in 2015 by ABRAMS
I read Face Paint because, as I age, I feel the need to do something with myself when I look in the mirror – an urge I initially resisted for many reasons. (‘Why should I?’; lack of funds; pretending I have minimal vanity.) But, for the first time in my 28 years of life, my makeup is now a brief, calming ritual in the morning. I love the feeling of ‘putting my face on’. Is it because it makes me feel part of the tribe somehow? I don’t know. But Eldridge’s YouTube channel played a major role in alleviating my guilt at wanting to be ‘made up’, and, like her videos, Face Paint highlights the ritualistic, symbolic and fun side of makeup.

You can enjoy this book for the high resolution, full-colour images of iconic women, paintings and vintage makeup packaging alone. But if you are in it for the info, Face Paint offers a succinct history of cosmetics. Eldridge has gone for the thematic rather than the chronological approach, starting with the histories of red, white and black. Then onto innovators, specific brands and products, and finally the future of the beauty industry. No chapter is particularly in-depth. For example, theatre makeup is often mentioned as a catalyst for beauty formulas and trends, but is never delved into with much vigour. However, there’s enough to promote curiosity and satisfy it reasonably well, and the book often reads as much a social and political history of women as it does an historical account of cosmetics.

Eldridge is expert at documenting both ancient and current beauty trends objectively. While she quite rightly despairs at the resurrected trend of skin-lightening, she doesn’t pass judgement on ‘looks’; she just documents them with a ‘do whatever makes you feel good’ attitude. Saying this, the book is a reminder of the human susceptibility to fads and trends, no matter how debilitating to our health. (Arsenic and mercury giving you hyperpigmentation? Put more on! No idea what effect radium will have on our health? No, but it glows in the dark, put it in lipstick!) Eldridge places her own emphasis not on specific fashions but on personal style. Like Chanel said, ‘the best colour in the whole world, is the one that looks good, on you!’

Face Paint revealed two facts that I found surprising and especially interesting. Firstly, cosmetics were often in equal use by men and woman until more recent centuries. Secondly, the more oppressed women are in a society, the less makeup they are permitted to wear. This latter point makes me think of that moment in George Orwell’s 1984 when Julia puts on lipstick during one of her trysts with Winston; how the action of illegally wearing it is defiant and transformative. It’s not dissimilar to women’s use of previously-lambasted red lipstick as a symbol of patriotism and strength during World War 2.

There will of course be exceptions to both of the facts stated above, but generally they are applicable to most eras throughout human history. So what I want to know now is: why was there such a dramatic decline in men’s use of products such as ceruse, rouge and kohl? (Was it political? Economic? Practicality?) And why is women’s current use of makeup tarnished by many as pandering to male desire, when the reasons behind our use of cosmetics are clearly more complex than simply appearing sexually attractive? Further reading suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

NB: If you love Face Paint, then Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser, Kate Adie’s Corsets to Camouflage: Women and War and Umberto Eco’s On Beauty are definitely worth checking out.



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