Monday, 26 October 2009

Makeup as cultural index

I was so involved with my stressful channel issues (detailed below) and then escaped for a holiday, so this post ideally was designed to coincide with London Fashion Week...

However, looking back at the images I collected, perhaps unfairly, it just seems that if it's not the nude look, it's the cat eye... There was some manga makeup at Luella (pictured) which probably was chosen to contrast with the childlike innocence and pretty minnie mouse bows...

There was, though, the adventurous and breathtaking shock of how Hair stylist/artist/designer Charlie Le Mindu re-addressed hair as a medium. When will this shake-up hit the makeup side of Fashion Week?

For the crux of the matter is that designers are interested in show-casing their clothes, obviously, and makeup must merely off-set the designs without intruding. Until noses are coloured in green and lips drawn on backwards, or similarly unknown avenues taken, inevitably makeup languishes in trodden paths. Recent genuinely experimental makeup came via the interesting Emma Bell, I noticed the brave makeup in her 2009 collection. This was by makeup artist Rachel Wood (aka Pixiwoo's friend) who used Benefit products to create a "Hello Kitty and Barbie go clubbing" look. She told her team to "pretend they were at pre-school" when applying glitter to the models' faces. (taken from fabsugar overview of 2009 collection)

This is Emma Bell's 2010 collection, with makeup by Nadja Hluchovsky. Here more subtly, but equally as surely, reflecting the fun spirit of the clothes:

But, the usual default it often a bare face on a young lithe model, or otherwise the classic beauty of a smokey or cat eye. This obviously can extend to a very smoked out eye/ drop down shadow/ cat eye or winged eye, but usually absorbed to some degree into this eternal favourite - this image is from the Issa 2010 catwalk collection at London Fashion Week-

This article gave an interesting taster of what the makeup artists are typically doing behind the scenes. Sample: "[Sometimes they] practically give you a painting-by-numbers guide to the specific look for the show, but at others they might just throw out obscure cultural references such as "we want Laura-Palmer-Twin-Peaks lips, OK?" This made me very nervous."

The innovative and fantastic (read: ugly?) hair show, although a menace to the ozone layer, inevitably harked back to the 18th Century trend for ornate hairpieces which marked you out as high society, which were extravagantly adorned with feathers, ribbons, jewels, and even ships, gardens and menageries.

The 18th Century taste for high maintenance styles famously soon gave way to the Victorian modest and restrained hair and makeup. It could be that like music, cultural identity today seems to be vague and riddled with retro influences, with no real cohesion, but possibly edging towards a trend eventually...?

Right now broadly speaking there is the alternative of looking your best (a la Laura Mercier, Bobbi Brown) or looking 'edgy' (MAC, Illamasqua). Witness MAC's recent collection, recalling its indie roots by the collection name "Makeup, Art, Cosmetics" and using real artists to front and design the items, and Illamasqua's use of the cult classic sci-fi film Metropolis as its inspiration. The irony is that looking 'edgy' becomes its own uniform: these so-called subversive directions are often just as restrictive and full of rules.

Tracing how makeup has accompanied cultural changes is tempting and has been addressed to some extent in this blog already when examining men and makeup. If the ornate attention to detail in the 18th Century led to the deliberate modesty by the 1780s, which ultimately became a hallmark of any self-respecting Victorian, this pattern equally is traced in the 1980s. Then, the boom years led to big hair and overt makeup, accompanied inevitably by the contrast of Punk rebellion, and evolving by the 1990s to the deliberate unpolish of Grunge. Taking a view of fashion and makeup as reactionary in this way, the pivotal decades can be traced...

1920s can thus be seen as reactionary against the austere Victorian ideal. A shortage of man-power during WW1 had meant women took on perceived male roles and obviously this re-defined what women stood for. The Political movement towards women's suffrage began during the war and in 1918, Parliament passed an act (the Representation of the People Act 1918) granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. This advance invited the fashion for brave new short hairstyles which eschewed traditional female stereotypes.

The 1930s and 40s saw film affect fashion and beauty, most famously the ultra female seductive curls popularised by Veronica Lake. However once again historical facts colour the trends, as this time WW2 with all its upheaval ushered in the need for a return to reliable old values, though now with the wife as simaltaneously glamorous and perfectly conservative. The makeup is as depicted in 'Mad Men': bold lips but doe eyed.

By the 1950s and 60s as the scars of WW2 receded and women again reacted against the stereotypes, political activism was a fashionable interest - with the realisation that the 'power of the people' was a reality. Protests, most obviously against the Vietnam War, became commonplace. Music became an important influence on society. The short skirts, short hair, bold eyes and pale lips, mixed and matched feminine with androgynous.

As before, this constructed image then reverts back to a 1970s trend for unconstructed long hair, no makeup, a general loosening on rules to highlight the hippie message of 'free spirit'. This, in turn, invites the converse trend for the more aggressive declaration of disenchanment: Punk. Makeup used not to embellish, but to unsettle.

Elements of punk were absorbed into popular fashion, thanks in no small part to Madonna, who feminised the look and redefined once again what androgyny meant.

The world now is smaller than ever, brands merge and every high street looks the same. Is that one reason why now there is less emphasis on any identifiable fashion movement...? The 1990s had the cult of the Supermodel; then the reactionary 'Waif/ Heroin Chic' trend; the Nirvana and Seattle bands' Grunge; 1997 Toni Blair's landslide victory and the rush of hope which led to the coined term 'Cool Britannia' and 'Britpop' - but ultimately had no fashion substance to distinguish itself.... And now, post 9/11 and with Barack Obama a symbol of a changed world, when fashion should be reaching a fever-pitched zenith and beauty should be revolutionary - a perfect mix of science and aesthetics perhaps - all I can find are fragments. A trend for non-invasive surgery, mixed with the same beauty styles that ever were. The new millenium seems to have stagnated where beauty is concerned. I await a shake-up with eager anticipation...


  1. I'm waiting for something new too. But I'd be just as happy with a recycling of the 90s supermodel look.

    I'm also getting tired of the skinny jean phenomenon. Very few people can make them look good.

    Is there any fashion phenomenon you want to see again?

  2. @PinkSandCastle

    It's funny you should mention skinny jeans, I was trying to think of a trend that defined us today and I thought: Skinny jeans. But that's just taken from the 80s so it's not innovative. Kate Moss kept popping into my head as one of the key instigators of trends today... I do love her style and the way she makes anything work, but it is usually based on retro trends rather than genuinely new shapes. Roland Mouret's Galaxy dress was fresh, but quickly became trite.

    Hmmm yes, my piece was a little gloomy (have the flu so maybe that made me more downbeat!) so, constructively, I guess what I want to see are different shapes. I did see a Central St Martins graduate, Michael van der Ham’s patchwork dresses - which were inventive but so ugly in my opinion...

    And for makeup, I want bright colours to become mainstream....


  3. I think it's true, there isn't really a defining look for our current era.

    Personally in terms of makeup i think the key theme that seems to have stayed popular over the last few years is the 'WAG' or 'glamour' look of very bronzed, heavily madeup,lots of lipgloss and big hair. Other than that it's the smokey eye which has really stood the test of time.

    Personally, i'd love to see a comeback for the classic Hollywood look of elangant red lips or 80's punk- sioxsie sioux style! Or something totally new & exciting :)

  4. @Shell senseless style

    Oh yes! WAG look! I think you've identified the closest we come to a defining look... oh dear! Yeah bring back hollywood glamour, or at least energise makeup looks somehow. I sometimes feel bored looking at fashion spreads, seeing the same old tried and tested looks... xx Thanks!