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Essay: Sarah Kathryn Cleaver

Making-up

by Sarah Kathryn Cleaver .

Is it easier to be experimental with make-up because it’s cheaper than fashion? When deciding how to spend a thousand pounds, Prada’s sparkly bra-embroidered coat or Rodarte’s Luke Skywalker gown might feel risky compared to something safer. But a tenner - why not blue lipstick instead of red?

There is a scene in Mel Brooks' 1974 film Young Frankenstein that depicts the clichéd train station farewell of a couple played by Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn. The running gag throughout is that despite their overt declarations of passion the couple can't embrace for fear of smudging, crumpling or otherwise ruining the woman's immaculate appearance. Wilder keeps forgetting himself and lunging at various parts of Kahn's painted person, her panicked reaction increasing each time. 'Aagh the nails!' she shrieks, visibly wincing as he clutches at her hands. They eventually settle for an awkward elbow shake.
 
It's a very seventies send-up of course, something to do with frigidity, the two-faced nature of womanhood, appearing to attract but repelling at the same time. Being a tease basically. But that aside, deliberately or not, it also says something interesting about the insular nature and process of 'making-up'.
 
Within fashion, make-up is secondary to clothes. On the runway it's harder to see, and usually (though not always) avoids drawing attention away from the garments. The Independent's fashion editor Alexander Fury has stated that during shows he never looks above the neck 'unless there's a hat.’ Maison Martin Margiela has somewhat subverted this idea with what has become a signature of the house, intricately decorated masks. Despite this, there are still famous make-up moments, creations by industry luminaries such as Pat McGrath, Val Garland, Peter Philips and Inge Grognard, which people refer to seasons later. Often, it's the ‘ugly’ looks that people remember as opposed to the perfectly applied nude lipstick or black eyeliner. For Autumn/Winter 2009 Alexander McQueen sent his models out with shiny, red, fetishistic, Leigh Bowery mouths, the make-up continuing centimeters past the outline of their actual lips. Such was the impact of this runway moment, the look became a McQueen signature, as iconic as the tartan, bumsters or bird details.
 
McGrath, perhaps the most famous make-up artist working today, frequently uses a set of signatures that break the rules. At numerous Prada shows the models’ eyebrows are bleached and then drawn back in 'wrong', whether too high, too bushy, too straight or too dark. Her clumpy mascara is what we all learnt not to do as girls (though some of us are learning to do it again). The same can be said of Inge Grognard, long-time collaborator of Margiela. Preceding the signature masks of today, her half-painted faces for Autumn/Winter 1996 gave the illusion of models permanently cast in shadow, disguised. Impact, rather than perfection was the desired effect - somewhere on Tumblr there exists a grainy gif depicting Grognard's hand applying a scratchy black stroke of paint across a model's eyes with a huge paintbrush.
 
Is it easier to be experimental with make-up because it’s cheaper than fashion? It’s less subject to trends. It’s easier to change. It’s a truth generally acknowledged in the industry that the glittering spectacle of couture shows amounts to not much more than a tool for wooing beauty editors and selling hundreds of thousands of units of make-up and perfume. When deciding how to spend a thousand pounds, Prada’s sparkly bra-embroidered coat or Rodarte’s Luke Skywalker gown might feel risky compared to something safer. But a tenner - why not blue lipstick instead of red?
 
As much as make-up is widely considered a tool to enhance your features, clear up imperfections and, perhaps, make you more attractive to the opposite sex (we've all heard that oft repeated comparison between the made-up mouth and the labia) there's always girls who adopt a slightly different attitude to it all, and champion others who do so. In her book How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran recalls dyeing her underarm hair green at Glastonbury, only to find it seeping through her t-shirt as soon as she began to sweat in the crowd. Emma Forrest's Thin Skin describes two of the book's characters, a pair of individualistic sisters, in terms of their distain for the 'rules' of cosmetics. 'They never wear make-up, unless they are bored, and then, contrary to the belief that make-up should enhance your beauty, they paint a green strip above each eye or add a dash of hot-pink blush until they look like punk-rock dollies.' Today, increasingly the beauty sections of magazines encourage experimentation with some of the runway’s more difficult trends, from deliberately smudged lipstick to red eye shadow. It belies a sort of 'because-it's-there' mentality (the availability of the product is enough reason to give it a go) as opposed to the old-fashioned maxim of knowing what suits.
 
For many of fashion’s most striking and unconventional icons, women like Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi and Michele Lamy, make-up, just like couture, is a tool for expression. If you’d rather wear a hat that’s fabulous, rather than a hat that suits you, why not do the same with a lipstick? Blow's deliberately rouge stained teeth, Piaggi's softly waved turquoise fringe and blotchy doll make-up and Lamy's gothic, inked forehead, silver teeth and black fingers are all examples of an irrepressible creative drive, realised using the nearest available media; the skin and the contents of a make-up bag.
 
A similar attitude can be seen online in the output of the selfie generation. Laying aside debates of narcissism, cyber bullying and insecurities, there's an interesting trend for the addition of something a bit sick to many online self-portraits - see Felice Fawn's use of demonic contact lenses, or Dakota Rose's eyeball clips as the finishing touch to a Harijuku hairstyle. For every hundred duck-faced selfie queens, there's a handful of kids more influenced by the kind of aforementioned nineties and early noughties fashion moments. On Tumblr, their grainy, sometimes faceless self portraits can be found haphazardly interspersed between reference imagery from the heyday of McQueen and the Antwerp Six, while their tutorials of celebrated haute couture make-up looks are available on YouTube.
 
These young people aren't seeking praise for their natural beauty, it's their creative powers, the fetishisation of the unreal – from Manga characters to Barbie dolls - and their ability to transform themselves either cosmetically or digitally that they want the 'likes' for. Something about the rainbow hair pieces, nail embellishments, contact lenses and unnatural hues implies a safe and anxiety free space away from the accessible spectrum of desirability. It's a display of high maintenance behaviour, obsessiveness and vulnerability. As with Kahn's character in Young Frankenstein, human contact could wreck the whole thing. Not that the flaunting of artificiality is anything new among women; Colin McDowell's The Anatomy of Fashion traces the deliberately fake back to the periwigs of eighteenth century Europe and the flour used to whiten faces in the middle ages. Neither is the creation of a vulnerable exterior; Victorian women used to paint watercolour veins on their skin to imply translucent, deathly pale skin. Resurrected today, that trend would do well on Tumblr.
 
Bianca and Sierra Casady, founding members of 'freak-folk' band Cocorosie have created their own 'CocoRosie make-up lesson' to explain and celebrate this phenomenon. The YouTube video shows the sisters applying their own stage make-up - moustaches, glitter eyebrows, neon tears - all the while accompanied by the steady stream of Bianca's monotone monologue, half nonsense, half highly conceptual feminist thought process; 'We've been doing a Cinderella look for a while using, uh, cinders… We'll often do glamorous make-up and then a layer that looks very dirty… I'm gonna start doing my dirty layer now…We're kind of just romancing ourselves when we get ready… the moustache, for me, put me in a very romantic mood… the fairy theme is less gender specific.’
 
Let’s get one thing straight, this isn’t about the jolie-laide school of transgression. Lovely though it sounds that phrase indicates a naturalness, however unconventional or imperfect. This is about application, exaggeration and artificiality. It’s no happy accident or considered appreciation of flaws. This is the deliberate smearing, drawing and daubing of something not entirely easy onto the face or the body, be it that of a model, a beauty editor or a teenage girl alone in her bedroom with only her thousands of virtual followers for company. John Berger said ‘men act and women appear’ - but this is women doing both.
 
There's also something fetishistic about the whole thing. The aspect of fetishism that implies distance, not sharing and the absence of a desire to please. Sexual fetishists often forgo partners entirely, having projected and compartmentalised their desire entirely on to the object they fetishize. Similarly, despite the dependence the aforementioned cosmetic rule-breakers have on favourable public reaction (whether through album sales, video views or page ‘likes') their focus is the ritual that surrounds the make-up itself - the process they repeatedly perform and their obsessive documentation of it.
 
Far removed from the front row of couture shows, the more creative echelons of Tumblr and the pages of glossy magazines, there is the 'scouse-brow'. Described by The Telegraph as 'the monstrous make-up movement gripping D-lebrity land’, ridiculed by beauty surveys as the worst beauty crime of 2013 and seen on reality series such as Desperate Scousewives, the 'scouse-brow' is the term coined for defined, plucked and heavily pencilled eyebrows. But the buzzword turned out to be not much more than a combination of social snobbery and a point supremely missed. On closer inspection, the eyebrows of many of these 'scouse-brow offenders' differed barely from the in-vogue bushy brows of Hollywood actresses and of-the-moment models. And the brows that did stand out as particularly scousey, well the wearers didn’t appear to be particularly ashamed. It’s not the purpose of this essay to wonder what causes the conservative media to ridicule, misunderstand or misrepresent women's choices. But it's interesting to note its effect on the make-up habits of proud wearers of the offending brows; none whatever. 'The London-centric media may be snobby about us Liverpool lasses,' wrote Liverpool-based blogger Scouse Bird on The Guardian's website, 'but whether they like it or not, they know that where Scouse girls go, fashion follows. Even Vogue is trying to save face by calling prominent eyebrows a 'power brow'. No Vogue, you missed the boat on this one, it's a scouse-brow, and you know it.’ This shrugging off of criticism is another example of make-up for its own sake, and not for the pleasure of others. Rather than a bid for acceptance, the 'scouse-brow' is representation of the attitudes, rituals and personalities of the Liverpudlian ladies themselves. A local art form, like Morris dancing - it's a tad weird and has its passionate defenders. A maxim that chimes with high fashion very well.