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Written on Her Face: the Power of Make-Up

Uniforms can come under any form and aspect, and serve as devices to create the image of ourselves we want to put forward. This is particularly true for everyday, personal uniforms – what we decide to wear in order to ‘be’ the person we want to be. Amongst the many kinds of uniform that we might think of, surely make up holds a special place, since it sits between the idea of something ‘disposable’, which can be put on and off, and that of something so necessary to become natural – and simply unavoidable.

A model using a mascara, ca. 1955-1965, Courtesy Stiftelsen Nordiska Museet CC BY NC ND

Trends in make up – as the parameters of beauty – have shifted throughout time and space but, in the Western world, it is especially during the twentieth and nineteenth century that their popularity has grown. At the beginning of 1900, a pale complexion was a must amongst rich and educated people, because this differentiated who didn’t have to stay out in the sun to earn a living from the people who had to work. Compacts containing power were then one of the only objects associated with make up that was appropriate for women to carry around; some of them were very elaborate, as pieces of jewellery, and enriched with initials or incisions.

Powder box with lipstick holder, ca. 1950-1960, Courtesy Centraal Museum

During the 1910s, make up was not popular, since it was associated with prostitutes; it’s probably with the rise of popular icons, whose image served as model to shape tastes and form styles, that make up really took off both on the market and in visual culture. So, together with their outfits, the make up of the likes of Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, became a fixed feature of their age, necessarily weighed on the development of new items and the diffusion of different products. Mascara, for example, was firstly invented by Eugene Rimmel in 1913, while lip gloss was introduced by Max Factor in the late 1920s, but the popularity of these products came with the use by actresses on the big screen, and also by rather strong marketing campaign based on the benefits women would get by using make up regularly.

Blue cardboard box containing a Mascara, ca. 1920-1950, Courtesy ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen

Interestingly, the history of cosmetics is linked to two incredibly savvy businesswomen. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, always depicted as opponents in the market, share the merit to have established the use of cosmetics as not only proper, but also necessary to the appearance of a woman. Helena Rubinstein marketed the mascara and made it very popular, while Elizabeth Arden used her advertising to talk to women to convince them that being beautiful – at every age or class – was synonymous with being appropriate, and thus, at least in Arden’s view, powerful.

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