by Lisa Eldridge
2015 • 240 pages • Harry N. Abrams
Makeup artist and current Lancôme Global Creative Director Lisa Eldridge came to my attention a few months ago when she posted a video to her popular YouTube channel wherein she opened up some of her precious vintage Biba cosmetics to demonstrate what they looked like on a human face. Eldridge talks with such obvious love for what Barbara Hulanicki did with Biba in the early seventies—really pioneering the first wave, in Western culture, of nontraditional colors (red, white, and black being those colors) for makeup—that it’s infectious.
Eldridge’s love of the history of makeup isn’t limited just to the early seventies; see her “Best and Worst Makeup Moments in History” video for a greatest hits of Western cosmetic history. So when her vast knowledge of makeup history acquired through years in the industry culminated in her new book Face Paint, I had to check it out. (I have a feeling I am one of the first people to read it in my library system; given that I put it on hold while it was still on order. Go, me!) I was really hoping for a book about the history of cosmetics with an eye on its political and cultural context—how it was made, why it was used, and the various things that it can mean. After all, there’s a world of difference between my desire to paint myself blue (…good heavens, I’m Irish) and the very gendered cultural pressure I feel to cover up my acne scars to look “professional”, and the way that desire has been exploited for various reasons through human history is a fascinating subject.
But it’s not the subject of this book. Face Paint is a coffee table book—by which I mean that it’s a surface level or 100-level look at the material instead of a deep dive, with an emphasis on photos. Which makes complete sense here, as Eldridge includes paintings and vintage cosmetic ads to show both different looks through the years. But while Eldridge is very upfront about the historical contexts she’s writing about (she points out that Elizabeth Arden started a company at a time when banks did not give loans to single women), she never really digs deep into them. And the only non-Western cultures she touches on are Japan, China, and Korea. That is a major step in the right direction, but now I’m very curious about the history of cosmetics in the parts of the globe that she didn’t cover.
I quite like what I did read, though—Eldridge is a calm but wry presence, full of fascinating facts and trivia about her subject. Particularly, she made me think more about the manufacturing side of makeup. I’d never really thought about how modern cosmetics are made—I mean, I’ve read up on how to homebrew lip balm, but never given any thought to the engineering behind making my lipstick stick. Towards the very end of the book, Eldridge talks about the Max Factor Lipfinity lipstick, which I kind of remember debuting when I was a young ‘un in Georgia, combing through the Ulta in the town over for nail polish on clearance. The whole point of the lipstick duo—a rich color and a gloss to go over it—is to work around the limitations of the then-advanced and new formula in the color lipstick. In order to stick and last, it dries out your lips like crazy, which means that you need a gloss for it not to be matte. The idea that a modern makeup company would have to create and then sell a workaround like that was quite striking to me.
She also talks about how the car industry figured out how to manufacture pearlescent paint in the eighties, and that jumped immediately over to cosmetics, which I think explains a great deal. And! And! When pantyhose shortages hit in the forties during wartime, women would paint hose onto their legs with cosmetics. And radioactive makeup used to be a total thing, because of the eternal link between science and cosmetics—whatever’s the shiniest new thing in science will be adapted to a myriad of uses, including cosmetics. What fascinating stuff.
I rented this book from the public library.