Making Up Is Hard to Do

When it comes to lipstick and the like, Texas women have gone from avoidance to “anything goes.” Which is good news for the cosmetically challenged among us.

April 2005By Comments

THIS MONTH’S TOPIC IS A BEAUT: the history of makeup in Texas. Over time, Texas women have moved through five stages of cosmetological development: No Makeup, the nineteenth century’s mandate for decent women; Whoa, Makeup!, the introduction of mass-marketed lipstick and powder; Mo’ Makeup (a.k.a. Big Makeup), the essential, over-the-top complement to Big Hair; Pro Makeup, the skilled techniques mastered by models and such; and Low Makeup, the relatively natural look of the typical Texan (or the typically indifferent one, like me; I swear, I could paint my face all day long with no discernible improvement to show for the effort). Examining these five evolutionary steps should enhance our understanding of female beauty, a commodity for which the state has long been famous.

In Texas in the 1800’s, paint and powder were signs of immorality; only the likes of theater people and streetwalkers dared to wear them in public. During the first century or so of the state’s history, many males rarely saw unattached females except those of the dance-hall persuasion, and inevitably these menfolk—cowboys, farmers, roughnecks—came to like the made-up look because they associated it with sex. As Texas songwriter Chris Wall puts it in “Trashy Women,” “Too much lipstick and too much rouge/Gets me excited, leaves me feelin’ confused.” (No wonder some religious sects still ban makeup.)

By the beginning of World War I, innovative cosmetic products had begun to create a nationwide craze among women who were eager to emulate the glamorous stars of the emerging film industry. Theda Bara almost single-handedly popularized eye makeup; her scandalous vamp persona had a smoky-eyed scowl dependent on thick kohl and heavy mascara. A much more common attribute of early actresses was a pair of sexy red lips (which, to me, suggest sock monkeys). Consider San Antonio native Joan Crawford, who was such a lipstick junkie that one of her purses had a tube hidden in the handle to expedite touch-ups. Almost instantly, women of all ages, races, shapes, and professions came to regard lipstick as an essential part of their wardrobe. In I’ll Gather My Geese, rancher Hallie Stillwell, of Marathon, recalled that in 1918, when she was a young bride learning to work cattle, she habitually made up her face before venturing out. One morning her husband asked her dryly, “Do you think those cows will notice whether you have lipstick on or not?”

From then until the mid-sixties, a lipsticked mouth and a powdered nose were de rigueur at all times. During the Depression, affordable dime-store brands kept morale high, and although American women cut back on cosmetics during the war, Wacs were even then testing the efficacy of lipstick with sunblock. Postwar, both women and men still favored the curvy red lips of previous decades, and a girl’s first lipstick became a rite of passage. One friend remembers how, during her formative cosmetics period (her junior high years, in the late fifties), she would regularly visit her neighborhood drugstore in Austin just to pull out the drawerful of Revlon lipsticks and marvel over the magic of the names: Persian Melon, Fifth Avenue Red, Cherries in the Snow. Even Lady Bird Johnson, while first lady, noted in her White House diary that she had to learn to “keep my lipstick perfect.”

By then, the plethora of available cosmetics had produced a fondness (particularly noticeable in sparsely populated areas) for Big Makeup—that is, way too much of it—and its natural companion, Big Hair. The raisons d’être for the latter are well known: It’s scriptural; it makes your hips look smaller; its hair-sprayed bulk resists high winds; and besides, everything’s bigger in Texas. A towering beehive was balanced by applying mascara till it clumped and rouge till it glowed. Traditionally, the Big (or Mo’) Makeup look is favored by working-class women. In his comic novel Baja Oklahoma (1981), Fort Worth’s Dan Jenkins mentions a cashier “whose orange makeup blended into her orange bouffant” and a teenager with “pancake makeup” and “penciled eyebrows.” Jenkins also refers to homecoming-parade beauties with “dark red lips, bright pink cheeks, green eyes, and yellow hair,” which leads prominent makeup scholars such as myself to speculate that, in especially drab areas of West Texas, the vivid colors surely held appeal. Despite the universal availability of cable TV and the Internet, with their instant updates on the latest looks, Mo’ Makeup remains a distinct Texas look today, embraced particularly, it seems, by certain small-town residents and country-western fans—cowgirls gussied up for a night out, say, or girls who grew up seeing their mothers trowel on the war paint. Mo’ Makeup may owe a debt to the dance-hall girl: Local men could have picked up, from their ex-cowboy grandpas, a preference for the painted-woman look, and their spouses and sweetie pies are happy to accommodate them.

Urban ladies are more likely to favor Pro Makeup, which also means scads of goop—but carefully and smoothly applied. After World War II, when Texas women cheerfully abandoned factory work, various entrepreneurs jumped in to help them re-embrace femininity. For example, in January 1946 a slick magazine called Cosmetics: The Magazine of the Toiletries Trade debuted in Dallas (Makeup Capital of Texas). It offered sneak peeks at brand-new products (“Waterproof mascara. Stays put in sea, shower, weepy movie”) and advice for counter help (“Never let a redhead or a blonde buy black mascara”). Unfortunately, Cosmetics tanked in 1948, perhaps because—despite being packed with ads for Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden products—its Texas folksiness undermined its attempt at sophistication: “Una Clayton, in charge of cosmetics at Longhorn Drug Store in Kilgore, Texas, has been ill. We hear it was pleurisy—anyway, she had a ‘hitch in her git-along.’”

Odds are no one in Texas missed Cosmetics, because since 1907 they had had something even better: Neiman Marcus, the emporium of restrained elegance whose influence spread far beyond its Dallas base. Some five generations of Texas girls have grown up with style and self-improvement as requisite social studies. You’ve run across these polished beauties, ages eighteen to eighty, in miscellaneous ladies’ rooms, touching up their makeup with a combination of boredom and expertise; they’ll give a desultory shake to a bottle as they turn their head to check their profile, or twirl a long-handled sable brush around their cheeks and brow in a manner that suggests dusting a live ceiling fan. Such women look good because—to paraphrase Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny—they blend. Since the second grade, they’ve known to never apply cheek color in clown circles or bruiselike streaks. And they always use a foundation that matches their actual skin tone, to prevent a jarring contrast between faux-suntanned face and grub-worm-white neck.

Fear of makeup missteps is one reason that I am a makeup minimalist, a member in good standing of the Low Makeup crowd. I admit to a serious jones for lip gloss, and some days I slap on a little mascara (my lashes are like pill-bug legs). But I can’t abide foundation. I blame this fact on my maternal grandmother, who regularly took me swimming in the summer but pulled me out of the water every hour or so to re-smear me with Coppertone. I hated feeling the greasy layer of cream on my face. Then again, her efforts did help protect my skin, which is holding up better than I have any right to expect. Of course, the cosmetically minded might disagree. I remember sharing a hotel room with two girly girls some ten years ago, and in the morning, my two-minute routine done, I watched as they applied and smoothed various layers of beige lotion. When I commented idly, “I’ve never worn foundation,” one of the women smiled sweetly and said, “Oh, yes. We know.” (Men, I have found, can be equally devastating. Once, when I was driving my young sons to school, I got something in my eye. I immediately started tearing up, so I pulled over and rubbed at my eye till I could see again. Then I turned to Parker, who was a first-grader at the time, and said, “Do I have any mascara under my eyes?” And he replied, “No, just those same little purple bags.”)

The political and social tumult of the sixties and early seventies is one reason many women of my generation eschew heavy makeup: We were hippies. The “natural look,” introduced during my teen years, was an attempt to sell the same ol’ gender-biased beauty enhancements as countercultural statements. One ghastly trend was pale, frosted lipstick hues; displayed on the likes of bony little Twiggy, the waifish London supermodel, they had all the appeal of an extended morgue stay. Twiggy’s hallmark was her lashes—dramatic false ones above, short ones crayoned in below. A similar wide-eyed look helped Houston-born Shelley Duvall break into movies in the early seventies. Naturally, the wispy actress was called the Texas Twiggy.

Today there’s a refreshing anything-goes quality to makeup in Texas. This is a relief to us Low Makeup types, who have enough trouble keeping the mascara wand out of our eyes, much less keeping up with cosmetics trends. On the few occasions that I have to “put on my face” for a big night out, I often overlook important steps. Once, when I was getting ready to go to a dinner party, I busied myself at the bathroom mirror with various tubes and jars. When I stepped back to critique the overall effect, Parker, who was all of seven years old, handed me my blusher and said, “Don’t forget your pink dust!”

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