FIRST, A CONFESSION: I do not like to wear makeup. Whether this is a consequence of living in Austin, where flawless, full-coverage foundation can mark you as a hopelessly unhip out-of-towner—"That's so Dallas," Austinites like to sniff—or simply my own failure as a woman, I'm not sure. Only when it was forbidden by my mother, in junior high, did I wear makeup with abandon. Back then, my vision of worldly sophistication involved gobs of electric-blue eyeliner and bubblegum-pink lip gloss, which I gooped on at school in the girls' bathroom. Later came an unfortunate smudgy-black-eyeliner phase, and then a brief but theatrical flirtation with a vivid shade of red lipstick that I hoped made me look French. That all came to an end when I went off to a liberal arts college in New England, where mascara was considered proof of a less-than-rigorous intellect. I've used makeup sparingly ever since, and in sandal-wearing, Frisbee-tossing Austin, that's the norm. Only as I've entered my thirties, as the fine lines around my eyes have begun to multiply at an alarming rate, have I started to wonder if maybe there isn't something redeeming in all those compacts and tubes and bottles.
With this in mind, I found myself drawn to the nerve center of all that is cosmetic, the city where the Mary Kay empire was born, the place where women lip-line and shadow and contour-shade before going to the gym. Yes, Dallas. My precise destination was, naturally, Neiman Marcus—not the flagship downtown store but the trendier NorthPark Center location, which happens to sell the most cosmetics of any of Neiman's 35 stores in the country. So far-reaching is its influence that many high-end cosmetics companies choose to roll out their new lines here after introducing them in New York. Bobbi Brown debuted in New York at Bergdorf Goodman, then ventured into the national market by offering ten shades of lipstick at the NorthPark Neiman's. The rest is history.
I arrived a few minutes before the store opened to find that a handful of women were already standing outside its glass doors, exquisitely dressed and coiffed and powdered as if they hoped to be photographed at any moment for W. Was there an event at Neiman's? I asked a sleek young Asian woman perched atop impossibly high heels. "No," she said, as if I had asked a very stupid question. And so I stared at the window display—a basketball hovering, inexplicably, above a three-inch-high Manolo Blahnik pump—and waited. Before long, a security guard turned the lock and swung open the doors ("Good morning, ladies!"), the lights brightened, and we all rode the escalators down one floor to Cosmetics: a florid world so rooted in fantasy that Neiman's saleswomen privately call it the Land of Oz.
What waited for us below was an expanse of cream-colored marble, roughly the length of a city block, where row upon row of gleaming countertops were lined with lipsticks in every shade and hue: Pink Sugar and Grenadine and Mauve and Warm Apricot and Caramel and on and on, reflected in what seemed to be an infinity of mirrors. There were lip plumpers and eye balms and bronzers too, and hydrating serums and night creams with "age-defying" properties. Promenading down the aisles was Neiman's A-list clientele: well-groomed Junior Leaguers, couture mavens clad in Prada, snowy-haired doyennes in pearls. One woman toted her fluffy white bichon frise in its own Louis Vuitton bag. Soon the place was humming with conversation and laughter as women settled into the makeup artists' chairs, a few, despite the early hour, sipping complimentary glasses of white wine. Roaming the department were saleswomen, all dressed in black, who nodded sagely, advising women about summer colors with the intensity of Zen masters. No sign of the faltering economy was evident here; $500 sales were commonplace. At the Chanel counter, a longtime customer told me that she had recently spent $1,000 on makeup in one visit to Neiman's.
"So is that your yearly supply?" I asked.
She squinted at me, searching for any discernible signs of intelligence. "No," she said after a moment, patting my arm.
A few paces away, seated at the Yves Saint Laurent counter, a girl wearing a frilly pink dress and Mary Janes was receiving a lesson in beauty. A makeup artist hovered over her, smoothing pale blue eye shadow across her lids. The girl's mother, a striking, immaculately dressed blonde, took a step back to appraise her. "Oh, my!" she cooed. "Don't you look like a model now?" The little girl giggled. Blush already brightened her cheeks, and her lips shimmered with pink gloss. I stood beside the counter and watched until my curiosity got the best of me. "How old are you?" I finally asked the girl.
She smiled, revealing a missing tooth, and held up her hand, extending each of her fingers one by one. "Five," she said.
I was a long way from home.
EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE A THEORY about why Dallas women are crazy about makeup. There's the hot-weather theory, which holds that the sun is somehow stronger in Dallas, so women must more aggressively combat the elements with powder and base. "Anything that's beautiful in Dallas was either planted, dug, erected, or willed into being," observes Ellen Kampinsky, who created the fashion section of the Dallas Morning News in the late seventies. "The same philosophy carries over to women's grooming." There's the status theory, which maintains that wearing the right kind of makeup, like having the right plastic surgeon, is essential for membership in the right social circle. ("Really, it's very tribal," says journalist David Feld, a longtime observer of Dallas society who wrote for the New York Times before becoming the creative director of D Magazine. "You can practically tell what country club a woman belongs to by the shade of her lipstick. If she's wearing coral, she belongs to Brook Hollow or the Dallas Country Club.") And then there's the inferiority-complex theory, which