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.

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

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