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 theNew 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 links the city’s preoccupation with makeup to its insecurity over not being an international city, a port, or a fashion capital. “We desperately want to prove that we’re cosmopolitan,” a friend from Highland Park e-mailed me on condition of anonymity. “So we wear makeup and clothes that scream, ‘Look! We have high fashion! Look! We can overspend on designer products too!'”

Neiman Marcus, which has catered to this anxiety in Dallas for nearly a century, can be partially credited (or blamed) for the city’s fascination with exterior beauty. “I think it’s a chicken-or-the-egg question,” says Leonard Lauder, the chairman of the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. “Did Stanley Marcus make Dallas acutely aware of appearance, or was Dallas just the logical place to found a store like Neiman Marcus?” Lauder notes that while plenty of people in Dallas do not, of course, shop at Neiman’s, they do see its newspaper ads featuring fashions straight off the Paris runways; these ads have raised the fashion bar for Dallas women for decades and given birth to the trickle-down theory. According to this hypothesis, the heightened awareness of haute couture made Dallas a natural cosmetics mecca. Neiman’s will not reveal sales numbers, but Lauder confirms that his company does a brisk business in Dallas; the Estée Lauder spa inside the NorthPark Neiman’s cosmetics department—yes, there is a full-service spa inside—is the busiest and most profitable Lauder spa in the world. “Dallas is a bellwether market for cosmetics,” Lauder says. “From a per capita standpoint, it beats New York City and Los Angeles hands down.”

It follows, then, that the “Dallas look” requires a great deal of makeup. But what is the look, exactly? At Neiman’s, its model is less the street chic of Jennifer Lopez than it is the cool perfection—still, after all these years—of Dallas native Morgan Fairchild: part soap star, part Highland Park Methodist. Among the women who frequent the cosmetics department, there is a certain sameness to their faultless faces. “New York has a more European appreciation for idiosyncrasies,” says Kampinsky. “In Dallas, the flaws are smoothed over.” There is the scrupulously made-up mouth, lined just above the lip and polished to a high shine; the contour-shaded eyes, fringed with mascara; the palette of vibrant reds and corals. And then there is the base. “The dead giveaway that a woman is from Dallas is foundation—and lots of it,” my Highland Park friend wrote. “We wear lots of base to cover up our blotchy skin, which we get from wearing lots of base. It’s a dreadful cycle.” This style is most entrenched in white, middle- and upper-class Dallas, in parts of the city where the lawns are groomed with a similarly exacting attention to detail. “In the Park Cities, women’s makeup is so perfect that it looks almost invisible, even though it’s applied through an extraordinarily complex, Kabuki-like process that can take hours,” says Feld. “As you head farther north, it gets a bit heavier and less polished. You could almost add an extra layer for each exit you pass on the Dallas North Tollway.”

My friend from Highland Park reads great meaning into the fact that she wore her makeup to bed for years and wonders if it’s the plight of Dallas women to be afraid to look imperfect, even in the dark. “I read that Angie Harmon, who went to my high school, used to sleep in her makeup too,” she wrote. “I wonder if more Dallas women go to bed with their faces on? I think we all knew exactly what Mary Kay Ash meant when she used to say, ‘I go to bed looking like Elizabeth Taylor and I wake up looking like Charles de Gaulle.'”

THE GRANDE DAME OF THE NorthPark Neiman’s cosmetics department is a short, stoop-shouldered 64-year-old saleswoman named Christina Gilbert who wears quite possibly the largest glasses in Dallas. Their colossal brown frames arch above her false eyelashes, where they brush against her copper-colored bangs, and dip below the bottom of her nose, magnifying her green eyes to such a degree that whenever she peers at customers, she appears to be gazing at them with rapturous interest. Women who can’t remember her name invariably ask for “the lady with the glasses,” sometimes illustrating who they are talking about by cupping their hands around their face in two gigantic parentheses. She is a curious fixture in a place where the rules of beauty are so uniform, but she understands her customers well; they are competitive, and her glasses obscure what is a very pretty face. Because she is fond of wearing leopard-print headbands, baubles, loud sweaters, and an array of gold pins shaped like bumblebees, it would be easy to assume she is just an eccentric. She is, in fact, a shrewd saleswoman. After 24 years behind the counter—currently she sells the Sisley Paris line—she is one of the top sales associates in the makeup department, which sells untold millions in cosmetics and skin-care products each year.

Keep in mind that it takes a particular talent to summon women into a department store to buy products that are not essential, that are wildly expensive, and that can be purchased over the phone or online—and then to retain these customers, and sometimes their daughters and granddaughters, as loyal clients for decades. Christina shrugs off any suggestion that she must have special intuitive powers. “I listen,” she said. “Most women don’t get listened to.” Indeed, throughout my time at Neiman’s, Christina was often huddled in conference with various well-heeled women as they unburdened themselves over the shiny glass cases of moisturizer. Or she was slipping off a giant earring so that she could press her ear a little bit closer to the phone receiver, all the while nodding vigorously in communion with the caller. Like a good hairdresser, she knows. She knows whose husband is cheating, whose teenager is struggling with addiction, whose wife is getting ready to file for divorce. It’s all in the name of customer service, though the purchase often seems an afterthought. “Oh, I almost forgot,” women will say, returning to the counter after an involved conversation that ended moments before with an embrace. “I wanted to get the Botanical Night Complex.”

The mix of commerce and confidences is not unique to Christina; it’s part of the fabric of the cosmetics department, where vanity and hope and self-doubt are all interwoven. “Anytime you let someone touch your face, it’s very intimate,” said saleswoman Carol Anderson. “Women tell us about their face lifts and intimacy with their husbands. We know things their own families don’t know.”

Christina, to her credit, was too discreet—and too astute—to let me eavesdrop on such conversations. My only glimpse of this kind of exchange came by accident one morning, when I was talking to saleswoman LaDonna Powers; suddenly, a petite blonde who had been scanning the room from afar strode up to us. “LaDonna!” she cried. “Thank God you’re here. I had to get your opinion.” She squeezed LaDonna’s hand as if they were old friends. (“I love LaDonna because she doesn’t put any pressure on me,” she told me. “She shows me what’s new and how to look good.”) LaDonna smiled warmly as the woman debriefed her on her life post-divorce and her various cosmetic adventures. “The plastic surgeon you suggested was fabulous,” the woman said. “Look! I got my tummy tucked again two weeks ago.” Beaming, she tugged on her jeans to show how loose they were at the waist.

“You look great!” LaDonna marveled.

“And guess what else? I’m in love!”

“That’s wonderful!” LaDonna said.

“I’m just crazy about him. Really! He’s the one.” She smiled for a moment at her own good fortune. Then, without missing a beat, she got down to business. “So I need one of these,” she said, extracting a tube of lipstick from her purse. “And I need something to make my face look less shiny.”

“La Prairie?” LaDonna offered, naming one of the priciest cosmetics lines Neiman’s carries.

“Don’t you think?” the woman said.

LaDonna gave her a significant look—You want the best, don’t you?—and nodded, ushering her to the counter.

This scene plays out, with variations, seven days a week. Women are pampered, affirmed, empowered, and made to feel beautiful, all while vast amounts of merchandise are moved off the shelves. No one is spared; not the Middle Eastern royals who buy here, nor Angie Harmon, nor the Bush twins. It would be easy to be cynical about the whole thing, but in the end, everyone wins: The customer feels elated when she walks out the door with a bit of the Neiman’s mystique, and the saleswoman has made another 9 percent commission. (A top salesperson in a good year can make a six-figure salary.) Christina does not fawn over her customers or offer up false flattery to make her sales; she simply gives them her undivided attention and good judgment. Her clients want to be nurtured, and so she nurtures them. She sends them bouquets and chocolate-covered apples on their birthday and flowers when there has been a death in the family. Throughout the year, she calls periodically to check in and pens cheery notes on homemade cards festooned with feathers and sequins. And still, business is never too far away: “Would you like to charge this to your Neiman’s account?” is her constant refrain, the chorus to almost every love song she sings to a client.

Whether or not the beauty products Christina sells actually do what they say they do—the literature on one $350 elixir claims that it “revitalizes, repairs, restructures, rehydrates, and renews” the skin as it “plumps the dermal layer”—is beside the point. The beauty business has always, in the famous words of Revlon founder Charles Revson, provided women with “hope in a jar.” One of Neiman’s best-sellers is La Prairie’s Creme Cellulaire Radiance, a facial moisturizer that purports to improve the skin’s elasticity; it is displayed atop an illuminated platform, as if it were a talisman, and runs $500 for a 1.7-ounce bottle. Rather than discouraging customers, its price has become its selling point. “We can’t keep it in stock,” Christina said. “It sells itself.” The reasons for its popularity are simple enough. “Women want to stop time,” she observed on my last visit. “Beauty is what makes us powerful, and so we try to buy our immortality.” She was in a philosophical mood. Then, out of reflex, she switched into sales mode. Her voice softened and she leaned a bit closer, her gaze washing over my face as she drew me in. With great earnestness, she began to make the pitch: “And you know, good skin care can make all the difference . . .”

I’D LIKE TO SAY THAT I was immune to the notion that I could somehow buy beauty at the cosmetics counter, but I was no different from any woman who walks into Neiman’s. I did successfully withstand the urge to purchase a $250 jar of moisturizer that carried the intriguing claim that it was “made entirely by hand in a monastery.” I also passed up the chance to buy various masks and creams laden with exotic ingredients such as “pure diamond powder,” “crushed Polynesian pearls,” “wild yams,” “sea wrack,” and “powerful caviar extracts.” And I refrained from pulling out my credit card after the maestro performance of a natty fragrance salesman who, with great dexterity and care, massaged my hand, misted me with a heady blend of “citrus-sandalwood notes,” and then blew softly on my wrist until I was certain he would pass out from a lack of oxygen. But it didn’t take long to break down my resistance. Once I got a makeover, I promptly spent more money on makeup in a few minutes—$136, to be exact—than I did all last year.

It was an unusually slow afternoon, and so the Neiman’s makeup artists had passed the time by working on me as we talked. They dusted and drew and smoothed and polished and contoured and shadowed, stopping now and then to take a step back and assess their work. A woman with smoky eyes gave me smoky eyes; a woman with peachy lipstick and lip liner applied peachy lipstick and lip liner. At some point, my hair acquired significant amounts of hairspray, which gave it a sturdy sheen, and I was spritzed in lemony clouds of Acqua di Parma. Bronzer lent my pallid skin a healthy glow. Under the diffuse lights of the cosmetics counter, I looked good. Not wildly different, just better. Enhanced.

The most stunning woman among the makeup artists, a dead ringer for Sophia Loren, told me as I began making my round of good-byes that she wanted to put makeup on me the following day. I thanked her but said I would have to decline. I was returning home to Austin. “Really?” she said, surprised. She did a quick appraisal of my face—the full-coverage foundation, the perfectly drawn flourishes of black eyeliner, the peachy lipstick so glossy that it was practically reflective—and then offered her assessment: “I thought you lived in Dallas.”