Make-up as Artistry and the Origins of the Beauty Industry in ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’

Global beauty industry sales hit $500 billion in 2019, and consistently outperformed other areas of fashion retail throughout the pandemic. It can seem as though this economic force appeared overnight, but make-up artist Lisa Eldridge’s BBC Two series, Make-up: A Glamorous History, debunks this notion by tracing the history of make-up in Britain in three parts. In each episode, she highlights an important moment in beauty history: ‘Georgian dandies, demure Victorians and decadent flappers.’

Each episode of the series sees Eldridge make up a model in the style of the period, where possible using products made according to original recipes. In some cases – notably, with the toxic lead used by the Georgians to create white pigment for face powder – this requires the help of a specialist and protective equipment. In others, Eldridge is able to knock up batches of luxurious Georgian facial cleanser and subtle Victorian lip tint with nothing more than a single tabletop hob and some muslin. Eldridge also speaks to historians to dig deeper into the trends of each era, looking at the women and men considered to be the beauty influencers of their time and what this says about each society. She looks at extant objects, including posters, magazines and compacts, to get an understanding of the marketing and retail of beauty products in each era.

While researching Georgian beauty ideals, Eldridge meets with Royal Academy of Arts Curator of Works on Paper Annette Wickham. Their discussion of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings of society women – including actresses, singers and courtesans – reveals the origins of the ‘beauty influencer’ system that is so culturally and economically significant today. The boom of print culture at this time allowed the images of these women to be disseminated in newspapers and as prints, displayed in alehouses, coffee shops and in the street-facing windows of dedicated print shops. The women who featured in these images encouraged their dissemination and even staged publicity ploys: Wickham tells the story of Kitty Fisher, a prominent courtesan who deliberately fell from her horse in Hyde Park to ensure that her name and picture would appear in the newspapers. Maintaining a high profile aligned with beauty brought these women financial security in the form of wealthy husbands. Today, being recognised for beauty (or, often, excellent make-up artistry) can bring financial gains in the form of brand partnerships and advertising revenue, highlighting the significant potential outcomes of effective use of make-up throughout history.

Kitty Fisher (1762), line engraving by William Humphrys, after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery.

The episode that focuses on Victorian beauty reveals the secrecy around make-up during this period. Just as today the perfect ‘no-makeup make-up look’ is a holy grail for many, the Victorians went to great lengths to appear ‘naturally’ beautiful. Make-up masqueraded as medicine in published recipes and advertisements, adding a further layer of artifice to what was already perceived as immoral trickery. But such efforts were necessary: the inherent sinfulness of make-up was enshrined in a law that enabled police officers to arrest women if they were suspected of wearing make-up. The argument was that if a woman was so depraved as to wear make-up, she might also be guilty of illegally selling sex. This puritanical preference for bare – and, notably, pale white – skin fed into the Victorian colonial narrative in its parallel suggestion that a person’s ‘natural’ appearance was an indication of their human worth. The quest for pallor meant that there was even a vogue for ‘tuberculosis chic’, prefiguring the trend for ‘heroin chic’ that would appear a century later. Prominent beauties, including Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, also known as Madame X, paid the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money for a form of semi-permanent make-up known as enamelling. The treatment comprised an aggressive exfoliation before a thick layer of white paint – meant to fill in fine lines and cover blemishes – was applied, then drawn over with blue veins. Some of the dangerous attitudes that drove these extremes – especially those around deviations in skin tone or texture from a ‘natural’ yet idealised beauty – are undoubtedly still present in some form in the global beauty industry today.

Portrait of Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the third and final episode in the series, the 1920s was the era in which the beauty industry as we know it today was born. A desire among women to break away from social ideals eventually led to the acceptance of a full face of make-up in public, as well as bobbed hair and new behaviours. This change was inextricable from the rise of cinema, which disseminated moving and still images of new beauty ideals – women were necessarily heavily made up under studio lights – and provided the technological advancements in make-up that allowed for its commercialisation. Eldridge traces the rise of modern foundations from their inception in Max Factor’s stage make-up. New markets also appeared – make-up was no longer just for the wealthy – and elaborate packaging encouraged further consumption. Celebrity endorsements continued to be important, but now famous faces could be tied to brand names, for example, Josephine Baker’s many beauty lines. Eldridge introduces a piece from her personal collection: a Josephine Baker and Flamand compact cuff. The glamorous black and gold bracelet can be opened to reveal powder and a mirror, allowing for regular, public reapplication. While it’s more unusual to find cross-pollination like this today, likely owing to the cost that would be involved for the manufacturer as well as the consumer, make-up brands continue to place a high importance on packaging. This is increasingly true as consumers look for sustainable (yet still aesthetically pleasing) options.

Josephine Baker and Flamand powder compact cuff bracelet, 1930s, personal collection of Lisa Eldridge. (Still from Episode 3 of ‘Make-up: A Glamorous History’, BBC).

Overall, the series makes it clear that, while the beauty industry as we know it today exists in an intensely commercialised form, it has been an important part of society for centuries, functioning in broadly similar ways. While trends have changed according to the mores of the day, some form of artifice (either highly decorative or more ‘natural’) has always been the goal. Make-up has always represented a form of self-expression: it offers a means of communicating wealth, health or alternative values. Furthermore, for viewers who may be accustomed to buying their make-up branded and boxed from the beauty aisle, the series reminds us that make-up is an art like any other, with the body as its canvas. The medium and the tools that can be used as make-up aren’t necessarily always labelled as such. Experimentation and play are therefore encouraged, and a less exclusive concept of beauty can emerge.

By Lucy Corkish

Sources

Emily Gerstell, Sophie Marchessou, Jennifer Schmidt, and Emma Spagnuolo, Consumer Packaged Goods Practice: How COVID-19 is changing the world of beauty, McKinsey and Company, 2020 (https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Consumer%20Packaged%20Goods/Our%20Insights/How%20COVID%2019%20is%20changing%20the%20world%20of%20beauty/How-COVID-19-is-changing-the-world-of-beauty-vF.pdf)

Make-up: A Glamorous History, presented by Lisa Eldridge, directed by Rachel Jardine and Lucy Swingler, BBC Two, 2021