Painting your lips in bold colors during Covid times when you are supposed to wear a mask covering up your face in public, might seem as a nonsense act… But is it?
The history of the relationship between makeup and troubled times like wars and crises is an interesting one. During World War II, in the United States, United Kingdom and allied countries, makeup was seen as a women’s patriotic duty. The idea was (for women) to have the best possible face to spread optimism and keep the “normality” of appearances as much as possible. The names of lipstick shades from that period illustrate this literally: Victory Red was released by Elizabeth Arden and Regimental Red by Helena Rubinstein. Beauty ads encouraged women to be “as loveliest as possible”. This was also seen as essential to get women through their new work roles. They were pinning up their hair underneath handkerchiefs and heading to factories in overalls (occupying roles that were traditionally men’s jobs) and so makeup was seen as a necessity in order to help those working women feel more feminine. Some factories actually supplied women with their own lipstick tubes in changing rooms as morale-boosters.
Despite the fact that cosmetics production in the United Kingdom was paralyzed for the sake of more urgent products, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to make an exception for lipstick, stating that its use “raised the morale of the population”. The public and notorious hate Adolf Hitler had for any type of cosmetic was another powerful reason to claim it with more conviction. There is even a Banksy painting, “Holocaust Lipstick” inspired by the time the British red cross sent a whole shipment of lipstick to the concentration camp survivors. In more modern crises like the 2008 global financial recession, beauty products sales have always increased, as items of affordable luxury. Since then, cosmetic sales have been used as an economic barometer in times of recession.
But the social meaning of makeup changes according to the context. If we go back to Victorian England, lipstick was considered dishonest and impolite. Rebellious women of society (some of them became part of the Suffragettes movement later) began secretly trading makeup recipes and making homemade lipsticks in underground lip rouge societies and clandestine beauty establishments.
Kiss and tell
Today, we are getting used to these “new normality” rules, wearing face masks, but simultaneously, enter the “excessive beauty” era. As fashion forecaster agency Nelly Rodi calls it, this trend, that spread from the HBO series Euphoria, with its ode to creative and loud ways to use makeup, is influencing Generation Zs and new gender-fluid makeup brands. Glam, playful makeup and colored hair are gaining popularity. Of course with the lower part of our faces covered, as this recent article in Vogue UK puts it “(…) we’re increasingly turning towards the eyes for creative expression.” But could this mystery around the mouth generate a new lipstick fetish? As Val Garland, makeup director of L’Oréal Paris says to Vogue: “The revealing of a statement, kissable lip versus a bare lip is a powerful and empowering declaration. In these times, more than ever, a power lip is here to stay.”
I asked women around me if they were still putting lipstick on despite of wearing masks, and 75% confirmed they did; even though it can stain the mask, they still want to wear the rouge. Of course this favors the use of matte lipstick and brings the long lasting makeup products to the forefront.
This scenario updates the whole topic of “who do we make up for?” Is keeping your own beauty rituals for yourself uplifting in difficult and uncertain times? Self-care and self-love routines have definitely gained value during quarantine, just look to social media for proof.
So, in a time when -finally- beauty standards and gender binary limits are being questioned, I guess my deep question is: do we feel safer when maintaining our chosen appearances? Yes, we cover our faces when necessary, yet we know that we still look how we, as individuals, decided to look, at least behind the mandatory masks. As I experience it myself, who I am used to putting at least some natural lip tint even to go to the supermarket on a Sunday, ever since I can remember; I feel wearing strong lipstick now has a new layer of defiant attitude.
Then, how can these two scenarios cohabit in 2020? When faces become more and more anonymous, is putting lipstick on a subversive act? Should beauty brands embrace this new symbolic defiant meaning? Let’s see how it goes.