Book Review: Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

Posted on January 13, 2016 under Books

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I read a lot of beauty blogs and watch a lot of beauty videos on YouTube, which I’m sure is relatable to almost everyone reading this. When it comes to beauty content, I’ll consume almost anything. (And yes, that totally includes hatewatching. Don’t pretend you’re too good for it! Unless you genuinely are, in which case I salute you. I’m weak.) By far my favourite type of beauty content is the stuff that’s intelligent, that goes beyond the surface and that connects beauty to wider cultural or historical phenomena.

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I’ll be straight with you: if Lisa Eldridge‘s much-anticipated Face Paint: The Story of Makeup had been a makeup guidebook à la Kevyn Aucoin or Bobbi Brown, I never would have purchased it. As much as I love Lisa’s YouTube channel (who doesn’t?), book has never been a makeup tutorial format that’s interested me. In the age of free YouTube tutorials that are constantly up-to-date and cutting edge, not to mention moving images that better demonstrate technique, I’m not going to take the time to peruse a book about how to apply makeup.

But Face Paint isn’t about how to apply makeup, though god knows Lisa Eldridge is good at that. Instead, it’s a painstakingly-researched history of makeup, told thematically rather than chronologically. So, armed with an Indigo gift card from Christmas and the goal to read more nonfiction in 2016, Face Paint was the first book I bought this year, as well as the first I finished.

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Most of the information in Face Paint can probably be found fairly easily on the internet. What you’re paying for here is all of that information synthesized, organized in a certain manner, and presented alongside impeccably-selected photographs, vintage ads, and other images.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first, The Ancient Palette, deals with the history of red, white, and black makeup, from prehistoric times right up until the 20th century. The second, The Business of Beauty, describes how the modern day beauty industry developed, looking at the influence of film and theatre, the history of cosmetics marketing, and makeup figureheads such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Charles Revson.

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There are many themes running throughout the book (which is why Lisa chose not to organize it chronologically); my favourite is the mistrust men have of makeup:

Early Christian writers had created a powerful association between makeup and deception that was hard to shake, with Saint Cyprian declaring that the act of painting the face and “staining” the cheeks was “to drive out all truth, both of face and head, by the assault of their own corruption.” (30)

Some things never change!

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As a cosmetics SA, I’m a big proponent of understanding skincare ingredients in order to make more informed, empowered decisions that aren’t simply based on absurd marketing claims. I know very little about the science behind makeup, however, so the focus of the last section of the book (The Bleeding Edge) on what exactly makes products work was fascinating. I wish there’d been more information offered – although I suppose independent research is always a possibility! This chapter is interesting, useful, and accessible for those of us with very little science background. (The last time I learned about chemistry in a formal setting was 2010, and I wasn’t exactly good at it…)

From a feminist perspective (because this is me we’re talking about), I really enjoyed Lisa’s focus on the contributions of women, and the fact that she emphasized that many of the early texts on cosmetics were written by men and did not include a female perspective. I was also glad to see that there were some amazing women of colour featured in her Makeup Muses sections at the end of each chapter, from Meena Kumari to Anna May Wong. (Though there’s always room for more!) I also loved that, while each woman profiled in the Makeup Muses sections obviously contributed to beauty trends, Lisa also focused on her accomplishments outside of makeup or being pretty. I liked that she wasn’t afraid to point out that many of the shocking and offensive advertising techniques from years past are still present today, although deployed in a slightly more subtle manner. I do wish that in her chapter on White she had talked a little bit more about the racial implications of paleness as an entrenched beauty standard, as I felt she skirted around the issue a bit. It’s also worth noting that the book is very much the story of Western makeup, especially in the second part. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as obviously she had to narrow the focus, but I think it’s important to mention that North American and European beauty brands, styles, and standards aren’t universal!

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As someone in the last semester of a Cultural Studies degree, I am very interested in how cultural objects affect everyday life and vice versa. Makeup obviously is a part of everyday life (not for everyone, obviously, but for many), and I felt like Face Paint was a very thorough and cogent exploration of the dialogue between makeup and culture. On page 226, Lisa argues that “Whether we want to look like our favorite screen idol, celebrity, model, or singer, we are communicating something about ourselves to the outside world, displaying that we belong to a group.” I think this is a fairly true statement, though it’s not the whole truth. And, of course, when examining the role of makeup in the everyday lives of women, I think we must examine how makeup works to uphold the patriarchy – an uncomfortable, difficult, and perhaps impossible act of reconciliation for feminist beauty-lovers.

Despite my (obvious) love of makeup and involvement in the industry in the capacity of an SA, I actually didn’t know much about the history of makeup at all. I learned so much from Face Paint, all in Lisa’s characteristic sensible, accessible, yet still interesting style. I do feel that the book may be a tad basic for those who already have a reasonable working knowledge of the history of makeup, but for me, the information, presentation, and stunning accompanying imagery all combine to make Face Paint well worth $35.95 CAD. I’d have been glad to pay full price for it even without the gift card.

A look at some of the stunning packaging (mostly, if not fully, from Lisa’s personal collection) and advertisements featured throughout the book:

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Some of the vintage makeup ads are so intoxicatingly beautiful! I’d put most of them up on my wall in a heartbeat.

And a look at my favourite images from the entire book:

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Stunning whimsical lashes by Shu Uemura. Lashes really don’t do it for me unless they’re at least a little bit absurd.

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More amazing lashes! I’d love to have a high resolution version of this image to frame or put on my wall or something. I think it’s beautiful.

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Special Cleopatra-themed lipstick packaging from Revlon in anticipation of the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film. Can you imagine such packaging at a drugstore pricepoint today?!

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I think both of these images are compelling and gorgeous, but I just cannot get over the Harper’s Bazaar cover on the right. That’s another one that I would kill to have a poster of.

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I love images of women putting on makeup – the privacy of such a personal act has been stripped away and rendered an act worthy of artistic representation.

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Speaking of which… I first saw this image at the V&A Horst exhibition in the fall of 2014 and promptly became obsessed with it. I’ve been on the lookout for a high quality, reasonably-priced print of it ever since. Imagine my elation when I saw it included in the book!

For another (insightful, thorough) review of Face Paint, I highly recommend Liz’s post from last month.

Where to buy Face Paint if you so desire:

Amazon | Kindle | Chapters/Indigo | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Nook

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