As the history of cinema progressed, the beauty looks born on the silver screen eventually became part of an actor’s persona. Nathalie Atkinson explores the transformative power of painting faces, and celebrity makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury offers her twist on ingenue style throughout the ages. Photography by Andrew Soule
It’s no accident that the word makeup is about making it up. It’s a medium for fantasy, the world of make-believe and possibilities. Brushes and wands offer a guise, escapism into a persona. Sometimes, the illusion of perfection.
Ancient papyrus depict Egyptians applying rouge made of mineral pigments; because of its association with a benign goddess, the belief was that wearing makeup placed wearers under her protection. As Cleopatra well understood, dramatically outlining and contouring her orbs not only emphasized her capricious side-eye, it also helped ward off the Evil Eye.
The ones who would cement our love affair with makeup came later, and were a different kind of goddess: the goddesses of the silver screen. The way the glamour factory of the traditional studio system distilled individuality into a handful of memorable archetypes was so effective that these types continue to dominate today, though makeup has come a long way from crude layers of greasepaint and talc.
Initially, cinematic icons came in just two visible varieties – myth production of female stardom was still tied to the culture’s restrictive view of morality: enter the virgin, or the vamp. Fictional silent era queen Norma Desmond’s sound observation, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” literally applies – you knew which character was which by associations created with makeup. The first was more natural – flawless skin and lots of girl-next-door eyelashes (Mary Pickford). The latter had the darker, heavier lips and smoky eye makeup of brooding, desirable, but always potentially dangerous femmes fatales (Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson).
As Hollywood became a social hub in the 1930s, the walk from the car into the first premieres at Hollywood Boulevard movie palace Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre were the earliest red carpets. Fans and photographers alike clamoured outside and intrepid news photographers also began snapping the stars at play (though the term “paparazzo” wouldn’t be coined for the phenomenon until Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960). Not much different than a celebrity Starbucks run circa 2015, except the audience hadn’t seen behind the curtain yet.
With the rise of fan magazines (the Us Weekly of their day), stars were pressured to maintain their signature personas off-set as well, indistinguishable from the fortunes of their memorable on-screen fictions. In Styling the Stars, a recent collection of previously unseen Twentieth Century Fox makeup department photos from the studio archives, you can see how Allan “Whitey” Snyder (who later became personal makeup artist to Marilyn Monroe) used Vaseline not on the lens but on the blonde bombshell’s lips and face to amp up her literal glow for the camera.
What’s interesting is how the enduring iconography comes from trends that were as much the result of cultural changes as they were responses to practical scientific and technological advances. For example, by the time of the cultural shift of the 1960s Youthquake, the more rebellious rock-chick look was born out of attitude – relaxed, golden and a little dishevelled, embodied by celebrities like Anita Pallenberg.
Much of the early, vampy makeup trend is owed to The House of Make-Up, the Los Angeles studio started in 1914 by Polish immigrant, wig maker and cosmetics pioneer Max Factor. In the earliest days of cinema, actors making the transition from vaudeville stage to screen needed guidance for how best to appear under rudimentary camera and soundstage lighting technology.
The association with film stars is almost purely accidental – innovations in cosmetics progressed with the advances in the mass medium of cinema and film technology. Factor’s invention of a non-smearing lipstick formula was responsible for Clara Bow’s famously elongated “cupid’s bow” pout, replacing the “rosebud” style, and it was the invention of liner that enabled Joan Crawford’s lips to be as confidently larger-than-life as the characters she played. I suspect that’s one reason women in the audience of her movies followed suit – they were flooding the workplace to do the jobs of the men gone to war, and asserted a similar empowerment with lipstick.
In film, a swipe of lipstick can be an act of self-assurance. That’s even explicit in some cinema storylines of the era when the sophisticated, elegant look was born. A stark before and after reflects Charlotte Vale’s emotional journey in the 1942 melodrama Now, Voyager, for example. In the role, Bette Davis is a dowdy, hen-pecked heiress emerging from a nervous breakdown; her psychological journey and transformation is denoted through – what else – a makeover.
As modern day celebrity makeup artists have shown us, sometimes all you need to signal confidence (in the boardroom, the bedroom and anywhere in between) is a bold red lip.
Photo shoot credits: Makeup by Charlotte Tilbury. Styling by Juliana Schiavinatto for P1m.ca. Hair by Justin German, Pantene/Bang Salon/ P1m.ca. Manicures by Leeanne Colley, TIPS Nail Bar/P1M.ca. Models: Sinead Bovell at NEXT Models Canada. Bree Algra at Anita Norris Models.