Sunday, 14 August 2016

All the Wrinkled Ladies...

When you are a child the adult world is a very strange place - I'm not sure it gets any less strange with age but that's a different story - and you shape the things you don't understand to fit with the bits you've puzzled out. I know I'm not the only person who muddled up guerilla warfare with Planet of the Apes and as for the really scary old aunt who died of fleabites, I thought being bitten to death by a swarming hoard was a reasonable end given the stings she used to dish out. Eventually I learnt (in public, not lived it down) that phlebitis was an actual thing; I still think my diagnosis was better. It was with great amusement therefore that I learned that I had frequently and inadvertently (as opposed to deliberately and with glee) freaked out my then small daughter with the phrase: "we'll go out in a minute, I just need to put my face on." She's old enough to pay for her own therapy now, besides there may well come a point when a small child looks at her with the same level of confused horror and she'll get to have her own fun.

The point of all this? I like make-up. I've been pimping out my face since I was old enough to beg for a subtle-hued blue eyeshadow - given I was 14 and living in the Lake District the action-packed 10 hours promised by the ad was a bit of a stretch but I could always use the time to practice that naturally highlighted look. Whatever the terrible sight I must have presented with my bruised alien eyes, I was hooked. I like the repetitious ritual of it, I use the time to think to think myself into my day. I like the theatre - the pots and brushes and packaging - and I really like the colours. Not for me the age-appropriate nudes of a Daily Mail hate piece - if I don't go into that long night with glitter on my crepey lids, there will be a haunting. And, trust me, I'll really learn how to take my face on and off.

As anyone who reads these ramblings will know, I am a feminist, always have been and I'm well aware that wearing make-up and feminism has a long history of conflict and confusion. In the early years it was often used as a badge of defiance - the women who wore red lipstick at the New York City Suffrage Rally in 1912 made it a symbol of emancipation at a time when no 'nice girl' wore visible cosmetics. Nowadays, when there is so much pressure on women to conform to social expectations of what it means to look professional or attractive, painting your face can feel even more charged with meaning. It is annoying but understandable that women who are in 'serious' roles can feel they have to dismiss an interest in cosmetics as being somehow trivial and not worthy of them - you can bet that if men in mainstream careers wore it, there wouldn't be a problem. It's a complex issue but humans have always wanted to adorn themselves and, providing we are realistic about what cosmetics can actually achieve, I for one am happy to see the glitter and the lipstick for what it is: an extension of my personality that makes me feel more like me. I'm not sure, however, that's a concept many of the cosmetic companies trying to part me from my cash have actually sussed.

Beauty advertising is ridiculous: offensive at worst, barking mad at best. I swear some mascara adverts should be reported to the RSPCA: nothing short of gluing the fur off a dozen kittens onto your lids would achieve the lash effect promised by most volumising brands and I am increasingly of the opinion that all these models batting their lashes is what's causing this year's latest fashion for gale-force storms. Also let's be honest: only industrial-strength grout is going to really hide your wrinkles past a certain point so your skin achieves that robotic smoothness adored by foundation and I'm not convinced that's a great look, although the new fad or contouring might work with it.

Fads, that's another of the mad things about cosmetics: the adverts have nothing on some of the beauty trends that have been followed in previous centuries. The Ancient Mayans used to drill holes in their teeth and fill them with jade and turquoise stones (presumably spinach wasn't a foodstuff then); a uni-brow was de-rigeur for a while in Ancient Greece, made with goat fur and lampblack if you weren't sufficiently hirsute and the seventeenth century French took the fashion for mouse-hair beauty patches to its extreme by dotting stars and moons all over their faces. All of a sudden, the current vogue for Groucho Marx black eyebrows nestling on skin the colour of builder's tea, rainbow freckles and lip art - this really is a thing apparently, God help anyone who rocks it up here in Glasgow - now seem remarkably normal. And if all this is just a bit too much effort, you could try the 'natural, I wake up like this' look beloved of so many celebrity selfies and achieveable with only 25 products.

So, by using the genius type of word-play that proves I'm an actual writer, I'm going to finish with a celebration of my favourite 'made-up' characters - a segueway you have to admit is even smoother than anything achieved by a 1970s DJ and also less likely to end me up in prison.

My first choice is the fabulous Sophie Fevvers, heroine of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and a woman well-versed with a glitter-laden make-up brush. Sophie develops wings at puberty and, after a variety of dubious adventures, finds fame as an aerialiste. She is six feet two, a peroxide blonde, has adventures from London to Siberia and I have no idea why no one has made a film of her. Someone needs to wave the book at Jennifer Lawrence. Another woman who fits my criteria (strong-willed aka bloody-minded, knows how to rock an individual look, would be great out on the lash - the usual well-thought out list) has to be the wonderful Scarlett O'Hara. Yes, I know she was a spoilt-little madam but she also knew how to make a dress out of the curtains (and to see how mad that actually is, watch Enchanted) and could achieve fabulous cheekbones with a bit of cheek-pinching. Just think how devastating Scarlett would have been with the contents of an Illimasqua make-up box in front of her - Rhett would have been crawling back and begging her to reconsider not pulling the macho stomping routine. Never mind cell phones, a carefully applied streak of blusher is a plot changer.

There's two reasons for my final choice which is Martha from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. First because the character is a fantastically complex creation: a domineering, crude and terrifying exterior wrapped round a frightened, broken and deeply vulnerable spirit. Second because she was played in the film by Elizabeth Taylor, the epitome of made-up glamour with her violet eyes and the genetic mutation that meant she had two rows of eye-lashes. How lucky can one person get - my genetic mutation is child-bearing hips. Taylor gained weight for the part, wore a wig and used cosmetics to make herself look tired and old - make-up she did herself in the same way she did for Cleopatra and all her subsequent films. And she painted that fabulous face on until her dying day - presumably by that point with some assistance so that she didn't end up with her mascara on her lips as I feel will be my palsy-ridden fate. Mind, I'm also expecting to be too daft to care - pretty much my current philosophy.

Whether you're a bare-faced beauty or a make-up bag junkie, I hope you enjoy the face you choose to show to the world - it would be an awful waste of time not to and none of us have enough of that. My only advice if you're going to put the slap on? Never, ever forget to take it off...


  1. Great post. And coincidentally I'm just coming to the end of 'Nights at the Circus'. What a fabulous book and a fabulous character. Would make a wonderful film.

  2. Thank you - I can't believe no one has made it, or Wise Children. Probably not enough men in them!!

  3. I've been sat here nodding my head. Love the way you manipulate those words and especially your thoughts Catherine.
    Thanks for linking #TalkoftheTown


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