Makeup Is a Feminist Act

dreamstime_13221357With all the self-tanners on the market today, it’s hard to believe that women in the 18th and 19th centuries sought white, pale skin—the beauty ideal at the time. But just as we use product to make us look like we returned from a week in Cancun, Victorian women used primitive cosmetics to achieve their version of the perfect skin tone.

Interesting dichotomy, sure, but more interesting still is the political ramifications—or lack thereof—of a few ounces of powder brushed onto the skin of different eras. Victorian women likely weren’t as worried about setting their gender back a decade or two just by going all goth with the face makeup—but does hitting the Nars Laguna powder these days make us traitors to our gender? Some radical feminists have been known to blame patriarchy for coercing women into using beauty products. On the surface, they have a point: After all, anything we’re expected to do that men aren’t is cause for suspicion. But a look at the history of beauty products suggests otherwise:


First—and maybe even foremost—women have always been the pioneers of the cosmetics industry. Names like Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, Madam C.J. Walker, Estee Lauder and Mary Kay Ash are still recognized to this day, nearly a century after starting their own companies. And though entrepreneurs like Hazel Bishop and Annie Turnbo Malone may be less well-known, they were responsible for the development of smudge-free lipstick and African-American-centric cosmetics, respectively—no small feats (and evidence of some great business minds).

But women’s leadership in makeup dates back way further than that—and further than the word “feminism” itself. Though Egyptians were known to use kohl (an early form of eyeliner/mascara) and Native Americans were recognized for their plant-infused formulas meant to fix facial flaws, the majority of cosmetic recipes are traced back to Queen Elizabeth and other women of the Victorian era, according to “Inventing Beauty” author Teresa Riordan. Most were simple homemade creations, made by bringing egg whites and alum to a boil until it thickened. Newspapers chronicled similar recipes, but no one thought to make a business out of such products until Harriet Hubbard Ayer decided to market her homemade brand of beauty cream in the late 19th century, making her one of the first female businesswomen in the industry.

Of course, the industry did host its fair share of male moguls. Max
Factor emerged as the leading Hollywood cosmetics expert in the 1920s and 1930s. But behind every man in the business was a woman’s voice: T.L. Williams—the man who created the first modern form of Maybelline mascara—was inspired by his sister Mabel’s makeup techniques.


Widespread criticism of makeup existed as far back as the early 1600s, when young women would mix household products to create rouges and lip colors. Puritan Thomas Tuke, for one, wrote a discourse in 1616 condemning makeup for creating a “false face.” When cosmetics use popularized in the 19th Century, many continued to see makeup purely as a mask for women’s sins and vices. As author Kathy Peiss writes in her book, “Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture,” moralists felt these women “invoked Jezebel.” And for quite some time, prostitutes were the only women to brave a “painted face.” But with the female oppression of the 1800s came a sexual awakening, prompting many assertive women to wear cosmetics to enhance their sexuality and individuality.

Much to the chagrin of traditionalists, women began to promote their independence through rouges and lipsticks, bucking the homemaker stereotype in favor of dancing, city life and fashion. Though they continued to live the chaste life expected of them, women began to define their individuality through made-up facades that seemed to reflect a newfound sexual yearning.

But men feared women’s new sense of identity, believing that such attention to makeup and beauty was only a cover-up for their desire to “unsex” themselves and demand equality, according to Peiss. Women who used cosmetics were viewed as rebellious, uncontrollable and dangerous.

It was only a matter of time before lipsticks and rouges made their way into the workplace. Women who predated Rosie the Riveter were indeed some of the first to shamelessly display their cosmetics use. Peiss writes, “Moving into public life, they staked a claim to public attention, demanded that others look. This was not a fashion dictated by Parisian, or other authorities, but a new mode of feminine self-presentation, a tiny yet resonant sign of a larger cultural contest over women’s identity.”

Not surprisingly, cosmetics thus infuriated a misogynistic early 20th Century society that found makeup use insulting and deceiving. According to Riordan, a 1936 Vogue survey of men found that nearly 100 percent of respondents disapproved of noticeable makeup.

But women continued to ignore their husbands’ and fathers’ requests. Two years later, Volupte introduced two new lipstick shades to American women, labeled “Lady” and “Hussy.” “Lady” was marketed toward women who prefer lighter shades and “quiet, smart clothes and tiny strands of pearls,” while “Hussy” was developed for women who wear dark shades and “like to be just a little bit shocking,” according to Mademoiselle magazine in 1936. “Hussy” outsold “Lady” five to one.

As the golden age of Hollywood began to emerge in the 1930s, however, some widespread opinions regarding cosmetics began to change. The success of Hollywood’s heavily made-up stars led society to realize the marketability of makeup. With an increased commercialization of products came an acceptance of cosmetics among those who once deemed them brazen and shameful. Beauty writer Nell Vinick wrote that cosmetics were no longer tied to morality, or the lack thereof, and were “merely symbols of the social revolution that has gone on; the spiritual and mental forces that women have used to break away from conventions and to forward the cause of women’s freedom.”


Some may wonder why men never caught onto such trends, choosing instead to go completely au naturale. After all, a look back at centuries-old paintings shows women and men alike caked with powder and lip color. But it wasn’t long after the United States achieved independence that men began to assert their masculinity by ridding themselves of cosmetics. This change in attitude traces back to the most curious of places—the White House itself. Several decades after Ben Franklin ditched his wig and thus the “effete affections of their continental counterparts” in what’s labeled the “Great Masculine Renunciation,” the 1830s saw a sharp decline in product sales to men after presidential nominee Charles Ogle ridiculed current president Martin Van Buren for using various creams, labeling him effeminate. Soon men began to dodge makeup faster than commitment.

Not that there wasn’t any demand for men-centric cosmetics. In 1918, Cutex produced ads complete with coupons for free samples of its manicure products. Ten percent of respondents who requested samples were men. These men, however, never received their swag: Cutex employees intentionally threw out their requests. And in 1918, a journal named Toilet Requisites suggested that beauty-based businesses market products tailor-made for men, only to be laughed off because of society’s inflexible stereotypes.

But just before the dawn of the new century came a new man who seemed to finally start turning the tide back: the metrosexual. Gay culture took off, and straight men found themselves mimicking fashion trends once reserved for homosexuals—namely creams, colognes, and hair products. But, yes, in some cases, even makeup.

But who can we thank for men’s newfound attention to looking better, dressing better and—let’s face it—smelling better? You got it: women. A 1986 survey in Gentleman’s Quarterly found that men developed a “more polished appearance” after noticing the refined looks of their female counterparts in the workplace.

So why not celebrate these innate refined tastes of ours by opening our cosmetic bags and embracing our inner make-up artist? Who knows? Maybe soon the words lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, bronzer, and mascara will conjure up feelings of empowerment. It certainly did for our sisters decades—and even centuries—back.

– Kate Ward