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“The Art of the Second Skin”, by Nicole Clinton

The Art of the Second SkinNicole Clinton examines the perception of makeup and how it affects our use of the medium in an essay written for Fashion Philosophy.


The mentality surrounding makeup and the reasons behind why it is worn are extremely multifaceted. How we view makeup personally, as an individual, or collectively, as a particular group or society, is significant in how we employ the medium and in our consciousness of our decision to create a given look. While a cloud of misconceptions is known to follow it, makeup plays a lead role in style, creative expression, and self-image. We’ll be exploring whether this misunderstood medium belongs to the realm of fashion, body or art and question the relevance of its criticisms.

Makeup could be viewed as an extension of fashion and thus as an external entity that we add to our natural form. If it is perceived from this angle, then yes, it is an artificial object by nature (in the same way that a dress or jacket may be) but this does not necessarily mean that it is artificial in spirit. When makeup is employed as an instrument of style to complement an overall look, it becomes another part of dressing ourselves. It acts as a mask that we place upon our face, in the same way that we place a coat upon our back. The general style that we favour and choose to exhibit exemplifies the kind of character that we are or that we want to be seen as. Therefore, by operating as a fashion gadget, makeup becomes a tool of characterisation. The importance of makeup and costume in performance as a character illustration device displays the significant role that it plays in everyday life. If reality is the stage on which we act out our daily lives, then our style is the silent, visual indicator that implies our nature to our observing audience.

However, the idea of makeup as a fashion utensil does not just work on a personal level; there is an additional communal aspect. Our ability to denote a particular era from a makeup look further insinuates its bond with clothing. The makeup affiliated with a specific historical decade stems from the general style of the period. For example, the hourglass silhouette or full skirt of the 1940s and 1950s is combined with a strong red lip; the 1920s flapper dress is worn in conjunction with dark eyes and a bow lip; and the 1960s geometric, A-line style is matched with a winged, monochrome eye and nude lip. The 1980s is rather unique as its associated makeup look is explicitly interwoven with its key fashion image by also representing the social ideology of the era. The creed of materialism that inspired the Western World, in the decade when Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko preached that “greed is good”, was reflected in the excessive style. Bright, bold colours and patterns and oversize tailoring coordinated with an amalgamation of vibrant eye-shadows, extreme blush and dramatic lips mirrored the “more is more” mantra. Although from a visual perspective it may seem over-the-top, from a psychological one, this look exemplified wealth and possession by allowing people to simultaneously show off all of the clothes and makeup that they could afford and asserted supremacy with its overpowering appearance.

The question of consciousness is rather complex when a makeup look is viewed as a fashion accessory as it is intertwined in both the individual and communal elements of taste. The decision to apply makeup so as to appear in a certain way and to complement our look can be either conscious or subconscious, depending on our approach to our style and our attention to fashion. If we are aware of a makeup look’s effect on our image and we choose it because it goes with our specific style, then it is a conscious decision. But if the face that we wear follows the current trend simply because that is what is ‘in’, then it is rather subconscious; the conscious part of this approach is to be contemporary, to attain approval, to imitate the present image of beauty; the decision to wear this look instead of another is subconscious because you are not aware of why you are actually using this product from a personal perspective. For example, if a smoky eye is the trend that everyone is donning, then the conscious part is to be like the crowd whereas wearing the smoky eye is subconscious, coincidental.

Laoise McGinn, the up-and-coming makeup artist that I spoke to for a professional opinion on the medium, finds this particularly relevant in her field today. With celebrity MUA’s and reality TV stars, such as the Kardashian’s, exposing and promoting enhancement products that were formally secret tricks of the trade, cosmetic crazes are affecting people’s subconscious makeup application. She explains “people show you a picture of someone because they are wearing the trends but they are not aware that even if you apply the exact same products, in the exact same way, it will turn out differently because they don’t have the same type of face as the person in the photo. People aren’t thinking about the point of applying certain products, they’re just doing it because it’s all the rage”. She gives the example of the contouring obsession to illustrate her point. “I see girls with perfect cheekbones contouring and I think: why are you contouring when you already have what the process is designed to create? It’s clear they don’t understand the logic behind the practice.”

In this way, makeup fads can be compared to a fashion trend that is subliminally accepted because it is so omnipresent that it seems like the only option. It breeds a taste that is dependent on what is available to you and not on what you like.

Makeup’s capacity to be a medium of creative expression, with or without the support of fashion, fuels the argument that it is also a credible artform. When applying makeup, the face is akin to a painter’s blank canvas or a writer’s empty page; it is bare but ready to be decorated with the artist’s vision. This cosmetic paint can be used to produce an artistic statement.

Striking, or rather flamboyant, makeup garners an artistic reputation for the medium as it not only visually conveys creative skill but also performs like other imaginative media by challenging certain ideals or notions. Women who wear experimental makeup are questioning the medium’s perceived correlation with ‘beauty’ and testing our understanding that attractiveness can veer off the path of convention. It is often used as a method to illustrate their interests, beliefs, mood, attitude towards social acceptance or membership to a particular cultural movement.

I asked McGinn, who likes to sport “avant-garde looks” on her own time, if she finds that the public are judgemental or wary about experimental makeup today. She believes that attitudes seem to be changing towards such elaborateness due to the growing availability of certain brands, but fear still exists: “People are definitely becoming more open to artistic makeup and I think this has to do with brands like Inglot developing a mainstream fanbase in recent years. They are normalising colours that would have formally intimidated people. That said, I think that while people are certainly appreciating alternative makeup from afar, many are afraid to try it themselves”.

Exaggerated makeup is renowned for its gender-neutrality as it is the type of look that we associate with a selection of audacious, well-known male figures from the past. Stars like David Bowie, and Boy George, amongst others, incorporated makeup into their image and exploited its extraordinariness to build a definitive public persona. The costumesque makeup that they exhibited was so blatantly extravagant that it could not be viewed as an attempt to improve their features (as per the supposed purpose of women’s cosmetics) but rather, as a purely artistic utilisation of the medium. They were not only taking advantage of the visually arresting aesthetic to produce fashion art, but the fact that they were choosing to wear makeup at all made the very act into art by unashamedly confronting tradition. Men wearing makeup is considered an unnatural action plainly by being unconventional. It is this sense of innovation that lends it the status of art.

Makeup, as a form of creative expression, can embody a response to other art forms or appear as a physical manifestation of mood. In the same way that a composer fits a score to a film scene or a music video is paired with a song; makeup can employ another medium as its muse. McGinn explored this notion for her blog, ‘Just the McGinning’, by setting herself the challenge of creating a different look inspired by each of the tracks on Beyoncé’s latest album Lemonade. Influenced by the lyrics, themes and general mood of each song, she produced looks that varied from everyday wearable, to high fashion, to face paint, to full blown special effects. Her original exposition highlights how makeup can be an inspired artform and not just a means for making someone ‘attractive.

Furthermore, makeup’s standing as a visual implication of mood stretches way back in popular culture. Cinema provides us with examples of makeup reflecting inner feelings. A substantial portion of visionary director Tim Burton’s films, such as Edward Scissorhands,, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, exploit pale makeup with dark, sunken eyes to convey feelings of marginalisation or angst. The Mad Hatter character in Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ adaptation, illustrates this technique most explicitly as the colours and style of his makeup alter depending on his mood, with CGI effects assisting the transition.

When we apply makeup as a means of artistic communication, we must be doing so consciously as we are aware of and in control of how our makeup is crafted to mirror what we feel or the statement that we wish to make. You must understand the reasons behind and effects of the makeup look that you create in order to utilise the medium to visually personify something intangible like an emotion, inspiration or thought.

Alternatively, if we do not view makeup as an accessory added to serve fashion or as an instrument of creative representation, then maybe we see it as a psychological part of our self-image or identity. If the made-up face becomes normal to us and our bare face abnormal, then the made-up face is like our second skin (and second only because it goes over the bare face, not to denote inferiority).

Of course, in essence, cosmetics are synthetic artifacts and are thus technically unnatural. But if we consider their effects when applied, then the overall visual that we employ them to generate should not necessarily be seen as unnatural if it is a concrete ingredient of our routine look. For some, it is strange to be observed without their particular makeup look simply due to the rarity of the occasion. This reliance on makeup in order to feel like oneself is more a reflex than a sign of insecurity. Generally, the indication that someone has this relationship with the medium is if they do their face practically the same every day. Their makeup application is a totally subconscious impulse. It does not matter where they are going or what they are doing; it is just second nature to them.

However, possessing this natural attachment to makeup does not automatically imply that one lacks imagination with their look. Someone could be wearing black lipstick every day for 30 years and while this may appear to be experimentalism due to its aesthetic (and probably did fall under this category initially), it is an intuitive routine at this stage.

In this instance, a personalised makeup look exists within someone’s comfort zone and to strip them of this specific look would deplete their confidence. They would be apprehensive; not because they would feel unattractive without it – they may be equally anxious if someone else made up their face in a different way – but rather, because they would not recognise themselves. Laoise witnesses this firsthand in her profession: “There are girls who get their makeup done and it’s flawless but they don’t like it, simply because it’s not how they’re used to doing it”. She elaborates, acknowledging that makeup can be bonded with one’s sense of self and refers to her own perspective: “I personally don’t care whether people see me without makeup or not. But I do feel that I’m not me in my ‘true form’ without it on, even though I know that that’s technically not my ‘true form’…”. The paradox at the heart of her statement epitomises the argument that makeup can be a second skin, as the unnatural can become natural through routine and altered perception.

Whilst this attitude to makeup constitutes an undoubtedly subconscious approach to application, occasions where the person uses makeup according to one of the previously discussed outlooks may also present themselves. Thus, the consciousness needed to utilise makeup as a fashion tool or as a means of creative expression would come into play to override their normal, reflex look, as the person would be on-purposefully creating a style that they recognise as being a departure from their ‘second skin’.

Regardless of the mentality we correlate with makeup, the medium often finds itself unjustly persecuted by a series of common misconceptions. The condemnation of superficiality in modern society has been blown up to ridiculous proportion with the main reason behind its accused evil being its adversary to naturalism. The term ‘natural’ is revered as superior and more moral; but why exactly is it more honourable to appear organic than treated or altered? The presumption of the connection between wearing makeup, wanting to look good for other people and insecurity is so established that it seems ludicrous for me to suggest otherwise. But we fail to question where this association came from (although the cosmetic industry’s role cannot be ignored); and why the desire to visually better yourself is so frowned upon anyway.

Nevertheless, makeup’s perceived affiliation with ‘beauty’ or the quest for ‘perfection’ has shrouded its merits in a veil of this controversial notion of ‘falseness‘. However, as the preceding paragraphs of this article demonstrate; achieving so-called ‘beauty ideals’ is seldom the overriding reason that we exploit the medium’s abilities. If we wear makeup for fashion purposes to complement our overall style, then makeup is a component of our projected character. If we employ it as a means through which we express ourselves, then it is art. And if it is a part of our routine and recognition of self, then it becomes an element of identity.

Rather ironically, it is those who maintain a strong, habitual relationship with makeup who are most indifferent to the beauty industry’s shallowness. In actuality, the cosmetic companies’ play on insecurities or creation of hang-ups mostly affects the anti-makeup crusaders, by angering them, and those who are uncertain of their attitude towards the medium, by feeding them an image for replication.

If we are to criticise makeup for superficiality then it raises a whole host of contradictions about what we consider false. For example: creating art that is detached from our body is not shallow so why is creating art on it? And we are born naked; so is it not unnatural to cover ourselves with clothing?

Feminism has a somewhat temperamental relationship with makeup. A lot of radical feminists believe that makeup negatively affects the fight for equal rights. They believe that wearing it is succumbing to the image that a male-dominated society has prescribed for women. However, this is based on a presumption that makeup is worn to appear attractive to the opposite sex and such an opinion is actually very insulting to female intelligence and contradicts the respect for women that feminism reflects. By taking this approach, aren’t feminists imitating the men whose demeaning attitude towards women’s aptitude they despise? Should women not have the equal right to decide how they want to look? This predetermination based on a narrow-minded view of why women choose to style themselves a certain way is just as prejudiced as a man who assumes that a woman is weaker, less intelligent, and less capable simply because of her sex. Thus, this generalisation of the intention behind wearing makeup is more dangerous to female empowerment than makeup actually is.

The false impression of her vocation that McGinn deems most irritating leads on from this feminist misconception. She refers to the presumed correspondence between makeup and reduced intelligence. “People assume that you’re some kind of a bimbo because you’re into makeup. It angers me so much because it is totally unfounded”. She continues; “I find that women are much worse when it comes to expressing this kind of attitude. So-called intelligent women demean makeup because there’s this notion that they have to be more masculine to be intellectual”. Ironically, these women are feeding the gender-stereotypes that they resent.

Therefore, while makeup is definitely not a necessity to life and if it had not been invented, the human race would still have survived, ignorant of its merits. However, it was invented. And when something so versatile is presented to us, we interpret it in differing ways. Whether it is perceived as an extension of fashion, artistic expression, a second skin or as a superficial, narcissistic, brainless product of sexism; there is no doubt that makeup is a complex issue and our relationship with it is tied to our view of ourselves and society.


Written by Nicole Clinton for Fashion Philosophy Issue 3.
Featuring an archival image, unknown author.

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