Makeup is Not a Mask, but a Tool for Self-Expression
No longer focused on hiding “flaws,” makeup now celebrates artistic expression.
In 1920, Max Factor coined the term “make-up,” which was derived from the phrase “to make up (one’s) face.” The verb’s usage as a noun originated in the theatre, and many considered it vulgar. One-hundred years later, the cosmetics industry fully embraces the theatrical excess of makeup. Credit also goes to the social media-savvy artists who have forged a maximalist, flamboyant, and gender-fluid idea of beauty, where cosmetics are no longer meant to “improve” whoever wears them, but instead become tools akin to a painter’s palette. Even Vogue, hardly eager to cover avant-garde subcultures in favor of high-end fashion and luxury, now has a video series titled Extreme Beauty.
In honor of No-Makeup Day (Apr. 26), we are exploring the reconsidered role of cosmetics and what they mean to their wearers. To today’s new wave of beauty artists, makeup is not a mask to hide beneath — instead, these innovators are using beauty products to express their personality, skill, and artistry.
Dolls and monsters
Defined subcultures like the “living dolls” and “genderless monsters” are some of the most visible groups of artists and performers who view their bodies as an artistic medium. Using their makeup skills, they transform themselves into living works of art. These looks are not a mask in the sense that they provide concealment, but are a radical and purposeful means of self-expression.
“Living dolls” style themselves to resemble dolls and toys, either playing on convention or playing it up.
“Genderless monsters,” like “living dolls,” often work familiar concepts into their transformations, but go for a more beast than human being look — with an emphasis on busting gender norms. Hungry, a Berlin-based artist who describes their art as “distorted drag,” aims for a look they describe as “local bug lady meets successful 80s business woman.” Their artistic style combines arthropod-like prosthetic facial sculptures with sleek, modern outfits that have been painted or otherwise altered.
The use of larger prosthetic pieces in conjunction with makeup artistry is on the rise as well – and in high fashion too. Gucci’s AW 2018 collection had models cradle a replica of their own head — severed — in their arms, or sport prosthetic horns or a third eye. But most creators are independent, like Instagram duo @matieresfecales — Steven Raj Bhaskaran and Hannah Rose Dalton — who are known for their hyperrealistic prosthetics that turn them into merfolk or alien-like creatures with heels growing from their own flesh. (And yes, these wearable works are available for purchase; currently, they retail for $10,000, but a lower-budget version might be on the way.)
As augmented-reality tools become increasingly accessible, there is now an established cohort of cyber artists who make face filters their trademark.
These filter creators are no longer focused on smoothing out blemishes or making themselves or their users more conventionally attractive. Shimmer and neon play the lion’s share. Beauty3000 is a prime example. Created by Johanna Jaskowska, it coats one’s face with a shimmery and opalescent film. Other filters digitally target a specific aspect of one’s body. Paige Piskin, who has (as of March 2020) made 60 filters, is mainly known for creating “Lil Icey Eyes,” which lightens a user’s irises so that they resemble the Wights in the hit show “Game of Thrones.” On the other end of the spectrum, Dazed magazine used dysmorphic AI filters for their Feb. 2019 issue, which featured images of Kylie Jenner with half of her fully made-up face molten and distorted.
Conversely, there is now a tendency to recreate these filters “IRL” (in real life) and make the digital tangible. Adoptees of this trend are wearing bold glitters, stickers, and other add-ons that, aesthetically, have their origins in Instagram or TikTok filters. There is also the “piercing challenge,” where users get a real-life version of whatever (filter-generated) piercing they randomly land on (#piercingchallenge has 98 million hashtags on TikTok to date).
Companies with commercially available products have started working the “IRL filter” idea into their aesthetic, too, pairing function with fashion. Starface, for example, is a beauty startup that makes pimple-fighting patches in fun shapes that are styled after an emoji aesthetic.
Cosmetics for all
Gender is no longer a barrier for cosmetics users, and the use of makeup to showcase one’s own colors is now far less constricted based on gender perceptions. While this has been common practice in artistic communities for a while, brands are beginning to take notice, and the descriptors “beyond the binary,” “gender fluid,” and “gender neutral” are now quite common in the commercial makeup industry.
Jeffree Star Cosmetics, founded by the eponymous makeup artist, hires models of all genders, and his famed eye shadow palette “Androgyny” was named after what Jeffree refers to as his “theme of life.” His line goes for a highly saturated, matte look, complemented by frost-like highlighters.
In a similar fashion, Fluide, whose tagline is “Makeup for Everyone,” produces shimmery glitter, favoring bright colors and highly pigmented lip products. Adveket, a “beyond binary” skincare and beauty brand, has a large range of liners, lipsticks, lip crayons, and lip glosses in an expansive palette of nudes, reds, and pinks. The trend is international — LAKA, launched in 2018, is the first-ever gender-neutral Korean makeup brand. It focuses on muted tones and minimalist aesthetics and currently has a range of matte tints, blushes, and an eyeshadow palette.
Makeup as celebration
It may seem counterintuitive to celebrate No Makeup Day with displays of full faces, but this idea frames cosmetics as a mandatory, obligatory camouflage. In an era when makeup brands strongly promote a “dewy” and “natural” look, but whose results, however, solely depend on the “natural beauty” of the models used, no makeup is an uneven playing field. The desire to turn one’s face into a work of art for the sake of sheer, unabashed self-expression defies long-held beliefs about beauty standards just as well as no makeup does — perhaps even more so.
For this No Makeup Day, the “no” is not necessarily to abandon the use of cosmetics entirely, but to say “no” to make-up as a chore, disguise, or obligation.