The Creativity of Crimson Tubes: Can Make-up Be Considered Art?

Sometimes when I think about wearing makeup, it can seem so strange. Am I alone in this? What if the cultural norm prescribed bare faces? Or to wear a green streak across our foreheads? Would we follow those norms? Would it change what we think about makeup right now?


To Elizabeth Taylor, America’s sweetheart persona, beautification is external, “I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can’t possess radiance, you can only admire it.” Her magenta painted lips and ebony ink eye lines became as much of her identity as her charm, though.

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Cleopatra announced her femininity with charcoal winged curves, bordering her eyes with craftsmanship and ingenuity to showcase herself. Interestingly enough, when she reigned over Egypt, men at the time also dipped into the kohl bowls, wearing makeup like their counterparts. Lisa Eldridge unravels the mystery of black makeup in her book, FacePaint, “Georgie O’Keeffe once said, ‘There’s something about black. You feel hidden away in it.’ Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to black eye paint which dramatically defines, styles, and emboldens a face.”

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Audrey Hepburn no doubt comes to mind when thinking of classic sophistication displayed through cosmetic choice. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s look inspires trends of elegance and all things chic. In other parts of the world…


“There is no western equivalent for a geisha – they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.”  – Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World 


I’ve always admired the way Pakistani brides express their artistry in makeup through symbolism.


Science tells us two different stories (no surprise here) for the reason we wear cosmetics.

Social psychologists and anthropologists press the play button for the idea that makeup is culturally driven & defined. Essentially, they say you play the game even if you don’t wear makeup. Because everyone around you in society is wearing makeup, you are making just as much a choice to not participate and this could potentially say something about you (see here if you are interested in more details of these differences). If beauty is defined as powerful or intellectual, than your choice has consequences. Likewise, if people designate makeup as petty or shallow, your choice will mean something. Beauty also defines itself through makeup symbolism, giving cultural significance as it paints the beauty of each unique community (think african tribal body art or native american face painting).

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Other research psychologists & biologists crank up the music when we start talking about our genetic tendencies to wear and respond to youth and health. Crimson tubes of lipstick exaggerate the natural hue we already have, increasing levels of attraction. Foundation provides flawless evenness (skin pigmentation homogeneity), found in the active and healthy. Don’t forget eyes – darkening the area around them intensifies bilateral, facial symmetry. This I found really interesting: why do we observe throughout time the common practice of darkening the eyes and lips? Why not the nose and chin? Why are they darkened and not lightened? Here’s why: females naturally have darker eyes and lips, especially in comparison to men, so to further enhance this contrast, further enhances femininity. Another surprising find – we are attracted to averageness: “proximity to the population average” – which seems a little counterintuitive because when I apply my makeup on in the morning, I feel unique, but according to the averageness rule, I am putting on a sort of social uniform.*

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But is makeup just another way of hiding who we really are? Is the fleeting confidence booster worth it? “Makeup won’t help the woman who feels like it’s an obligation.” If wearing make-up causes emotional labor, Nancy Etcoff, research psychologist, illustrates that any benefit or “confidence booster” is offset. When women do not feel objectified, but desire to wear make-up, than they feel more assertive. My week sans makeup exemplified this exactly in the way of mindfulness & confidence – it’s not the act itself of wearing make-up or not, it is the reason fueling it.


So, here’s my question: Is it completely vain to wear makeup or can we consider portions of it art, a creative expression?

What do you think? Is make-up simply a way to hide who we are or present ourselves better than we actually are? Or is it possible to lie on the opposite end of the spectrum, in the domain of fine art? When does it tread the line between being a gift of creativity and becoming an idol?

p.s. check out Lisa Eldridge’s video on the history of makeup – it’s worth it…

* side note: The social uniform can be defined in one of two ways. Scientists talk about the “beautification” category – meaning makeup’s purpose is for enhancement, but is not meant to affect your social status. “Signification,” in contrast, is the type of group who pulls out the rouge pot to change their standing in society – the makeup itself is like a sign to stand for something else, a “visual representation of identity,” if you will. The best illustrations of this type are things to indicate marital status or monumental life events. Wedding gowns, jewelry, hairstyle, and tattoos likewise fall into this category – they may beautify you, but their first purpose is to signify something. If the lines between these two categories seems to be a bit blurry, just remember that the concrete distinction between them is each category’s initial motivation for using makeup: beautification directly enhances natural beauty and signification symbolizes as a function of identity.

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