First of all, I’m old. This history will tell you that. If this offends you, fuck off. Sorry I can’t be nice about ageism, but I can’t. It’s your problem, not mine.
I was considered too young to wear makeup until about 1970. Actually back in the 1960’s, 16 was considered the proper age to start wearing makeup. I was a bit younger than that in 1970, but standards were already relaxing.
Things went in decades back then; in the 2000’s the decades have blurred as things have gone from merely bad to downright scary in the world. The ’50’s featured an elegantly groomed, poised and proper look, which morphed in the ’60’s into heavy eye makeup, pale lips, usually pale cheeks (of course I’m talking about whites here; other races were not catered to), cakey “pancake” foundation or else liquid foundation that was smelly, runny, and streaky. It was all topped off by impossibly dried-out, poufed-up hair.
It was a decade that ruined a lot of complexions. Actually, any decade before the 1980’s was like that. If makeup contains a lot of questionable ingredients now, it was far worse in the past. Allergic reactions were rampant (for example, I could not wear eyeshadow until about 30 years ago because the common ingredients used before then were so irritating), leading to the rise of Almay, a “hypoallergenic” line of cosmetics. Proving that the problem started far earlier than that, think of the story of the Physicians Formula line, which is a company started in the 1930’s by an allergist.
Permanent damage to skin, usually in the form of makeup-induced acne scars, was not unheard of. You don’t hear much about that anymore — in fact, there are several young, acne-covered beauty vloggers on YouTube who are absolutely piling foundation on their faces, thinking only of coverage and having little fear of consequences — but it was very common in the late 20th century. I remember one girl I was in high school with; a dermatologist actually told her to start using Max Factor’s Pan-Stik foundation because it was the least likely to aggravate acne. That’s how much trouble foundations caused in those days — there was literally one foundation recommended by a doctor, and it was only a marginal endorsement.
During the 1970’s came the dawn of actual natural cosmetics, but they were generally awful. Nowadays, of course, it’s quite a different story; the rise of mineral foundations seemed to launch the now-incredible success of truly natural makeup. Some makeup is even touted as being good for your skin. This was something you never heard in the past. In the 1970’s, most of what was marketed as “natural” was anything but — simply because the true natural stuff was impossible to use.
I remember one soap product during this period that had ads featuring a photo of a relentlessly natural young beauty with long straight dark hair, dressed in blue jeans and a macrame top, sitting under a tree in an open field musing, “I don’t have time to be beautiful.” (Okay, that’s a weird statement, but don’t think about it too hard.) So all she used, allegedly, was this oh-so-natural soap. I tried it and it dried out my skin so bad that it was flaking for weeks.
As I said, that was the problem with “natural” in those days: it sucked. And so it morphed into a situation where, as one of my high school friends put it, “everything natural has (synthetic) chemicals.” And indeed, that was the case. If you doubt it, Herbal Essence shampoo still exists. Check it out; it is from that era. It is nowadays a bit more natural than it was. Back in the day it was nothing but sodium laureth sulfate and artificial “herbal” fragrance.
There was only one mass-marketed, truly natural product that I remember in the 1970’s — Indian Earth, which came in a tiny pottery jar. It was and is (it’s still on the market) what we now call a “bronzer.” At the time it was touted as an all-around makeup (it still is) — cheeks, eyes, lips — that was magically the right color for everyone because it was a naturally mined mineral. It first came out in a brown-red color (and later in a pink color, which I never tried, and which now seems to have been discontinued). I tried to use the original version as a blusher and ended up with what looked like iron burns on my cheeks. This makeup was just too pigmented and most of us didn’t understand how to use it. Or maybe drag queens did and the rest of us didn’t; certainly someone was using this stuff and continued to, or else it would never have lasted over 40 years on the market.
Anyway, the beginning of the claim of “natural” in relation to cosmetics started during the early 1970’s as a hangover from the hippie era (which effectively ended in 1969, not in the 1970’s as so many people mistakenly believe today). It’s not well-remembered now, but there was a precious moment in the very early 1970’s where mournful acoustic singer-songwriters ruled the airwaves, kids demonstrated against the Vietnam War, there was Watergate, The Gap started selling Levi’s by the ton, and obvious makeup was nearly taboo as it just wasn’t “natural.” This was not true hippie life, this was the beginning of the monetization of a corporate impression of hippie life.
Of course the “natural” look didn’t come without lots of effort, and as I detailed above the products used were never natural because natural cosmetics were pretty awful in those days. Major makeup manufacturers were selling little pots of sticky petroleum goo as lip gloss (a new concept then, even though Hollywood film stars had long put Vaseline on their lips to make them shine), and Bonne Bell had their gel cheek colors and various other gel products, made of who-knows-what (probably petroleum based, whatever it was), and there were lots of pale flesh-toned eyeshadows as well as white, all matte and all threatening to make the eyes itch (at least in my case). As I remember, the heavy eyeliner of the recent past abruptly vanished and eyeliner wasn’t worn at all for many years except by high school “greaser girls” and fading ’60’s beauties who refused to change their style. Blue eyeshadow, a staple of the ’60’s, was suddenly considered to be in bad taste (I still carry this prejudice with me today). The false eyelashes that no one could do without in the 1960’s nearly went extinct. And all of this happened in a flash.
I don’t know what swept the ensuing, short-lived faux-natural era away, but by the mid-70’s we were accosted with a corporate takeover of music. The most obvious symptom of this was a parade of fake trends: we had glam rock, disco, and finally, around 1980, punk forced on us in rapid succession. This was the 1970’s most people think of (in fact, most people mix hippies — who were extinct by the early 1970’s — right in with disco for some reason). Unnaturalness became the norm; the era was marked by glitter and paint. I guess it had the potential to sell more stuff than faux natural did.
Then came the 1980’s where we were all making up (blush! LOTS of blush! and so much smoke around the eyes it looked like you hadn’t slept in weeks! Gigantic, frizzy, dried-out hair!) and over-dressing (shoulder pads! miniskirts!) for the office. Everyone lived at the office, and universities downgraded into vocational-training centers. If you weren’t studying “business” in some form or fashion, you were told you were wasting your time.
And then the 1990’s…I still don’t know what happened then. Goth? Deep regret for having burned one’s hair off at the roots with a blow dryer and curling iron during the 1980’s? We were accosted with tales of poor, put-upon Generation X, or Generation Y, or whatever the hell generation it was at that point. (The problem with this is that we’re now hearing the exact same stories about “the millennials,” a supposed generation that started out including only the kids born from 2000 on, but now stretches all the way back into the 1980’s. As for myself, for many years I was not a baby boomer; I was born too late. Then all of a sudden I was a baby boomer, and everyone hated us because we had ruined the lives of Generation X, Y or the Millennials. It’s bullshit, but what can you do.)
And then came 2000, and things got blurred. In terms of makeup, all I can say is that we’ve drifted back toward 1960’s overkill, late-1970’s theatrics, and 1980’s bourgeois glam . But mostly it’s the 1960’s we seem to be recalling now, with the addition of a lot of contour products that didn’t exist back then except in theatrical makeup, as well as strong lip colors. In fact, the only new thing is that the line between everyday makeup and theatrical makeup is fading, far more than it did briefly in the late 1970’s.
As for me, I finally did start wearing makeup on a semi-regular basis in the late 1980’s, if only because I finally could start wearing makeup at that point. Products had advanced to the point where there were actually some choices (outside of Almay and Physicians Formula, whose products I tended not to like) that would not cause irritation, itching, or acne.
Where am I at now? I’ve never gotten into makeup overkill. I limit it to BB cream, mascara, concealer (used as eyeshadow), eyebrow mascara, and a strongly-colored lipstick (think older women should limit themselves to pale pinks and apricots? FU). I buy mostly mass-market, truly natural products and am usually very happy with them. There was a time I never would have believed I’d be able to say that.
And what is my prediction for the future? Don’t know. Will makeup survive? Yes, because it’s slowly losing its gender. I’d say if it were limited to use by women, it would eventually disappear. But now that increasing numbers of men are openly using it, it may stick around for a while.
We’re edging toward 2020, but things aren’t quite going in decades anymore. The only sure thing is that we’ve run out of new ways to paint our faces. The future will be likely be nothing but repeats, but probably without the acne.