THE FIRST TIME I remember ever seeing a man wearing makeup was at a nightclub in midtown Kansas City, Mo., that allowed in under-21s one night a month. It must have been 1991 or ’92; he was out front with his friends, smoking; I, in my favorite blue-and-white star-print maxi dress and thrift store velveteen Mary Janes, was arriving with my brother and his girlfriend.


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Chapter 1: On the rise of strong “oriental” fragrances that reflected the political and cultural landscapes of their time, the 1980s.

Chapter 2: On ’90s-era advances in weaves, wigs and other Black hairstyles that ushered in a new age of self-expression.

Chapter 3: On botanical oils, a simple fact of life in much of the world that, here in the West, began to take on an almost religious aura in the 2000s.

Chapter 4: On men wearing makeup, a practice with a long history, but one that has really taken off in the last decade.


M. was dressed unremarkably, in jeans and a T-shirt, with a necklace on a long leather lariat — an upgraded version of what he might have worn in class. What was different was that he had on makeup: a full face of it, the kind of carefully blended eye shadow, blush and lipstick that a higher-maintenance girl than I might have worn to make herself more visible for a night out. In other words, he wasn’t in drag, or in makeup to be goth or emo, in the way my brother might have drawn black lines around his eyes before going to a concert. Nor was he wearing makeup as we might have for a performance in a high school play, as a way to create a character. He was solidly M., only more so, and surely it is this subtly enhanced, thoroughly confident expression of self that has guaranteed the moment’s placement on my memory’s dust-covered rearmost shelf.

After spotting each other at the club that night, M. and I began trading mixtapes, mostly New Romantic ’80s synth-pop, like early Tears For Fears; late Talk Talk; Echo and the Bunnymen — music that wasn’t quite yet old enough then to be truly retro, but outdated enough to put us in a different, slightly more ridiculous-seeming psychic universe than that of our classmates steeped in arid, hypermasculine, flannel-shirted grunge disaffection. The fact that M. was out wasn’t something I gave much thought to; it was simply another fact about him, like his self-assurance or sandy hair or taste in music. I guess what I mean is that he didn’t try to hide anything, but after seeing him out that night with his friends, I questioned that, too: how much we instinctively withhold parts of ourselves without fully realizing it.

I had plenty of queer classmates, but I don’t remember anyone really talking much about it, nor did I see any of them ever expressing any form of physical affection; those were the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when one spoke of sexual “preferences,” rather than essential, intrinsic identities. I don’t remember anyone bringing it up at all until another classmate — the type James Spader might have played in the John Hughes movies of my high school years — discomfited by my burgeoning friendship with M., remarked to me with quiet venom, “Careful, you never know what you might catch.”

<strong>Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello</strong> shirt, $1,190, and tank top, $350, <a href="https://www.ysl.com/">ysl.com</a>; and model’s own chain. <strong>Urban Decay</strong> 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil in Double Life, $22, <a href="https://www.urbandecay.com/">urbandecay.com</a>; <strong>Pat McGrath Labs</strong> Skin Fetish: Highlighter + Balm Duo in Golden, $48, <a href="https://www.patmcgrath.com/">patmcgrath.com</a>; and <strong>Bumble and Bumble</strong> Curl Reactivator, $28.
Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

That night that I saw M. at the club, I understood something about the selves we present to the world. I saw exactly what brand of courage it took to be honest about oneself and one’s desires in a world that was hostile to them. But I also wondered to what extent the selves we perform are an expression of hidden truths, and to what extent they’re masks to keep us safe.

THE HISTORY OF makeup has always been as much a chronicle of gender norms as it is an archive of beauty standards. Only in roughly the last decade has the stigma against makeup for men begun to fade, and only in the last five years or so has it become commonplace for men to appear in cosmetics ads — such as 30-year-old Manny Gutierrez, known on social media platforms as Manny MUA, who became the first man to star in a Maybelline campaign in 2017, a year after L’Oréal revised its trademark line “Because You’re Worth It” to “Because We’re All Worth It.” Gutierrez, who dropped out of medical school to pursue a career in beauty, is one of a handful of male makeup vloggers turned YouTube stars, which also includes James Charles, Patrick Starrr and Reuben de Maid — all of them emblematic of the changes that were informing the beauty world in the 2010s. In the privacy of his own home, using a ring light and an iPhone camera, Gutierrez showed viewers how to create baroque looks that felt like a sharp detour from the natural, minimalist makeup that dominated the ’90s and early aughts. These videos announced a new, inclusive mood, one that would see makeup as something for everyone, however one might identify. Some of his tutorials offered simple daytime looks, but in general they tended to be more expressionist in their intentions, showcasing color and artistry — a matte burgundy lip here; a gilded lid there — rather than illusion, using the face as a palette for experimentation and play. Today, Gutierrez’s YouTube channel has nearly five million subscribers.

In the decade before beauty vlogging took off, mainstream beauty culture celebrated people such as Britney Spears (that shimmering brow bone), Mariah Carey (that brown lip liner) and Jennifer Lopez (that bronzer and luminizer-enhanced glow) — whose looks and the tips on how to achieve them revolved around a simpler idea of femininity, prioritizing some essentialist notion of natural beauty: the “no makeup makeup” that was still just as superficial and flawed as everything else about celebrity culture. The anatomization of beauty — wanting Beyoncé’s eyes or Angelina Jolie’s lips — was well underway. At the same time, the internet was beginning to alter how makeup culture was disseminated. In 2006, a woman named Adrienne K. Nelson posted what many consider the world’s first makeup tutorial on YouTube with the title “Makeup Lessons — Look Hot in 5 Minutes or Less.” Michelle Phan, often described as one of the first beauty influencers — her YouTube channel featuring makeup tutorials began a year later and continued for a decade, drawing millions of views — was the first to monetize such influence. Phan went on to co-found two successful companies, Ipsy and Em Cosmetics.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

This subworld of beauty felt personal and intimate: By and large, it was dominated by amateurs, not professional makeup artists; not being an expert was seen as a positive. There was a homey, supportive warmth to these early makeup tutorials — think Bob Ross’s public television series, “The Joy of Painting,” but for the era of self-actualization. On its most superficial level, makeup erases scars and blemishes and transforms us into visually improved versions of ourselves, and a great many of the makeup vloggers focused on daily routines and techniques, such as contouring or lash extending. There’s something compellingly optimistic and encouraging about witnessing this sort of metamorphosis; this is why, after all, makeover scenes are a trope of romantic comedies. Over the next decade, as vlogs became more sophisticated, the “how to” scaffolding remained, but it wasn’t always the point: The elasticity of the beauty vlog allowed for it to become increasingly conversational and anecdotal, almost like reality television, but without producers pulling the puppet strings. As your trust in your influencer of choice deepened, you might buy a recommended product or two, though not all devoted beauty vlog subscribers even wear makeup. Viewers tune in every week not just to learn how to glue on lashes but to feel a connection to the vloggers themselves. One falls for the persona, in other words, not really the pedagogy, and there seems to be one for everybody. While Phan’s calm delivery felt almost A.S.M.R.-like, and Gutierrez’s onscreen persona was (and is) assiduously upbeat, drag queens like Trixie Mattel and Miss Fame were likewise starting to draw millions of views, lending a welcome dose of irreverence and self-mockery to the subculture — a few salted caramels on a tray of gummy bears and Jordan almonds.

But all beauty vloggers are inheritors of some kind, drawing from the long tradition of drag whether they know it or not. There, one literally painted the face, blending, sculpting and contouring one’s features, transforming them into what they weren’t (a more slender nose, gravity-defying cheekbones, anime-like eyes). At the same time, drag, too, was starting to find a larger audience outside of its own community. In 1994 — when other beauty ads still featured (white, female) supermodels in their campaigns — MAC Cosmetics appointed the 6-foot-4-inch iconic Black drag queen RuPaul Charles to represent the company for its Viva Glam campaign, raising millions of dollars for H.I.V./AIDS research, and introduced a new generation of makeup wearers to the irreverent side of beauty, one that felt less precious and more achievable, not to mention far more democratic and inclusive.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

It took another decade for much of the culture to catch up. In 2009, Charles launched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on Logo TV, a reality television juggernaut modeled, somewhat subversively, on Tyra Banks’s competitive reality television show, “America’s Next Top Model.” Suddenly, viewers (mostly straight women and gay men) were introduced to the backstage beauty secrets of drag queens and other nightlife performers, who provided spectacular transformations of themselves in front of the camera. (The show has gone on to win 19 Emmys.) The music world was also taking similar cues: In 2008, Stefani Germanotta debuted her album “The Fame,” introducing the world to her alter ego, Lady Gaga, who shamelessly (but joyfully and respectfully) borrowed from the drag world. And two years later, a young singer named Harry Styles appeared in a performance competition on England’s ITV reality show “The X Factor” as a member of a boy band called One Direction. The band didn’t survive the decade, but Styles did, catapulted to stardom in part because of his glamorous way of channeling both Stevie Nicks and Mick Jagger, wearing blouses, nail polish and light touches of makeup and jewelry.

THERE IS OFTEN a dramatic sensibility to drag-influenced makeup, which emphasizes radical transformations. Over the last 10 years, both its performative aspects and its techniques have trickled down to influencers, makeup artists, celebrities and, eventually, even you and me. Furthermore, the dragification of beauty made makeup itself more accessible — no longer was it just a way for women to cheat what time or nature had taken or kept from them; now it was a tool for anyone who wanted to feel better about themselves. Today, men have their pick of cosmetics and skin-care lines to address their needs — from big luxury brands like Tom Ford for Men and Boy de Chanel to largely gender-neutral direct-to-consumer start-ups like Nécessaire and Glossier. Meanwhile, newer cosmetics lines, such as Fenty Beauty and Fluide, which were designed in and for a new era of inclusivity, revealed how much the gender binary had relaxed. (Simultaneously, the fact that humankind comes in an array of skin tones was, at long last, embraced.) In 2013, Marc Jacobs introduced his namesake cosmetics line, featuring some products that were meant to be unisex. Then there’s Jacobs himself, who is fond of posting Instagrams in a full smoky eye or with a fresh pedicure, showing us how makeup can be for the everyday. All the while, the blurring of who is a style icon, and for whom, continues.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

Still, it’s hard to say when, precisely, the taboo of men wearing makeup was shed, or at what moment makeup moved beyond “guyliner” (as seen on the musician Pete Wentz or the actor Jared Leto) and K-pop groups. It seemed that suddenly, people — men, largely — who perhaps were always cosmetically curious, but afraid of appearing effete, were giving it a try. Much of the credit goes to those in the public eye who seem intent on recalibrating the way we see them, asking us to rethink our assumptions about human surfaces — and here I’m thinking of someone like the artist Arthur Jafa, photographed in black lipstick two years ago for this magazine in a fierce play on drag. But to a notable extent, cosmetics’ new mood feels more casual and offhand, less focused on sexiness than on self-improvement: It has become commonplace to hear young men like Troye Sivan or Justin Bieber share their daily grooming routines, unembarrassed by their Clarisonic brush or favorite serum. Straight men of my own generation (X) now have microbladed eyebrows and use high-tech eye cream, happy to participate in the act of self-care. Where I live, in a part of Colorado a mile above sea level, discussions of high-end sunscreen and BB creams know no age or gender.

Paradigm shifts never happen in a political vacuum, of course, and makeup is but one visual indicator of just how much has changed in the way we perceive issues of gender and sexuality. It can be disconcerting to recall that, while running for president in 2008, Obama would go no further than supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, when, by his second inauguration in 2013, he was contextualizing gay rights within a broader history of civil rights, stretching from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall. Not only were gender-nonconforming, queer and trans people increasingly being seen and heard as they gained more rights (the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011; the right to marry for all Americans in 2015) but the looks and styles they had introduced as markers of identity — for escape, for pure fun in the face of discrimination, for self-protection — were being earnestly adopted in the (mostly straight) mainstream culture. Today, it’s apparent in every realm of our visual world that a new kind of fluidity has taken hold, and that old, reductive standards of beauty are hopelessly outmoded. As M. and I knew back when we were swapping mixtapes in high school, we are so much more than the sum of our identity markers.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes
Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

IT’S IRONIC, PERHAPS, that makeup has now become a symbol for a dissolving gender binary when, for much of the 20th century, it was just one more thing that divided the sexes — but arguably, this relaxing might be seen as a return to history, rather than a departure from it. In reality, gender, and the right to adornment, has always run on a continuum; some centuries, it was men’s turn to embellish themselves; other centuries, women’s. When men adorned themselves, however, it wasn’t only in the name of beauty but to express social standing, and even virility. Within this more expansive view of masculinity, ancient Incan and Babylonian soldiers would ritualistically paint their nails before battle; recently, archaeologists in what was once southern Babylonia unearthed a solid gold manicure set, part of a soldier’s combat equipment, dating back to 3200 B.C.

For every culture in history, it seems, there’s been a favored cosmetic: While Egyptian men lined their eyes in an exaggerated cat’s eye with black kohl — and occasionally with a green pigment made from ground malachite — Roman men preferred rouge. Male members of the court of Louis XIV in France painted on beauty marks, while Elizabethan Englishmen powdered their faces with ceruse, a toxic mixture of vinegar and white lead. In the English-speaking world, makeup for both men and women fell out of favor during the reign of Queen Victoria, when she — backed by the Church of England — declared it vulgar, something associated with prostitution. Meanwhile, in America, masculine ideals rarely strayed far from the rugged frontiersman; ceremonial preening and peacocking of any kind had undemocratically decadent or monarchical connotations — except, ironically, in the military, where male vanity is organized into socially acceptable, hierarchical forms: medals and uniforms, not painted nails.

Today, many makeup-curious men, queer or otherwise, trace their interest to a more recent lineage: the music-driven counterculture of the 1970s, when glam rock and punk began re-embracing male makeup. That makeup could be soft and androgynous — think David Bowie, with his celestially iridescent, pink-lidded appearances as Ziggy Stardust — or it could be tough: Lou Reed in black lipstick and kohl. It could be club-kid colorful like Boy George in the 1980s; smoldering and slightly forbidding like Prince; or Kabuki-goth like the Cure’s Robert Smith, who started wearing makeup while playing guitar for Siouxsie and the Banshees. (The look stuck for nearly 40 years, inspiring at least two generations of emo young men to pinch their mom’s eyeliner.) And while performance makeup rarely strove to be pretty or even erotic, exactly, it almost always had something to do with sex — challenging sexual mores, revealing sexual hypocrisy, invoking sexual desire. Gay, bisexual or straight, the musicians wearing it — including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, appearing on the September 1993 cover of the fashion magazine The Face in a floral-print dress and chipped red nail polish — seemed secure in their masculinity, and the performance often bled into life offstage. (“I’m not ashamed to dress ‘like a woman’ because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman,” Iggy Pop famously said in a 2011 book by the photographer Mikael Jansson.) Bowie, who single-handedly did more to normalize skin care and makeup for men than anyone — offstage, he used Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream and Japanese rice powder to eliminate shine — was also genius enough to provide meta-commentary. In his 1972 song “Lady Stardust,” he sings, “People stared at the makeup on his face / Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace / The boy in the bright blue jeans / Jumped up on the stage / Lady Stardust sang his songs / Of darkness and disgrace.”

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

Makeup doesn’t feel quite so transgressive — nor quite so erotically charged — anymore. In our consumerist, identity-obsessed age, it’s become an easy, low-stakes, inexpensive tool that allows everyone to experiment and publicly display the result: a slightly more defined self, an underlined self, a highlighted self, a colored-in self. The mood of beauty vlogs is almost always lighthearted. Which is not to say that the normalizing of makeup isn’t revolutionary in an age in which toxic masculinity — male fragility, in other words — has never felt more combustible and apparent on the national stage. (Donald Trump’s orangey-bronze hue — intended, no doubt, to communicate vim and vigor to his followers, honoring a long tradition of strongmen wearing makeup in order to look more vital — has been attributed to his use of the Swiss company Bronx Colors’ Boosting Hydrating Concealer in Orange, but that’s not information you’d find in a White House press release.) For some, wearing makeup is just one piece of a larger dream of total freedom of self-expression, of transformation and beauty for all. One might wonder to what extent these impulses are somewhat in conflict: Does an embrace of makeup then represent an expansion of beauty norms, as influencers would have us believe, or a flattening of them? This, again, is the paradox inherent in makeup, one that points to a deeply human conundrum, the one we all discover as adolescents: the desire, on one hand, to fit in and, on the other, to stand out — to feel, at long last, liberated from shrunken notions of gender and grossly restrictive social confines.

CONTEMPORARY BEAUTY owes much to drag’s techniques, but also to its deeply subversive nature, which has always employed costume and makeup to unsettle and dispel assumptions about identity using wit, courage and full-coverage foundation. The term “drag queen” — or “queen of drag” — is thought to originate with a Black man named William Dorsey Swann, who was born into slavery in 1858 (he was emancipated in 1863) and became a leading figure of what would later be called the L.G.B.T.Q. community by hosting “balls” (drag parties) in Washington, D.C. When police raided one of these parties on his 30th birthday, he was charged with “keeping a disorderly house” — a euphemism at the time for running a brothel — and sentenced to 10 months in jail. An 1888 Washington Post article on the event noted that Swann was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin.” His story (a nonfiction book on Swann by Channing Gerard Joseph is due out next year) illuminates the close relationship between transgression and liberation that still defines drag today.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

“I think people like watching someone like me turn into a beautiful thing,” Brian Firkus tells me, by Zoom, referring to his drag persona, Trixie Mattel. If makeup is not just smoke and mirrors but “power tools,” as he puts it, the 31-year-old musician and comedian turned beauty vlogger and cosmetics mogul — he rose to fame on “Drag Race,” won season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” and is the C.E.O. of Trixie Cosmetics — is both the Harry Houdini and Bob Vila of beauty. He’s been unkindly described as “an unprepossessing bald” man from Wisconsin, but on his YouTube channel, which draws over a million subscribers, you can watch him metamorphose into Trixie Mattel, an ample-bosomed blonde with dramatically oversize, meerkat-like eyes and rigid, intentionally obvious blusher lines. Mattel, who often plays the autoharp in live performances, combines the flossy-haired sweetness of Dolly Parton with an unnerving toy-come-to-life quality that seems to serve as its own walking, talking critique of the way in which we objectify ourselves in the name of beauty. “As far as drag goes, I was never really interested in looking like a beautiful woman. I was interested in looking like I really came off an assembly line, with screened makeup on my plastic head,” Firkus explains. “I remember seeing early ’60s Barbie in this sort of bedroom eye, she had this floating blue lid and a severe brow. It was a light-bulb moment for me: ‘Oh, I could change my anatomy to the point of not even looking male or female. I could look like nothing, not even a person.’” To celebrate Trixie’s millionth subscriber, she made a cake in a vintage Easy-Bake Oven.

Growing up in a Native American family in the Midwest, Firkus first discovered makeup while furtively trying on his Ojibwe grandmother’s blush (CoverGirl Cheekers Blush in a terra-cotta shade) with a three-panel mirror. “I didn’t really understand it because I was a kid, but I just knew there was something there; it was like a magic trick to me,” he says. “One that, honestly, keeps performing itself.” (His own line contains both campy, costumey products like hair and body glitter made of tiny iridescent hearts, as well as a highly wearable, if intentionally non-“natural,” lip gloss in a heart-shaped tube.) In college — he majored in musical theater at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — he worked the MAC counter, enacting everyday transformations on both women and men who would come in asking to look like Kim Kardashian. “We used to say, ‘We don’t work in the beauty industry. We work in the self-esteem industry,’” Firkus tells me. He also did stage makeup at school, and brought out the white pancake himself for screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “Especially being a man, it was something that I knew was somewhat private and, in the beginning at least, felt perverse and something I wouldn’t tell anybody about. I would do the ‘Rocky Horror’ performance, but I guess I wasn’t really honest about how often I would practice the makeup for it,” he says. “The routine of it was so glamorous to me. People love to say that they wear makeup for men or, like, ‘No, I wear it for other women,’ but really, it’s all for yourself.”

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

For all its ubiquity, however, makeup remains a touch mysterious, a ritual with seemingly paradoxical motivations. I ask Firkus: Are cosmetics a form of masquerade or an expression of one’s most private self? Are they a display of confidence or insecurity? “I understand the paradox because I work in drag, in an industry where people say, ‘You are a star,’ and then in the same breath: ‘You’re a star if you change your voice, your height, your hair color, the way you smell, your skin color, the shape of your nose, the length of your lashes, the circumference of your waist,’” he says. But YouTube, with its unparalleled accessibility, has become a platform that supports our universal desire to be a slightly less imperfect self. Once upon a time, one had to summon the courage to go to a department store makeup counter to select a shade of lipstick or to be taught how to bring out one’s cheekbones with bronzer. The rise of the beauty vlog, with its shame-free access to worlds other than our own, has more than anything destigmatized makeup for everyone. Isn’t a beauty vlog, then, an update of a high school drama club, a place that welcomes all, in which one finds connection and acceptance?

Watching Trixie’s channel doesn’t get me excited about makeup, or allow me to see fresh potential in my own morning routine, which at this point in my life is less about smoke and mirrors than about making sure every exposed surface is coated in mineral sunscreen and — on more aspirational days — drawing lines around my eyes that will show up on Zoom. It does make me laugh, in a dark way, at the human folly of wanting to be beautiful, but also in a way that feels good, that makes me feel connected to others in the heartbreak of that folly. It’s a form of corrosively tender stand-up, in essence, one that takes beauty as its subject while acknowledging just how disenfranchised viewers are from feeling anything close to beautiful. In a 2019 documentary, “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts,” Firkus talks about growing up with a homophobic stepfather who would call him a “trixie”; in high school, social services removed Firkus from the home after his stepfather put a gun to his head. But you don’t even need to know that to understand why Trixie, with her corsets, painted-on eyes and obvious wigs, is more relatable than any actor, model or genetically blessed celebrity. We can see quite plainly that she’s not trying to deceive us. We get that she understands our trauma or pain. Makeup, which never pretends to be anything other than cosmetic, is a temporary fix, but the ability to laugh at ourselves among friends goes a long way toward self-acceptance in a world of merciless judgment.

Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

ON MEN AND women alike, cosmetics can act as a potent messaging system in the same way that fashion can, making us feel things we might not fully understand — desire and attraction, of course, but also nostalgia or pity. Makeup’s conflation with sex and seduction can induce strong feelings; this is why the moment a girl first starts wearing makeup can feel so culturally fraught, reading like an invitation to be seen as sexualized, or why a child wearing stage makeup — recall the beauty pageant images that circulated in the media of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey after her 1996 murder — disturbs us. When men, who are conventionally the sexual aggressor, wear makeup, it reminds us not only that boys, too, want attention but that we wear makeup primarily out of an instinct to self-adorn, and that this isn’t the same thing as an offer of sex.

Women have never been entirely free from makeup’s stigma, either: I think of a college friend, a woman, who felt that wearing it was a crime against feminism — a form of pandering rather than a personal preference. I think also of overhearing a gentleman at a literary party hissing at his wife: “You look like a geisha,” he sneered, referring to her chic slash of bright matte lipstick on an otherwise bare face. Her crime, of course, was the obvious artifice, the resorting to cheap tricks. The auditing of feminine “natural beauty” by men is, of course, repugnant, and a cynical part of me welcomes the embrace of makeup for all as a certain acknowledgment from the male sex that they are often looked at and found wanting, too. I wonder, then, if the normalization of makeup use for men doesn’t so much disrupt our way of thinking about the things we do to feel beautiful as allow us a means of revisiting the same old questions in a different light: To what extent are personal tastes inherently our own, and to what extent are we unconsciously appeasing cultural norms? And isn’t it, in the end, just makeup?


Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes
Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes
Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Matt Holmes

Before I saw M. at the club, I had thought of makeup simply as another form of social masking, a donning of a kind of facial armor, a covering of pimples, an embellishment that anticipates public exposure. Which, of course, it is: In thinking about those Babylonian soldiers painting their nails for battle, it’s impossible not to be reminded of my mother, back in the 1980s, putting on her public face before heading to the office to process insurance forms. How vulnerable she looked late in the day, after work, when the center of the lipstick had worn away and the blue line had sunken under her eyes. It’s with a more complicated nostalgia that I remember my beautiful redheaded aunts, my father’s youngest sisters, sitting before their electric travel mirrors with tiny light-up bulbs. What seemed to me then a kind of secret feminine art, a clandestine rite of adulthood — the elaborate shading of cheek- and brow bone, multiple layers of mascara applied and dried, a routine that took the better part of an hour — now feels like a classic, if slightly archaic, scene from art history, a woman at her toilette primping in anticipation of being seen, while we (implied male spectator and voyeur in one) observe the intimate transformation. Now, thanks to the rise of the beauty vlog, it’s just as often men at their mirrors while we all watch at home on our screens.

Today, as I put on makeup for a party — the first social gathering I’ve attended after a long pandemic year in our own homes, looking at our own faces — I think about this anticipation of being seen, and the tension between concealing and revealing, of pleasing oneself and pleasing others. I don’t really know if makeup’s popularity is a great leap forward — visual evidence of a capitalist society’s expanding notions of gender, beauty and expressions of self-acceptance — or a giant step backward, the triumph of the beauty industry: artifice for all! But as our gaze shifts, so does the flow of power, disrupting the old binaries of male subject and passive female object, reminding us that the act of looking at each other has always been reciprocal, charged with layered meanings and, perhaps, a kind of hopefulness. The fact is, we all want to be noticed at the club; we just want to be viewed in a certain way. Makeup invites us to look.

Models: Hector Estrella at Joseph Charles Viola, Mohammed Nabeel at Bri’geid Agency, Michael South at Crawford Models, Idriys Ali-Chow at One Management, Amadou Sy at Bri’geid Agency, Medoune Gueye at Next Management, Franklin Ayzenberg at Midland, Jake Lively at State Management and Tyler Hogan at Marilyn Agency. Hair: Tamas Tuzes at L’Atelier NYC using Bumble and Bumble. Makeup: Raisa Flowers. Set design: Jesse Kaufmann. Casting: Midland.

Production: Hen’s Tooth Productions. Manicurist: Elina Ogawa at Bridge. Photo assistants: Jarrod Turner, Ariel Sadok, Tre Cassetta. Hair assistant: D’Angelo Alston. Makeup assistants: Eunice Kristen, Alexandra Diroma, Chinenye Ukwuoma. Set assistants: JP Huckins, Murrie Rosenfeld. Tailor: Carol Ai. Stylist’s assistants: Andy Polanco, Rosalie Moreland, Victor Morrow