A Brief History of ’90s Makeup (Guest Post)

Uma Thurman rocking Chanel Vamp nail polish in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Image from movietretriever.com

In the past week, the comments section has teemed with references to ’90s-specific products like Manic Panic hair dye, Revlon Blackberry lipstick and Vamp nail polish, so here is a timely submission from ’90s Woman Hillary Belzer, who wrote her thesis about Riot Grrrl. Her latest project is the Makeup Museum, which is devoted to examining cosmetics design and history. And here is what she says about ’90s makeup… 

Fashion trends, and by extension, beauty trends, are cyclical – usually about 20 years after the initial phenomenon began, it comes back in vogue and is slightly updated.  So it’s not surprising that the ’90s are making a comeback now.

Here I will look at the transformation the beauty industry underwent in the ’90s as a direct response to new notions women had about makeup.

In 1995, the L.A. Times quoted a beauty newsletter editor as saying, “The creativity the department stores had 10 years ago doesn’t exist today…the top five brands control 75% of the makeup business.”  Something had to give to meet the beauty needs of the ’90s woman, and it did.

Between the influence of what’s been controversially referred to as “lipstick feminism”, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Riot Grrrl (and “girl power”, its co-opted, commercialized, mainstream offshoot made popular by the Spice Girls), and the smeared red lipstick of grunge poster child Courtney Love, more and more 90s women began wearing makeup not with the simplistic goal of looking pretty, but rather as a means of self-expression and empowerment.  They also didn’t want to feel as though they were being brainwashed by cosmetic companies telling them that they wouldn’t be beautiful without makeup – wearing it had to be their decision alone, and they would wear it (or not) on their own terms.  This outlook represented a huge shift in thinking about cosmetics, and beauty and business gurus pounced on it.

In 1994 makeup artist Jeannine Lobell created a makeup line called Stila.  The name coming from the Italian word “stilare”, which means “to pen”, Lobell believed every woman’s makeup should be as unique as her signature.  The cardboard containers (this environmentally-friendly packaging was a breakthrough at the time) also displayed quotes from famous women that could be seen as empowering:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The best protection any woman can have is courage,” and “Failure is impossible” by Susan B. Anthony are just two of the quotes that made an appearance on Stila’s eye shadows.  These marketing strategies suggested that women could let their individuality shine through their makeup, and that it could even make them feel powerful.

The years 1995 and 1996 saw the introduction of “alternative” makeup lines Hard Candy and Urban Decay, respectively.  Both got their start by introducing non-traditional nail polish colors that the founders first mixed themselves – Sky, a pastel blue, in the case of Hard Candy, and a purple from Urban Decay.  Both companies filled in the gap left by mainstream cosmetic companies.  From the Urban Decay website:  “Heaven forbid you wanted purple or green nails, because you’d either have to whip out a marker, or risk life and limb with that back alley drugstore junk…The first magazine ad [for Urban Decay] queried ‘Does Pink Make You Puke?,’ fueling the revolution as cosmetics industry executives scrambled to keep up.”

A 1998 New York Times profile of Hard Candy founder Dineh Mohajer, says that she was a leader in providing the modern teenage girl with the daring makeup she wanted to use to express herself.  “Ms. Mohajer’s timing couldn’t have been better: young women were ready for hard-edged, ‘ugly’ colors, which were a departure from the powdery, harmless pinks that once accompanied every American girl’s journey to womanhood. Suddenly, blue lips, blue hair and blue fingernails became a statement about independence — even if independence might make you look as if you were suffering from frostbite.”

Still, in the article Mohajer insists that ”I didn’t make that first batch of blue nail polish so I could stand up to men or be outrageous…or so I could make some sort of stand for women.”  She continues:  “[what] it’s really about is self-esteem, women being able to do whatever they want and look stylish and attractive and cute at the same time.”  Mohajer, who was all of 22 when she founded Hard Candy, clearly represented the new way in which women were viewing makeup.

The decade culminated in the 1999 release of celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin’s iconic book Making Faces.  The book offered details of makeovers performed on “real” women, and provided step-by-step instructions to create a myriad of looks.  Women could essentially try on personalities like “The Diva” or “The Siren” through makeup.  Aucoin writes in the introduction, “…it is my hope that you will find yourself, or rather, your selves inside.”  His book was illustrative of the sweeping change that took hold in both the general population’s notion of cosmetics and the beauty industry.

Where does all of this leave us now?  I’m of the opinion that if you asked teenagers and women today, most would say they don’t wear makeup for anyone but themselves.  Personally I wear it because it makes me happy and because I think it’s fun to play with color, not because I feel as though I have put on my “face” before going out in public.  While I can’t know for sure what other women think, I have a feeling most of my generation and younger generations share this perspective.  That is one of the indisputable legacies of the ’90s. — Hillary Belzer


1 Comment

Filed under Ada, Guest

One response to “A Brief History of ’90s Makeup (Guest Post)

  1. Oh gosh wow! Dark blue and green nail polish were the first colors I ever bought with my own money as a teen. Wow, makeup memories of Bonnie Bell, Manic Panic and tattoo jewelry. Thank you for the post!

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