I read this essay many years ago; and it was written many years before that, in 1894, by Max Beerbohm. The title pleased me, for I thought I had found my advocate.
Max Beerbohm was a delightful writer, living at a time when one can turn wit into a career. I was not surprised that he would be the one to write an apologia so dear to me.
Max was a dandy – dandyism was one of the more effervescent trends of the late 19th century. It delighted in surface perfection of course, in Brummel's precision, but also sought the mental superiority that would lift its practitioners above the miasma of dirt, industry and vulgarity that lurked in every Victorian alley.
Max was a satirist. His humor was coy and fanciful. But when I read phrases like these, I chose to believe them:
"No longer is a lady of fashion blamed, if, to escaped the outrageous persecution of time, she fly for sanctuary to the toilet table."
"Artifice is the strength of the world, and in that same mask of paint, of powder…is a woman's strength."
"Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom. Let us dance her a welcome!"
But the article, of course, was a farce, a parody. (Max, in fact, was a great admirer of the classic, unadorned British complexion) I had been taken for quite a ride – it was a wonderful gallop, but the fall was stupendous.
Had Max left it to me to defend cosmetics? Perhaps I can defend my use of cosmetics.
I've used make-up since high school. I'm not saying that I used it well, having fallen many times into the inexcusable trap of matching your eye shadow with your clothes. Especially inexcusable when you're wearing a powder blue pant suit. I didn't use it to hide, nor to glorify. It didn't, by the way, destroy my Youthful Glow or turn my skin moribund. It did, however, make me different. It gave me drama. That was reason enough for a teenager.
And in my twenties, when I had nothing else to do but think about such things, I realized that I would age very ungracefully. That is, I would protest the encroaching years most vehemently, using whatever weaponry I had at hand: pots, paints, rouge, reds, pinks, whites, liquid blacks. And I worried – I hoped I would be up to the task.
Fast forward – way forward – to the present, and I still use cosmetics. I might apply foundation and powder with a lighter hand (in college I went through a Noh actor phase); but you will only pry my lipstick from my cold, dead hands.
A naked face is no more honest than a painted one.
My face shows age, mere years. The laugh lines tell me that at some point in my life I have laughed. Wrinkles tell me that I have indulged in habitual facial expressions, been damaged by the sun, and that I am a poor hydrator. And that is all. Cosmetics do not blot out my life's experiences because my face isn't the picture that will tell those stories.
(Oh, in addition there is a slight separation in my right eyebrow which was a result of a traffic accident, when I was hurled from the backseat to a stare-down with the gear-shift. Wear your seatbelts, kids.)
My make-up will cover these imperfections as well as contribute to a creation. I like dramatic coloring – this is why I enjoy the dark eyes and blatant mouths of the 1920's. I am partial to theatricality both in look and in act. The onslaught of age weaves in and out of my reasoning like a ragged thread. Some of my cosmetics fight the battle, and some are used for pretty. Age certainly will not determine how long I will use them. That's a personal matter.
If you want to know about my life, don't study my wrinkles. Talk to me. Read what I've written. Look at what I've drawn.
Cosmetics can both conceal and express, and I defend them.