I’ve seen questions about this knocking around for so long in various places I decided to take a punt explaining it. I hope you like slang because it’s my cup of tea. Here is the benefit of my wisdom (i.e. this post will be short given the topic).
Americans have been avoiding their mirrors and turning their scorn onto us Brits. Common criticisms are: their makeup is too heavy, they trowel it on, they don’t wear it enough/they wear it too much and it ages them, they all look the same regardless of age and status and why is that etc.
First you have to understand that make-up resides at the intersection between many topics. It isn’t like painting (colours, priming, materials and tools), it isn’t like sculpture (depth, fullness, convex, negative space), and it isn’t about visual effects (except for Halloween) but it borrows from these and more. Don’t try to understand it, just trust me. There are make-up trends but this post covers solely the overall ‘look’.
As you can tell from the subjective bent of these topics and the fact that feminine women practically drink enough make-up via their pores to live, it’s seen as the one acceptable form of beautiful expression in these cold feminist times (they can make me wear trousers but they can’t take my lipgloss).
It signifies a level of selfless consideration for everyone who will have to look at you on a Monday morning and feminists hate it because men like it. TLP covered that delusion of wearing the external for the internal in: http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2013/01/no_self-respecting_woman_would.html It takes a lot of effort to apply daily make-up and as truly womanly clothing is prohibitively expensive, this is what we make do with.
I’ll focus on the English because it’s what I know and when people say Brit they usually mean London, fashion hub and where the important people live who start trends. We are incredibly classist. Class is an invisible omnipresent power in our lives. Class indicators include how much you open your mouth when speaking and we love to signal our class because at this point even the underclass is proud of itself so it’s a free-for-all. The euphemisms vary in class from “put my face on” (upper class mask of propriety) to “powder my nose” when it was the done thing (middle class maintenance) to “tarting up” and this is why you rarely see us in the upper echelons with one item of make-up: wearing blush (rouge was associated with prostitutes since French women adopted it). We do not think of ourselves as European but a little set of islands that happen to exist on the European continent. We must distinguish ourselves from both the rest of Europe and America, closest to us in culture.
Harking back to the effort involved, this gives the full meaning to the term “lipstick lesbian” for trying to please men and feminists trying to pretend their “dolling up” has NOTHING to do with ‘keeping up appearances’ [beauty standards]. The personal is political and the one remaining mode of acceptable feminine expression is on the front line of vitriol.
Note the liberal usage of blush, whorish blush…..
ONTO THE ACTUAL MAKEUP
This is going to be blunt and technical and as I prefaced, trust. Further detail isn’t necessary if you look.
By now men are starting to twig that there is no such thing as “natural beauty” because women are in fact human with pores and spots etc. The natural beauty idea is a Look created by makeup, which can do two things: 1. cover flaws or 2. accentuate assets. This dates back to ancient societies (Ancient Egypt eyeliner, Ancient Rome lipstick) – natural beauty was presumed to include upkeep. It has never existed in a raw form. There were often legal limits placed on this to prevent men being tricked into marriage because “too much” make-up or hair product was applied (including dying the hair to a rarer auburn or blonde for example).
We all know the association between whores and “too much” makeup because they had to hide their terrible faces marred by smallpox (grey lips and “mind your beeswax” mottling), plague (dark circles, hollow appearance and scar patches), syphilis (complete facial collapse) etc. It gave the appearance of youth and health. It was practical. Men wore it too: http://uk.askmen.com/sports/health_300/393_stds-that-show-on-your-face.html
The difference between ancient Natural Beauty and the modern British Look is one of pigment.
We can wear the same brand of makeup, the same product line, the same amount in the same places. If we wear it in Nude or Ivory or Blush or another ‘natural’ colour, how can strangers [men] tell how much effort we put in? How will they know our expertise, hard won in application? [status cue] How will they know we find their aesthetic pleasure at looking upon our visage important? [feminine] We associate red with national fervour [Blitz glamour] even when times are tough [Lipstick Index] – “London bus red” is widely considered the best red, universally flattering. Yes, there are types of red.
What do we end up doing, practically? Red is professional and classy since Elizabeth II wore it at her Coronation. You cannot out-signal the Queen. The application and effort is overt yet tasteful. It wins.
Pink is girlish, youthful and natural-lookiing, a spring/summer colour. Berry is the autumnal/wintry variant. You wouldn’t notice these walking down the street, but you would speaking to the wearer, it’s a compromise. These are the three main lipstick choices if you wear any, the Holy Trinity in Britain. If a woman were to apply red lipstick, however well by itself, it wouldn’t look right (whereas pink and berry are fine alone). There are reasons for this I won’t go into. Basically, you must define the eyes and smooth the skin too (both indicators of youth, incidentally). The bare minimum fix is one coat of mascara (maybe clear), perhaps a little tightlining (looks natural) to “balance the face” [features] and smoothing the skin tone and texture to make the lips the visual focal point (a sign of oestrogen, foundation used to be the only way to do this, now we have dozens of products).
The bold ideal;
Note the balance. Normal eyebrows. Clear skin. Best with dark hair. NO TAN WHATSOEVER. [That last is often the reason for the make-up criticism but foreigners cannot tell why). The tan and straw blonde combination from America looks atrocious with this Look by design. It is supposed to distinguish us [class] from All American make-up and colouring. Sometimes a muted red is used to give a softer look, it appears closer to pink or brown so whether it’s noticeable is up to the choice in specific pigment.
Foreigners and commoners apply too much [overcompensating], in a cack-handed way [cheap lighting and tools, hurried], with more than one look at a time [lack of expertise] including contradictory ones and wonder why it looks bad. The effort it takes not to smudge red lippie is immense, it naturally ‘bleeds’ from the lipline and as such it also functions as an active sign of classy behaviour (sipping drinks demurely, not snogging strangers).
This is how it should be done;