Living in the Golden Age of Contouring

Contouring has become the essential makeup language because the process was born for the screen.

Article by Bee Shapiro

Makeup lovers are a flighty species, enthralled by millennial pink one day and grungy black-plum the next. Look more closely, though, and two tidy camps emerge: One consists of peacocks who treat their faces as Technicolor canvases; the other of faux naturalists. But they are united in one respect — both share an obsession with the architecture of the face.

Contouring — using darker shades of concealer or foundation to create dimension and a more defined facial structure — had long been employed by makeup artists, but five years ago, the technique went mainstream, and was soon followed by the rise of the complementary practices of strobing (applying light, often shimmery shades on the higher planes of the face) and baking (applying a thick coat of powder on the cheeks to set makeup and neutralize harsh angles). This isn’t so much the season as it is the era of face architecture.

Achieving this sort of chiaroscuro can seem an artful and even artistic pursuit, one that transcends mere vanity. But the real reason contouring has become the essential makeup language for our age is that the process was born for the screen, and what is our current era but one lived through, and on, the screen?

A publicity image of Marlene Dietrich from the 1930 film, Morocco, directed by Josef von Sternberg.

Think of Marlene Dietrich, an early beneficiary of contouring as a tuxedo-clad cabaret singer in the 1930 film Morocco, her cheekbones announcing themselves beneath the tilted brim of her top hat. Without high definition or colour, Hollywood’s early makeup artists didn’t need to worry whether their work might appear clownish offscreen. Even so, Max Factor sold a version of the look to the masses with his full coverage Pan-Cake line and contouring tutorials. (Today’s equivalents include brands like Becca, known for its highlighters, and Anastasia Beverly Hills, whose contour palettes are best sellers at Sephora.)

Contouring fell out of fashion in favor of a more self-consciously “natural” look, but in the ’80s and ’90s, the trend was revived by drag queens, who used professional stage makeup brands like Ben Nye, Kryolan and Mehron to both soften masculine features (strong jaws, pronounced brow bones), and create feminine ones through copious strobing, which can have a plumping effect. Elements of drag culture have since trickled down into the broader culture; along with false lashes’ popularity and the sequinned packaging of star makeup artist Pat McGrath’s line of coveted pigments, the most significant development is how profoundly we’ve succumbed to the promise of transformation.

No longer do you have to do the hard work of accepting the face you’ve been given — now you can just reshape it. On her website, the British makeup artist and cosmetics company founder Charlotte Tilbury offers a video tutorial on just that. She recommends applying a pale line of concealer down the center of the face and then patting sculpting powder along either side, describing the effect as “a little bit like virtual surgery.”

Of course, the ability to become someone other than oneself has always been both makeup’s appeal and its threat. Witnessing Asian women use contouring to whittle down their noses, for example, inevitably leads to questions about what was wrong with their noses in the first place. The aim, crushingly, can be to look white. Or not. A few year ago when Kim Kardashian West promoted her new Crème Contour and Highlight Kit with pictures of herself looking especially contoured and extremely tan. Accusations of blackface ensued. Among other things, the case was a reminder that with architecture comes architectural integrity — however skilled the renovator, the bones of the structure must be respected.

The Enduring Power of a Low Bun

If it’s rare to see a person over a certain age wearing a topknot, it’s because it conveys a certain uncouth youthfulness.

Article by Hannah Goldfield

In the admittedly small taxonomy of buns, the topknot, or the high bun, is the bun that tends to hog the spotlight. “Look at my hair!” it screams, perched like a papal crown. It’s the universal symbol of ballerinas; of young starlets parading their sex appeal; of flight attendants going for a vaguely retro look (an attempt, perhaps, to evoke a time when air travel was glamorous); of a certain brand of self-consciously sensitive bro.

If it’s rare to see a person over a certain age wearing a topknot, it’s because it conveys a certain uncouth youthfulness, a sense of unseriousness, a need to provoke. In this regard, another bun — the low bun, with hair wound into a spiral or folded into a loop — might seem its polar opposite. In ancient China, the style was adorned with flowers or jewels, and while considered a status symbol, it was also thought to be matronly, literally — a look worn only by married women.

In Hollywood, there were many decades when the low bun was associated with a decidedly practical, puritanical, even schoolmarmish look: Think of Olivia de Havilland as the boringly sensible Melanie Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind” or sweet, frumpy Auntie Em in “The Wizard of Oz,” her weary face framed by wiry grey hair, pulled back and firmly coiled. It’s the sort of hairstyle that fits perfectly under a bonnet. (The Wicked Witch of the West’s bicycle-riding Kansas counterpart, Almira Gulch, wears one, too, jutting out beneath her stiff straw hat.) The low bun wasn’t just asexual: It was an erasure of femininity altogether.

Phioto by Daria Shevtsova.

In recent years, though, the low bun has been reclaimed, just as a certain kind of womanhood has: Why should looking like a wife or mother (or a woman who simply needs her hair out of her face) have a negative connotation? Who says it’s not sexy, or better yet, commanding? In a modern context, the low bun — worn loose or tidy, hastily done or carefully coifed — is a shortcut to elegance, conveying not stuffiness or seriousness so much as a hint of refreshing formality: sleek, chic and versatile, feminine without being fussy, drawing attention to the face without requesting attention outright.

In an age in which having a signature uniform conveys both style and ambition, a suggestion of having better things to do, the low bun is the fail-safe solution. If eyeglasses are a quick code for ‘smart’, the low bun, sometimes known as a chignon, has become the equivalent for ‘sophisticated’ — but unlike, say, the French twist, it offers the added benefit of not making you look like you’ve tried too hard.

The low bun looks good on everyone, and it’s also eminently achievable. It works on clean hair and greasy hair, straight hair and curly hair, long hair and relatively short hair, with a side part or with a part down the middle. It takes virtually no skill: You simply sweep the hair back at the nape of the neck (is there a body part more poetic or demurely beautiful, both in name and in form?) and use an elastic to twirl it around into a neat whorl. The idea of effortless beauty can seem like wishful thinking at best — but if there’s a single practice that comes close, it’s the low bun.

The low bun is also as fitting for an everyday power-dress uniform (Jenna Lyons, the Olsen twins) as it is for a glamorous affair (Gwyneth Paltrow’s iconic 1999 Oscars look) or even a funeral (Michelle Pfeiffer mourns stunningly in one in Darren Aronofsky’s controversial movie “Mother!”).

The low bun needs no ‘moment’; its moment is anytime, and always. Which, in a blink-and-it-changes culture, is the sign of real power.

To Wear Makeup or Not to Wear Makeup?

The question is surprisingly fraught, but the answer is simple.

Article by Haley Mlotek

Stewart Cook/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock; Mike Marsland/Wireimage/Getty Images; photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

Recently, Buzzfeed compiled examples of men on Reddit and Twitter who had shared photos of women they found beautiful, seemingly amazed by their own enlightened taste. The women, celebrities like Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, were, they believed, not wearing makeup.

“Kylie Jenner looks so much better without makeup to me idk why. Im prob just weird,” one man bravely tweeted.

In fact, these women were wearing makeup; in one particularly egregious instance, a photo had been taken from a magazine editorial featuring a natural makeup look, with products listed. The men had confused makeup that does not announce itself with makeup that does not exist. And who can blame them? “Natural beauty” has become less about lack of effort than about successfully hiding effort altogether.

After a punishing night, when I use a fine-pointed brush to apply Clé de Peau Beauté concealer to my red-rimmed lower lashline, I am trying to fake wakefulness; I cannot fault a man who would, taking my illusion at face value, rush to celebrate his own wokefulness.

In light of this, it was no surprise when singer Alicia Keys (who recently launched her own skin care routine, Keys Soulcare) declared she would abstain from makeup a few years ago. In an essay about her decision for the online magazine Lenny, she wrote of realising that she had written “a lot of songs about masks filled with metaphors about hiding.” After years of feeling like she needed to wear makeup to perform, both as a singer and as a woman in the world, it struck her that this preparing for the public eye was only magnifying the effect of its scrutiny.

The #nomakeup movement soon took off, with other celebrities and women’s magazines jumping on the bandwagon. (“Mila Without Makeup” boasted a Glamour cover.)

At first glance, Alicia Keys, Mila Kunis or Gwyneth Paltrow — women whose visages we’ve come to know intimately in their makeup-wearing form — look a bit naked and exposed without it, as though a veil has been lifted, revealing something private and raw. But to examine them more closely is simply to get reacquainted with the features of the human face: its shapes and curvatures; gradations of light and color; freckles; eyelashes.

It would be easy to deem a makeup-less Alicia Keys “honest,” or “real,” or even radical, but that would be missing the point. More than anything, she looks exceptionally relaxed and open, completely at ease in her own skin. She is radiant with serenity, like a person on vacation who really knows how to let go. The message she broadcasts is that comfort is the root of confidence, and not the other way around. This is true whether a person is wearing makeup or not.

Of course, Keys’s kind of comfort requires its own sort of discipline. On the beauty website Into the Gloss, her makeup artist described the many rituals and products that go into her new look: acupuncture, exercise, a healthy diet. Facials, lip treatments, sprays and oils.

I began to wear a full face of makeup in middle school, as a gesture of defeat, attempting to obscure hormonal breakouts, asymmetrical features, eyebrows that were too bushy and lips that were too big. As I got older, I spent less time searching for pigmented powders to cover my face, and more time searching for concoctions to strengthen or improve it. I didn’t so much want to look better as I wanted to be better. I bought serums with the consistency of liquefied amber, thick white creams expelled from pump bottles with such force that they seemed impatient to get to work, masks made from insect secretions. The irony, naturally, is that clean, clear skin is the ideal base for makeup.