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.