This website uses cookies Accept Learn more
20min of reading

Philosopher specializing in beauty, Dominique Paquet explains codes of beauty in today’s mouth, interprets lipstick colours and questions our aesthetic perceptions and sensitivity towards light throughout history.

JEAN-CHRISTOPHE HUSSON (JCH) ⏤ To start our conversation on the connection between women and the make-up ritual, I’d like to get your opinion on intergenerational transmission.

For instance, in “Témoignages”, a series of very moving stories filmed for Exhibition, one young woman speaks about her grandmother who continued to put on make-up despite having a terminal illness. She goes on to say that she keeps the same products as her Grandmother in her purse today. There is a clear idea of transmission.

In your experience, have you found similar stories that talk about intergenerational transmission, like a mother to daughter transmission of feminity?

DOMINIQUE PAQUET (DP) ⏤ The first books referring to women’s matters appeared only at the end of the 19th century, where there is this notion of transmission. For example, I found a text from the 1920’s talking about the bourgeoisie in Bordeaux. It stated that mothers could put a bit of red on their lips, however daughters could not as it was strictly forbidden. In the post-industrial middle-class society, women barely put make up on because it was considered extremely vulgar. The first beauty salons opened in France at the end of the 19th century and were not very successful.

In the 1930’s, one can still hear the expression: “to have a face caked in make up like a prostitute…”! Can you believe that? Up until 1968, makeup was perceived negatively within the bourgeoisie. It was associated with liberal and literate women; the “intellectuals”. It is only with the recent and strong movement of dechristianisation that makeup has become main-stream. For that matter, here is a personal anecdote: before 1968, I was in the high school for girls of Bordeaux where the deputy head teacher would inspect each class every morning with a handkerchief to clean up every made up face. Pants, cigarettes and makeup only appeared after 1968 in high school. It’s been only since then that we started to consider lipstick differently.

Some people say that the history of makeup started with the appearance of mass media and that before that, there were other types of ornamentations. We can identify a few different phases in history. In the 20th century, there is a change of perspective with the emergence of the speaking cinema. Big lips had never been appreciated thus far. We can see it in paintings where only fine mouths and dimples were depicted. Why? Because big mouths are reserved or even the symbol of stupidity, vulgarity and, of course, “primitive” people.

JCH ⏤ Is it what we call morphopsychology?

DP ⏤ It’s symbolism more than morphopsychology. Big dribbling lips’ symbolism refers to congenital idiots. It also refers to the pagans, as they were depicted with big lips during the Renaissance. By the way, you can clearly identify the same pattern in the history of piercing, and of course in the representation of the African and Aboriginal peoples. Therefore, a small mouth symbolized elegance until the 1930’s.

In silent and expressionist films, lips were accentuated to the extreme with a dark grape red in order to maximise the expressivity of the mouth and make it visible. After 1930’s, the mouth speaks. Close up can be made on a mouth kissing… Then, the mouth becomes larger and different techniques are found to make it larger. From then on, everybody loved full mouths.

This is also linked to the evolution of modern societies because here we are not only talking about the history of fashion, but also the history of makeup techniques. For instance, Max Factor invented lip’s gloss in 1918 for Hollywood.

In the symbology of the face, societies are all different, which means that there are different ways of highlighting makeup, blushes and hair mixtures. In highly spiritual societies, the upper head and forehead are the ones valued. In others, the middle face is more valued as it represents the “war” zone. When the focus is on the lower side of the face including maxillary, mouth and lips, it values the “appetite” zone. Nowadays, we are living in a society of consumption and we see a lot of close-up on the mouth eating, the mouth dribbling and the mouth swallowing a hamburger. Just look at all the 4 by 3 posters in advertising: the maxillary’s zone is always the one highlighted. We are in a society of consumption embracing vulgarity and one of its components, saliva.

JCH ⏤ Do you think that we can see today a certain degree of irony in the usages and codes of makeup, people mixing and playing with the codes of beauty and vulgarity? Are we aware of the original codes when we put on makeup? I refer here for instance to the usage of the extra shiny red gloss glorified by some musical and fashion trends, like R&B and so on. The idea of transgression, of shaking up the codes and perceptions has always been inherent to certain modes of representation, hasn’t it?

DP ⏤ Yes, you can find a certain degree of discrepancy in the latest fashion trends where one puts on a coloured lipstick; especially as the end of the 1980’s with the emergence of the orange lips and then even the greenish ones. Then came the yellow lipstick at the end of the 1990’s and then absinthe, white, blue, aqua green, turquoise as a sort of tribute to Klimt. Let’s not forget the golden mouths present in every festive situation.

Of course, you can’t work in corporate business or at a bank counter with green lips; its symbology being very negative as it refers here to putrefaction. Whereas in other situation or usage, green is very valued as it symbolizes life and nature. But on the lips, it instantly conjures up a lip dying and disappearing.

As a matter of fact, we cannot really play with the chromatic scales. Even in the Ancien Regime, the chromatic scale was limited from white rose to black purple. And every palette refers to a very specific symbology: pale tones are associated to young women, the red and dark ones are for more mature women.

JCH ⏤ In your book “The history of beauty”(1), the main focus is on the eyes and the upper face. You only talk a very little about the mouth and lipstick. Is it because it has only been valued?

DP ⏤ Oh yes, it occurred much more later!

JCH ⏤ Do you think that the purpose of makeup was primarily to highlight the eyes?

DP ⏤ Red did exist. It was present in Greece and in Egypt, but we don’t know very much about it. Their reds were vegetal, extracted from strawberries, roots, blackberries, squashed roses’ petals, so we don’t really know how they red they were.

During the Ancien Regime, there were also some reds. However, it was an aristocratic society, so the accent was on the eyes. It was not a society focussed on appetite. It is only with the emergence of the era of industry and consumption that the focus has been placed on the mouth, on the primal or “lower” instincts if I may say.

JCH ⏤ The mouth obviously refers to various symbols and day-to-day actions like eroticism, vulgarity, eating, talking. With the film industry and the invention of the close-up, appeared the notions of intimacy in the speech, the seduction…

DP ⏤ And let’s not forget the notion of vampires!

JCH ⏤ Yes, the whole spectrum of emotions is present from gentleness to extreme violence. I picked up a quotation from your book: “what is fictitious is in the nature of evil”. We can see the Christian predominance and its consequence on our relationship to the body.

What about other civilizations and the rest of the world? How is it in Islam, for instance?

DP ⏤ In the oriental world, there is a valorisation of the mouth and we can find different mixtures and applications for the mouth. Not only can we notice the importance of the mouth but also of the teeth. For instance, following aesthetic criteria, certain populations value saw-toothed cut, or even gap-toothed practice with a stick. Lips are painted, knead and valued. I found several Andalusian recipes from the 12th century referring to the work around the lips and teeth.

However, let’s be careful, everything is relative!

When you look at makeup’s rites in African and Aboriginal civilizations, the meaning is very different. The mouth is part of a general configuration and not valued for the look.

On the contrary, the work around the look and lightings is predominant in Europe and western countries. We barely ever talk about it. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the blush was defined by the lighting system, i.e. a torch or a candle. There were no mirrors and no windowpane, so it was hard to see. That is very important to remember… On the contrary to rituals that were outdoors or specials, part of a festive occasion for instance. That’s totally different.

Then, with the introduction of the gas in the early 19th century, blush and colours were to change… And then at the end of the 19th century, the electricity came up…

JCH ⏤ And now, we constantly live under the spot light !

DP ⏤ Yes and I think that the new light bulbs will change everything again! We are still living with the concept of daylight, the fact that there are hours during the day with light. We put on a light makeup during the day and a heavier one at night. You need to think of makeup as an “un-ritualized” and seductive way of expression and transformation, which means that there are no ritual implications. What is valued is made to be seen! And let’s face it, you can barely see in a castle. Watch “The draughtman contract” by Peter Greenaway. There is an amazing scene of cards’ game with a “sickly pale” lighting. Newton wrote something very interesting on the orange and red tones.

JCH ⏤ Is there a clear distinction between makeup and jewels? The German Historian Hans BELTING wrote: “I paint, I create geographical zones linked to the symbols, the status and the society I live in. And with the blush, I accentuate or diminish them”. We are not talking here about tattoos, it is not a fixed mark, but makeup is a work on the body whereas jewels are just external adds-on. Do you agree?

DP ⏤ You are referring to the Kant’s theory of separation between what is by nature a member, like makeup, and what is by nature free, like prosthesis or mask; you can take them away or put them on. When they are on the table, they are meaningless! Whereas makeup penetrates. It sticks to the skin. It has an inner tackiness. For instance, in theatre, certain types of makeup can stick to the skin, even after a few days and showers.

So makeup is a member, it penetrates the skin and it’s active. In psychoanalysis, it is what we call psychism. The mask is active as well but it doesn’t have the same function or effect. training is highly technical.

JCH ⏤ Men don’t understand the whole makeup’s symbology, and especially the fact that it is first an intimate act that has nothing to do with others. In one of the “Témoignages” videos, a young woman says: “I’m not ready for the red yet”. She talks about an incident as a teenager: “I put on some red and I was not ready. (…) I wore makeup for someone, I made a mistake. From now on, I put makeup on for myself”.

As well, when interviewing the dermatologist, Dr Mao, she told us: “When you don’t feel well or you are a bit tired, putting on makeup gives you a certain power, it helps you.” Could you explain this connection between the intimate and the outside world?

DP ⏤ It is what happened for instance with putting on makeup for theatre. You construct your face. And the more you construct your face, the more you are focussed and calm, in a secret intimate space. There is an elaboration, a “production” of a face. Regarding the intimate, there are different elements to explain. It depends if you put on the makeup yourself or if somebody puts the makeup on you! It is very difficult to let someone put the make up on yourself, it is like…, not an “aggression” but… I talked about this phenomenon in my first book The Alchemy of Makeup. Have a look at the concepts of the self, developed by Didier Anzieux(2) in his book “the self skin”. He starts his reflection from Freud’s statement saying: “The self shapes itself from the stimulation of the body zones. All the body’s stimulations – caresses, blows… – shape the psychological self. Therefore, the moment you put something on your face, not only you transform your face but also something in your psyche.”

There is a process of metamorphosis, a “production” of the face, to be precise. By the way, some women continue to put on makeup the same way because it matches to their image of an ideal self; an ideal that was shaped at a stage when they were beautiful. That explains why you can see some old ladies wearing the same makeup as the one they use when they were teenagers or young… there is a production of an ideal face. So when one is tired or wants to be seductive, one puts on makeup to build a shell. And at the same time, the inner action of putting on makeup stimulates the skin and builds something, a certain power given by one’s awareness of wearing colours on the lips…

JCH ⏤ We rebuild the values we want to support and promote ?

DP ⏤ We builds a convenience. Some people call it a social passport. Some women are putting on makeup in the morning, sometimes even while their significant one is sleeping, just to be beautiful when he/she wakes up.

JCH ⏤ And what about men in today’s society ? Why do some men put on makeup? Or, should we say on the contrary, why have most men nowadays stopped putting on makeup?

DP ⏤ It is true that men have stopped putting on make up since the Ancien Regime.

JCH ⏤ Is it linked to their status? Or is it due to the working codes? To self-discipline?

DP ⏤ Yes, it is all linked! At that time, we talked about blush, because the word “makeup” was pejorative until the end of the 19th century. The blush disappeared at the end of the Ancien Regime and came back a little during the Empire. However, men did not put on makeup in the 19th century. Why? Because they were making business, which required to be transparent, to not hide anything, therefore no makeup. In opposition, beard and hair care have been increasingly important for men. They have been starting to use “brillantine”, cut and take care of their hair, eyebrows and beard…

JCH ⏤ Has the interbreeding in Europe, and in France in particular, generated new ways and behaviours in makeup ? Have other continents contributed to our history of makeup?

DP ⏤ There were various traditions of women’s finery, especially in Africa, and this tradition did not survive in Europe. Northern European, especially, is very different. She is Lutheran, protestant and finery is not experienced the same way. Finery is not meant to be ostentatious. There is a natural effacement of the face and of the clothes; sobriety is everywhere. Whereas in Latin societies, women are more adorned; which can be paradoxical due to the predominance of Catholicism. In Italy, even men, the “Italian lovers”, wear blush. Berlusconi wears blush.

In Germany in the 1930’s, people were putting on a lot of makeup, especially in the more decadent circles, the world of cabarets. By the way, German cosmetic brands for show business (theatre, opera) are number one.

JCH ⏤ Earlier, you quoted a text you wrote on the violence of being made up. This is something I’ve noticed as a photographer during makeup sessions. I can see the faces of the models, their gestures. I can feel the violence of the intrusion of their intimate space. And very soon, they are trying to escape, even if they are used to being made up.

DP ⏤ They are used to it but the face is an extremely intimate space, far more that the sex. Prostitutes assert that they never kiss, don’t they?

Not to say that one is afraid to get products or eyes clips in the eyes. Makeup artists have to be cautious, very gentle and, yes you’re right, people do close their eyes, They try to escape, to isolate themselves from their faces. So makeup artists have very professional gestures. It’s like going to the doctors. The way one palpates you is very objective with a little distance in the way they put on makeup. Makeup artist’s

JCH ⏤ What about the face in the public space? And should I go further, in the French political environment? If we refer to the debate on the burka, should a face always be visible?

DP ⏤ It is stated by the law that, except during certain festivities like carnivals, no one can go out overly made up or masked. When I say “overly made up”, I mean tattooed, like the Maoris for instance. The French law forbids it. In public space, anyone must be recognizable, especially during protests. That is why I was surprised by the debate on the burka as it is already ruled. This political issue is interesting and is probably inherited from the French Revolution. When living in a democratic republic, transparency is required; the appearance to one another needs to be equal. Whenever someone is hiding, there is a masking issue, hence a power’s issue at stake. Wearing a mask doesn’t only imply hideaway and self-annihilation but also self-differentiation. Like animals that parade, one hides to attack. For instance, originally when one holds one’s hand out, it shows that one has no weapon. The same principle occurs with the face. Transparency and neutrality comes from democracy.

JCH ⏤ Let’s talk about the roots of our mode of representation, the “Christian” body. The first thing you can see when you enter a church is a bleeding body. This is such a violent image! And at the same time, it emits such an incredibly erotic force! There is a very ambivalent paradox, an extreme duality as believers are strictly forbidden to celebrate the body’s cult, the flesh’s pleasure. Any form of eroticism is banned whereas in Islam eroticism is far more present in the texts.

What do you think about the changes brought by Christianity in our mode of representation and perception?

DP ⏤ We live in a Latin society, which was born with Rome. Rome exhibited and ritualised the culture of torture bodies within society from gladiators to slaves and animals’ fighting. For instance, to inaugurate the Capitol, 900 animals were killed, including hippopotamus, ostriches… all lying in a pool of blood! With Christianity, God reincarnated and became flesh. He became a man, the mankind’s flesh. Roman crucifixion is a monstrance, it stages a “sequence of torture”, a “dreadful” torture. It is meant to be dissuasive. For instance, in the Triptych of Colmar, the Christ is represented in his dereliction!

Apart from that, all representations are usually “cleaned” up. The pain is soften, the head is inclined… There is no agony, torture is “aestheticized” and hence eroticized. The flesh is exhibited. The Christian body contains 2 elements. It is tortured and exhibited in Latin societies, even in a decadent way. By the way, all Christian martyrs are represented in their pain. We can find this notion of “exhibition” in the guillotine, it contains a certain pleasure in the representation of the torture body. There is a dimension of delight.

And as the Christ is embodied and eaten, he is within the body; he is penetrated and penetrating. Therefore, there is eroticization. This eroticization goes along with denial. The body is lashed, hidden and tortured in the intimacy. During tortures, like for instance the air shirt during the holy week in Seville, the body is in rags. In my book “The Alchemy of makeup”, there is this terrible quote from the book “The power to exist” by Michel Onfray, referring to the inside body as “garbage”3.

It is also very interesting to take a look at the representation of the female Saints’ body… These bodies are going into convulsions, hysterical and their statuary is a representation of ecstasy.

JCH ⏤ To conclude, I’d like to talk about a very specific movement in the history of makeup, the gothic movement. Where does it come from?

DP ⏤ The so-called gothic movement emerged at the end of the 18th century. The first Gothic era started in England with the construction of Strawberry Hills, the villa of the British writer Horace Walpole4 who created a literary style that evolves in parallel with architecture. This was the raise of a literature for young women. This frenetic literature depicted young virgins under the influence of occult, evil and demoniac powers like the monk Lewis. There is then a real gothic, and by the way delightful, literature. The Revolution materialized somehow the sadistic atmosphere and signed the end of the movement. Then it reappeared with German romanticism, far more than French romanticism, which was heavily influenced by occult powers, as well as with the “Illuminist” and “Martinist” cults. These were more fashion trends than real philosophical movements.

However at the end of the 19th century, a second gothic movement arose, in parallel with a self-fallback movement and with the development of racial hate in America, which is still very much present.

This movement was a return to Middle age and it influenced by historians like MICHELET. You can find a representation of it in the specific architecture of a part of the 17th arrondissement of Paris and in gothic facial trend.

Gothic reappeared again at the end of the 20th century! And you can conclude that the fantastical power of change of century made Gothic a “fin de siècle” movement, three times in history!

In the 20th century, gothic is present through the popular Halloween holiday as well and mostly in the great influence of the music initiated by the punk nihilist movement of 1976-1977. This movement has been growing and has adopted specific codes. It is very clannish, coded and rigid.

(1) "Histoire de la beauté", by Dominique Paquet, Edition Découvertes Gallimard.

"Alchimies du maquillage"

by Dominique Paquet

Editions Chiron, 1989

(2) Le Moi-peau

by Didier Anzieu

Editions Dunod, 1985

(3) La puissance d’exister

by Michel Onfray

Editions Grasset, 2006

(4) Le château d’Otrante

by Horace Walpole,1764


Hanna Tveite + Cyndle Komarovski
A special beauty story for Chanel
Inside Victor Weinsanto and Vincent Pressiat's world
"I want my life to be a firework !"
Portrait of Camille Villegas by Claire Bonnot
Interview by Jean-Christophe Husson
I constructed myself in deconstruction.
A discussion on Deconstruction with Micha Barban Dangerfield
Isamaya Ffrench CARTE BLANCHE
Explore The Edge of Beauty
Decoding by Sophie Abriat