Picture a famous woman. She is around forty-five years old, red-haired, with impressive cheekbones, has a taste for androgynous tailoring and for driving fast – for which she is vilified by the press. She is a friend of Keira Knightley, mixing with an aristocratic set of celebrities – usually at casinos in Cannes or private clubs in London. Yet whereas every interview with Tilda Swinton mentions her lack of makeup, Lady Sarah Archer was famed for wearing it. Tilda Swinton is a twenty-first century arthouse actor; Lady Sarah Archer was an eighteenth-century ‘Faro Lady’, a gambler who was a byword for the excesses of Regency aristocracy in cultural commentary of the time.
It is a facile comparison – two red-haired ladies. Yet a comparison of how Swinton and Archer are described by the press bears interest with regards to how both are pigeonholed by their use of makeup.
Lady Archer’s was the age of the first shop signs, window displays and adverts. Print satires and caricatures were available at all good bookshops and groceries, like modern magazines. Gossipy newspapers were illustrated with fashion plates and miniatures of their subjects. It was first time any ordinary person might know the faces of members of the Royal Family.
Lady Archer was one of these suddenly recognisable celebrities. She was one of the most scandalous, known as one of the ‘Faro Ladies’, a group of aristocratic women who ran illegal private gambling dens, and as the widow of four teenaged daughters, whose efforts to marry them off were roundly criticised. Yet the real vituperation towards Lady Archer in the press was for her make-up. Once you know what you are looking, she crops up often in the satirical prints of Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruikshank: a skinny redhead with a hooked nose, usually dressed in scarlet. She appears in ‘The Finishing Touch’ as a ridiculous crone painting her face with a paintbrush; in ‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’ her make-up kit includes a glass eye, false teeth and wig; in ‘Driving to the Perfume Warehouse without a Beau’ she heads to a shop selling ‘Ivory teeth’ and ‘Mouse Eye Brows’. Why were these men so offended by a woman’s use of cosmetics? Their caricatures insist that make-up is not only deceptive but also disgusting in itself. They tell their readers that cosmetics are something used only by the ugly, by women past their best; and that they are deceiving themselves if they think their underlying insecurity isn’t devastatingly obvious. Makeup is laughable, and these journalists and artists are putting themselves in a position of intellectual superiority, above the men and women who wear it.
In almost every article and interview, Tilda Swinton’s bare face is praised. ‘A skull’, ‘impassive’, says The Guardian. ‘Pale and androgynous’ says the BBC. ‘Proudly parading her natural beauty’ with a ‘low-maintenance style’, says the Daily Mail. Swinton’s face is naked, yet the media presents this as a way for her to resist being defined by society – her face ‘inscrutable’, her style neither male nor female. Her lack of cosmetic enhancement is usually appreciated as a token of sophistication and poise; in contrast, those who wear make-up must invite stereotyping. When Swinton does wear fake tan and eyeliner for a film role, the Daily Mail comments with a sneer that: ‘most women would love to look like her character’. Make-up is popular, low-brow.
Looking at Tilda Swinton and Lady Sarah Archer, it would appear we have not moved far in 250 years. Make-up is still spoken of as something artificial, revolting, a ‘tandoori tan’ or eyebrows made from mice. It is something that both reveals insecurity and conceals natural beauty. Yet, is that really all there is going on when someone puts on makeup? Perhaps it is time for a more positive review.