My mother had an on-again, off-again relationship with makeup. She grew up in the south in her older brother’s household on a farm where makeup was not a priority.
When she ran off to the big city up north with my father, it is clear she embraced the big city ways. There are various pictures of her in her early 20s wearing lipstick and eye makeup. Her hair was “done” in the latest styles and different colors popular in the 1950s.
She briefly did a few photoshoots for local ads in Chicago. I don’t believe she was signed to any particular agency. If she was, she didn’t mention it to me. All I heard was that she did “a little modeling a long time ago.” She told me this as I was ransacking her makeup at the age of nine.
My mother continued to wear some makeup for her job–she worked all while I was growing up. Pictures of her at work show lipstick, brows, and foundation at least.
However, she stopped dyeing her hair after she experienced a bad allergic reaction to a red dye. She called herself allergic to hair dye until she was 70 years old. Her stylist and I had to reassure her that the dyes had improved a lot in 50 years. She finally allowed Brenda to dye it for about a year. Then, that was it.
Somewhere in the 1970s, my mother only wanted to use brow pencil. She considered her brows too light and said they disappeared halfway around her eyes. She was correct. Her brows were well-shaped, though she stopped tweezing them. They were darker by her nose and trailed off blonde (or gray) toward her temples. Mine do the same.So if she planned to attend an event, she would pencil her brows and maybe slap some kind of lip gloss on.
She left all her old makeup hanging around her bedroom along with jewelry, scarves, and hats. I was always a girlie-girl who loved digging through all the makeup. My mother’s complexion was darker than mine. I have my father’s lighter skin. But I slapped on her Max Factor Pan Cake in some kind of beige.
I played with the tube of Erase, which was a thick concealer she said she used to cover her “bad acne.” She told me pregnancy cured her. Erase looked like a bad beige lipstick in a gold tube. I thought it was lipstick at first and popped it on my mouth.
My mother also had this thick, greasy, gritty medicated makeup pan with sulfur in it, called Sulforcin. It smelled awful and made me itch if I put it on. The medicine itself is still in existence. That stuff was quite horrible. I can’t imagine trying to wear it daily with powder and “rouge.”
She had a couple of Cover Girl brow pencils in medium brown, her natural color. She had a couple of short, stumpy pencils and one or two longer ones. The outside was red and looked like a colored pencil. I may or may not have used them as pencils… accidentally, of course. Or not.
And then she had lipstick. Lots of lipstick in all colors. The idea was if ladies wore nothing else, they should powder a little and add some lipstick for color. My mother had full-sized sticks, some almost used up. She would dig a small brush into those and apply the color. She also had a large collection of tiny samples of different colors. These baby lipsticks were the best because there were so many to play with. I tried so hard not to mess up the perfect point when I put the tiny lid back. I could never decide if I liked the light pink or the fuchsia…or the creamy orange. The blood red or the maroon. All so pretty.
My mother had cake mascara and a little brush that looked kind of like a tiny toothbrush. She showed me how to wet it and make a paste. Some girls, she said, would spit in the mascara to wet it. I could see in the pan where she had added water and swirled the brush.
I do not remember any eye shadow. My mother has hooded eyes, as do I, and perhaps she didn’t wear any. She didn’t seem to know how to apply eye shadow. At a certain point, when she got older, she would ask me to apply any eye shadow she wore. It was my eye shadow, though. I have no memory of hers.
My mother gave up wearing makeup sometime when I was a child. She didn’t wear makeup much at home on a daily basis. She reserved it for photos and special occasions. Even then, her makeup became more and more minimal as time went on.
Now, me, I loved makeup and all the trimmings. I did my nails and put stuff all over myself from the time I was a tween. Which, by the way, was not a word back then. I was a preteen.
At 13, I remember wanting to wear makeup all the time but could only wear some clear lip gloss to school. Preferably that sticky roll-on lip goo in root beer and strawberry. I also had bubblegum lipstick in an impossible light shimmery pink. Tasted awful. Lip Smackers were the new thing and I had to have Coke and Dr. Pepper flavors.
I suppose I was about 15 or 16 when makeup became a daily thing. Meanwhile, my mother wore none at all. She asked me to help her do her makeup if she somehow needed to wear it. Those were rare instances.
The last couple of times my mother wore makeup were unusual.
At age 60-something, she decided out of nowhere to apply some of (I’m sure) my old eye shadow and lipstick for a casual party. I happened to be there. She rolled in looking like someone had popped her in the eyes. She had lost any ability to apply shadow, if she had any skill to begin with. I never saw evidence of eye shadow in her kit. At the party, I simultaneously wanted to wipe it off and fix the shadow. She was so excited and proud of herself. I did neither.
Around the same time, my mother was recruited to film a commercial. Yes, one on TV. For a local company. Unbelievable. She asked me to do her makeup, but the folks on set did both hair and makeup for her.
The final time my mother wore makeup was when she won an award. She called and asked if I wanted to do her makeup for the event. I suggested she talk to her stylist, Brenda. My mother got a new dye job, haircut, style, and professional airbrushed makeup all for this event. She wanted to look good. She didn’t want to look as sick as she really was.
I have no idea if my mother did her own makeup for the few times she modeled in the 1950s. I imagine she did and showed up in heels and stockings, with perfect hair, powder, and lipstick.
Later, when life got busy, she no longer wanted so much upkeep and let the daily makeup fade and the hair turn into wash and wear.
At the end of her life, though, she allowed herself to be dolled up by professional stylists and makeup artists. She wanted to look and feel her best.
And that’s really the whole point. Makeup can make us look and feel our best, whether under special circumstances or just on the daily.