One of the greatest film historians and writers Molly Haskell celebrates women and make-up in her delightful chapter Lipstick Envy. Her essay is part of her groundbreaking book from a while back, Holding My Own In No Man’s Land: women and men, film and feminists.
Haskell handpicks W B Yeat’s poem Before The World Was Made as one of his most beautiful and most generous. It describes a woman in front of her mirror.
"This is, among other things, a magnificent reproach to those who would judge women harshly and would dismiss the artifice involved in makeup as “mere” vanity."
"With sublime compassion for women, Yeats refocuses the question: women don’t use makeup to deceive or disguise, but to create something magnificent, to add to the sum of beauty in the world.
We are artists of ourselves, our faces a canvas onto which we dab and dash the lines and colors of a painter’s palette, and in the sensuous act of making ourselves up we look for something beyond and before time, an ideal self.
In looking into the mirror, we go back to before we were born and perhaps to being born, to the mother whose face was our first mirror – and from there to our first memory of her looking into the mirror.
Each look in the glass invokes a chain of mirrors, of mothers and daughters, receding into infinity."
Yeats and Haskell express this emotion so perceptively that it needs no embellishment. That shouldn't stop us from reading and enjoying their lovely lines again and again. Nor should it stop us from finding new beauty and freshness in women (and girls) sitting at their dressing-table mirrors and tilting their heads this way and that to seek - and find - their own newness. Or holding up tiny mirrors (or smartphones!?) in their palms just before they step out or hop off a bus, a train, a car, a plane to find in that tiny reflection of themselves, a beauty that they alone, can recreate. Each time, every single time, seeking - and finding - not just a face in a pond, but a universe entire.
Clockwise from top: Catherine Ross, Rosamond Pinchot, Dorothy Janis, Anne Bancroft, Myrna Loy, Evelyn Nesbit
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.