the past, present and future of contouring…

Does the smoke and mirrors beauty trick have proper staying power?

08 December 2015, 10:10am


Contouring is the beauty trend that's swept popular culture by storm. The make-up technique is used to highlight some areas of the face and shade others, accentuate your favourite features and reshape those you want to disguise. It's a trick the super glamorous, selfie obsessed Kardashian clan won't leave the house without, and they're frequently being named as the driving force behind the make-up trend. But is it right to credit them with inventing the aesthetic? No it's not. And here's why...

Contouring's history stretches way back to long before Kim's sex tape, in fact, before she was even born. The heavily painted look hails back to the faces of old Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, all of whom are still lauded for their goddess-like looks today, but there was no way the trick had a way to go mainstream. Back then, industry secrets remained secrets, with no dressing room snaps to give away the tricks of the trade to the clueless public. Even in the 90s, when Kevyn Aucoin was making waves with his intense, sculpted make-up style showcased on his Vogue covers, there was still very little chance you'd ever find out how to recreate it at home.

But contouring unofficially belongs to the drag queens. Anyone who's watched RuPaul's Drag Race will know the true transformative power of make-up. What you can't learn about make-up from drag queens, well it can't be taught. RuPaul is blessed by the brush of Mathu Andersen, his long time collaborator and make-up artist extraordinaire. He believes that "out of the extremities comes innovation", and it is from the extremities of drag make-up that some of our favourite pop starlets signature looks have come. "It all washes away, it's all ephemera," Andersen explains, "It's just surface grease and tangles, and yet it's an expression of how you feel about yourself. It's telling a story about yourself, it's really got nothing to do with real life, but it's got a lot to do with the real life that you're imagining for yourself." It's refreshing to hear Andersen speak about make-up with the understanding that it's all a fantasy, all fake and filters, but an important form of self expression that can be removed from boring, bronzer-lead beauty.

"Women who use cosmetics as a replacement for self esteem? That bothers me," he continues, "I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad, I just like doing this. It does tend to be extreme because that's the joke, this is the game, we're not trying to make you feel bad, it's just the game we're playing. But we all have aspirational ideas, the reality is a little different from that, it's a little more crunchy and nuts and bolts! Isn't that nice? To know it's not real, to put aside those anxieties and just join in the fun? We're all just colouring in and there's nothing wrong with that."

How did we learn to colour in though? Who opened the floodgates to overdrawn lips and angular cheekbones? Whilst Max Factor's make-up school taught early forms of contouring as early as 1945, 2012 was the year it all changed - the year Kim Kardashian uploaded the infamous 'before and after' shots of her make-up routine. All white stripes and orange streaks, the picture debunked what had been a huge myth. Girls and boys the world over began raiding their dressing tables for products to contour with and the big brands soon caught on. That complete with the explosion of online gurus teaching the world how to contour via YouTube videos and beauty blogs meant contouring went global.

In 2015, beauty, like everything else, is big business online. According to Marc Zapanta, one of many young YouTube make-up stars, the biggest influences on beauty trends right now are Kylie Jenner and YouTube Vloggers like Jaclyn Hill and Desi Perkins. "Any products that they show get sold out within hours and sometimes minutes. These YouTubers and celebrities who have millions of followers and subscribers have a lot of power over a lot of people" And the truth remains, why would you stand in Superdrug trying on twenty shades of contouring cream when you can sit in bed, scrolling through Instagram and see exactly which name and number is splashed across the cheeks of your favourite star?"

When I was growing up my friends and I got make-up tips from our big sisters and their magazines; how you shaped your eyebrows was dictated either by your mum (if you were lucky) or by your own naive hands, alone at night with tweezers stolen from the bathroom cabinet. Eyeliner was perfected by sitting in front of your mirror and practicing until A. you didn't care how it looked anymore, or B. you had fatigued yourself knowing you weren't going to get it right. Make-up was a coming of age ritual formed from trial, error and embarrassing photographs that are still lurking on the early pages of tagged Facebook albums across the country. Now though, if you want to learn how to do winged eyeliner you don't have to settle in for the night with a pot of Collection 2000 liquid liner, you just go on YouTube and watch a tutorial instead. You want to know how Amber Rose gets her perfect, pink pout? You go on Instagram and see for yourself. Or, to be more precise, you go on Instagram and follow Priscilla Ono, Rose's make-up artist, and a social media star in her own right. Priscilla Ono, contour creator to the stars, has been in the industry for over ten years but sees this recent rise in online 'gurus' as a good thing, even life changing. "To me, make-up means confidence, setting the tone and telling a story," she explains. "I can see the confidence boost in my clients throughout the make-up process and it's undeniable by the end of the session how confident and ready they feel but no one is saying that cosmetics are the be all and end all." Maybe we should just count ourselves lucky that we live in a time when beauty isn't a secret anymore, it's not an exclusive club only open to A-listers, it's the click of a button and a wifi signal away, where make-up isn't about hiding your real features but accentuating what's already there.

But what comes next? When you can log in to YouTube and learn how to re-sculpt your face in five minutes, doesn't it seem like we've pushed our cosmetics as far as they can go? Well, probably not. Like everything in fashion, beauty is just as cyclical. First, there'll be a subtle trend, then a boom as it blows up and we go back to simplicity before we all get bored and go wild all over again. But what does this tell us about modern beauty? What can we learn from our generation's penchant for polished skin and exaggerated features? Make-up artist Bobbi Brown has spoken against making contouring products for her eponymous brand, and after Hood by Air accompanied its spring/summer 16 stylings with what looked ever so similar to unblended contouring on every model's face, it's safe to say the real staying power of this make-up trend isn't yet to be seen..


Text Elizabeth Pankhurst Moffatt