ear makeup, a beautifully weird trend foretold by willow smith

The graphic ocher lobes at Proenza Schouler this season were inspired by the colors of Jackie Nickerson photographs, but fashion’s obsession with the ear goes further back.

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Sep 21 2016, 7:55pm

Proenza Schouler spring/summer 17

Diana Vreeland famously wore blush on her ears. She also once suggested, in her iconic "Why Don't You" column for Harper's Bazaar, curling pigtails around children's ears to look "like macarons." Dipping earlobes in makeup, though, is a beautifully bonkers idea fashion seems to be suggesting only now. But is it really new?

At Proenza Schouler this season, makeup artist Diane Kendal painted models' ears in solid blocks of yellow and white, creating a bold matte backdrop for the lacquered chandelier earrings of Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez's latest jewelry collection. At Opening Ceremony in February, Yadim ran swooshes of glitter up models' cheekbones to encircle their ears. Pat McGrath applied liquid silver makeup to ears at Louis Vuitton for spring/summer 16. And in 2014, models walked Anthony Vaccarello's spring/summer 2015 runway with black glitter-smeared lobes designed by Tom Pecheux to imitate morning-after eye makeup.

"The design team was inspired by the photographer Jackie Nickerson — her photographs capture very clean and muted colors with strong elements of personal style," Kendal explains to i-D of her recent Proenza look. "The painted ear evokes the elegance and color palette of the natural striking beauty in Jackie's photographs."

Tom Pecheux also took his cue from photography for his inky ear dip at Anthony Vaccarello. He said in an interview at the time, "I own a picture by the artist Douglas Gordon that is of a person's finger tattooed entirely in black, like it was dipped in ink. When Anthony was talking about jewelry and makeup, I thought, 'Perhaps we don't do an earring, but a black tattoo — something that felt very graphic.'"

Louis Vuitton spring/summer 16

Painted ears have an otherworldly feel. They can conjure futuristic sci-fi creatures, like Pat McGrath's quicksilver versions (a look The Hungers Games' Effie Trinket would probably love). But they can also evoke something more ancient.

Cosmetics historian Rachel Weingarten points to the Picts, the 7th- and 8th-century Celtic people whose name literally means "painted" or "tattooed," as a possible historical precedent for today's colorful ear moment. "They would paint their faces and bodies with blue inks when they either defended themselves against the invading Romans or went on the offensive," she explains. The Maori also have a rich tradition of tattoos (or moko), which includes inking ears — they consider the face the most sacred space on the body, says Weingarten.

And in America, the extinct Yuma tribe of Arizona wore elaborate face tattoos and face paint. "Some believed this was their way of being identified in the afterlife," Weingarten says. "Tribes would paint areas of their ears with solid clay, paint, or plant based inks before going to war."

Two other, slightly less magical, blueprints for contemporary ear makeup are the recent proliferation of ear-encompassing jewelry on the runways (see Rodarte's dragon cuffs) and the revelation that Kylie Jenner contours her ears.

But if you're looking for modern ear makeup's true pioneer, witness this photo, from 2010.

Before Proenza, before Vuitton, there was 11-year-old Willow Smith sporting a silver ear on a step-and-repeat. Which, of course, makes total sense. Being either the reincarnation of an ancient sage or a creature from another galaxy, Willow was perfectly positioned to deliver this look to earth. A silver-rimmed ear just feels right on her. Because ear makeup and Willow represent the same things: being different and being proud of it. If beauty in 2016 is about breaking apart old, restrictive ideas, why not dip your ear in an oil slick of inky-black eyeliner or dust your cartilage with a sprinkling of silver glitter?

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Text Alice Newell-Hanson