“Some people think beauty is trivial. As a trans woman, I believe it’s a privilege to feel that way… I would love not to spend an hour feminising my face every morning. Make-up is crucial to transition: it enables me to be seen how I see myself and how I want to be seen by society.”
In a recent article on the Boots No. 7 cosmetics range, Richard Hornsey notes how feminist scholars have described how political debates around make-up are often split between two analytical frameworks. Whereas one side argues that make-up paints women into patriarchal regimes of objectification, triviality and expense, the other celebrates make-up for encouraging self-expression and agency. Yet, as Charlie Craggs’ account suggests, both positions can fall short of reflecting lived experience. In describing the hour it takes her to get ready in the morning Craggs makes clear the work involved – the ‘aesthetic labour’ to use the terminology of Ana Elias et al – but Craggs also emphasises how make-up enables her self-expression.
Cosmetics have played a role in trans lives for a very long time, but in more recent history we can find evidence of how make-up was used to build community among individuals who transgressed gender boundaries in diverse ways. The Beaumont Society is the longest running support organisation for the transgender community. In 1993, the Society reworded their constitution with the aim of bringing together people who ‘cross-dress[ed]’ with ‘transsexuals’ to ‘reduce the emotional stress, eliminate the sense of guilt’ and ‘promote and assist… the study of gender role differences.’ In the same year, they launched a new Beaumont Magazine to encourage communication between members (available at the British Library). Focusing mostly on ‘cross-dressing’ and feminine gender expression, the magazine also provided space for the discussion of gender dysphoria, and printed occasional articles which explored trans masculinity and ‘third gender’ lives. It made space for readers to share photographs, send in letters and put questions to other readers: ‘You ask the questions… we give you an answer and invite you, the READER, to give us your wisdom. Send your solutions to us!’ (Volume 1, No. 4). Like mainstream women’s magazines of the period, the Beaumont Magazine utilised readers’ letters to help create a sense of community.
Make-up and beauty featured heavily on the ‘questions’ page and were integral to this formation of community. In the Summer Holiday 1993 edition (Volume 1, No.4), Cheryl wrote; ‘I always take care with my eye make-up. Then I ruin it by mis-managing my mascara brushes. Any pointers?’ She received a sympathetic answer lamenting the difficulty of the ‘acquired skill’ of make-up and encouragement to try false eyelashes: ‘The only problem is high temperatures, such as at a disco, when perspiration can unglue them. Better than having mascara running down your cheeks!’
Another reader Ann asked, ‘How do I stop my lipstick ‘bleeding’ along the outer line and looking smudgy?’ In the Christmas issue her question was answer by Davinia, who wrote: ‘This is how Estee Lauder suggest you do it in their handouts…’ before detailing a lengthy six step process. Make-up helped these individuals be seen as they wanted to be seen and build community through shared knowledge and experience.
Artefacts collected in Brighton Museum’s Museum of Transology exhibition illustrate that while some trans and non-binary people now learn about make-up through Youtube, certain cosmetic items continue to represent forms of community. A lipstick donated to the collection came with the explanatory tag attached: ‘This lipstick was from my wonderful sister who was the first family member to accept and support my transition.’ Sisterly support imbued this everyday object with an emotional significance.
Stories like these show how make-up is anything but trivial. At Made Up: Health and Beauty Secrets Past and Present – an event series organised as part of the Being Human Festival (14-23 November 2019) – we will be exploring the role of grooming in everyday lives in post-war Britain.
If you are in Colchester or the wider Essex area, join us for Beauty School Drop In on Saturday 16 November – a historical beauty salon where you can get your nails done by Charlie Craggs, hear historical talks, take part in craft activities, and share your own memories and photographs of past hair and make-up choices. Photographs and recordings collected at Beauty School Drop In will be shown as part of Faces: An Exhibition of Changing Essex Style on Saturday 23 November. This one-day pop-up exhibition will also host Glow Up – a zine-making workshop with artist Lu Williams of Grrrl Zine Fair.