“Wise and silent.”
— M83, Graveyard Girl.
The first cosmetic item I ever selected and purchased on my own, for actual use in social dealings, was a deep wine, nearly rouge-noir lipstick from the Larchmont Beauty Store, possibly made by Bonne Bell. I was twelve and preparing to depart for summer camp for the first time. I was also drunk with freedom and fear, and the sleek lipstick tube was compellingly, assuringly adult. I should note that I went not to outdoor camp on a lake but to nerd camp on a college campus, where the most socially acceptable outdoor activity was known as “sun worshipping” and consisted of tanning and flirting. I should also note that although I was wild to see boys again after my first year at a girls’ school, I was not a pretty, stylish pre-adolescent who was about to do anything about it. I was instead one of those shy, bespectacled, shrimpy children who disappeared in too-big clothing (shocking, I know).
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about style — quite the opposite. Nascent style for me was developed in stories I wrote and drawings I made and showed no one. Even earlier, style was always at the forefront of imagination, if seldom reality. My older sister and I had a very rich imaginative life when we were little, getting along better with each other than with anyone else. We built tent cities in our room to house abandoned children and animals. We trekked through the living room as aid workers rescuing refugees from war-torn countries. Our most frequent and favorite game was played in whispers each night after bedtime, when we became members of a large family, ten siblings or more, with extended families also with tens of children each. The families ate together, traveled together, and simply were together — the most and least imaginative of all our games. And every night, before the story could begin, we had to get everyone dressed. “What should we wear?” one of us would whisper, as we assumed our identities as the two oldest daughters of the large family. “What were the cousins wearing?” “What were the little kids wearing?” Sartorial details were settled at the outset and each character had a style of her own. My sister’s persona was a neon-wearing 80s glam girl with a perm. My character, on the other hand, was a classicist who wore chambray shirts and riding pants, or the era-specific clothing of times past — 70s peasant blouses and Mexican embroidery, for instance.
It’s possible that we played together so well because my sister was and always has been exceptionally good-natured with me. Maybe we relied on each other during turbulent times in an immigrant household headed by two stubborn iconoclasts who married young to escape their baggage, only to bring it right along with them. Or it may have been because we were virtually the only minorities at a private school where most of the kids had parents in television and didn’t live near us anyway. Looking back, I think what we really craved then was community in our isolated imaginings. Ideally, a well-dressed community.
My sister was an extrovert who wore bright crop tops, off-the-shoulder shirts, and leggings on non-uniform days. She was always the shortest, scrappiest kid in the class but never once doubted she was pretty. I was the opposite, outwardly projecting nothing but observing behind my big glasses, and figuring, and writing what I figured in stories and journals. One thing I figured was that my sister and I were different, governed by different rules. Even so, there was never rivalry between us. I was proud of her for being a contender, but somehow, I knew that none of it applied to me. Not growing up or having a real body and wearing spaghetti straps, which was the height of adult sophistication in my eyes. Nor having a real life — I had already given up on all of it. I was twelve years old and I felt it was already too late to live.
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a very dark lipstick was the first beauty item I was drawn to. I chose it alone; my sister had never worn anything like it. But I already knew I could never be a girl like my sister, though she turned out not to be that girl either. More surprising is that I wasn’t deterred from choosing at all, even if it was in the manner of someone with nothing to lose. And executed with the boldness of someone who hadn’t yet learned to project an identity, much less obscure it. Unfortunately though, that someone wasn’t prescient enough to consider that vampy lipstick is best left to those approaching 5 feet, or 70 pounds, or perhaps those who wear contact lenses (this was the 90s, Tavi wasn’t born yet, and those glasses were still deemed unfortunate).
I wore the lipstick to three camp dances, one of which was also my first date (hi, Oliver). I wore it with black jeans and a soft, faded Gap denim shirt over my sister’s favorite black tank top which I had filched without permission. Bless her loving soul for her response — “Oh, I wondered where that was” — after I confessed my treachery over the phone. The rouge-noir lips persisted into my teens, during which I attained the mind-blowing height of 5′ 6″ (my family is not tall), set aside the glasses, and embraced the skin-baring items of the times. As to whether dark lipstick on an unripe teenaged face was any less incongruous than on a baby face, I will not comment. Still, I chose it and wore it with tenacity, until I stopped wearing it and phased into something else altogether.
That something else was a California girl. This involved sun-kissed lip gloss, straightened hair, and an odd jealousy of the California suburban kids I met in the UC system — their growing up together, knowing each other’s families, and knowing where you were because they saw your car parked outside. Community again, even if ultimately not the right one for someone who grew up in isolation in the middle of a large city, in a family that had long ago learned to self-identify as loners.
It was during this time that I saw wine-darkened lips again and nearly didn’t recognize them. Visiting my recently expatriated cousin in Paris during a semester off, I arrived to discover that Alison was also drunk with living on her own terms. This manifested itself in very long, tousled hair and a lot of deep, rich jewel-toned clothing and makeup. To my friends studying abroad in the city, she was my “uber-chic” cousin. She burned Diptyque candles before they were a stateside commodity, wore a Vanessa Bruno boucle jacket before Isabel Marant arrived on that scene, and every day, smoky eyes and those dark lips. Hers were achieved by a Face Stockholm lip pencil in Aubergine, or Eggplant in English. I found that out when she lost it and had to make do with an unsatisfying MAC substitute until I went to London and got one for her at the Face Stockholm boutique off Tottenham Court Road. I didn’t get one for myself. As much as I admired Alison, Aubergine felt foreign to my strange California life which I didn’t yet realize was forcing a square peg into tube tops and cargo pants.
After, though not because of, Paris, I phased out of California again and drifted for a while. There was a brief stint working at Club Monaco, where the style was informative but didn’t work with my student life. There was a business-casual dearth while I held my first office job after college, at a time when San Francisco was earning its reputation as one of the least stylish metropolitan cities in the U.S. Then came four years in Los Angeles and the magic of becoming an adult in my hometown. There, I finally remembered a few things about myself, namely that I wasn’t a WASP, that I used to write stories and draw pictures, and that my sister and I were once the best-dressed girls in imagination.
There have since been many lipsticks, and I had forgotten all about my wine-dark lipstick until I saw the photos from Paris fashion week and was jolted into an ancient memory. Funny, this was meant to be a beauty post about fall makeup, but seeing these beautiful images reminded me of something I’d once forgotten, fortunately recalled before it was lost forever. Sometimes it’s a shock to get reacquainted with an old, perhaps more fundamental version of yourself and ruefully wonder if you were not a lot more interesting then than you are now. I’m thankful I remembered this at 30 and not 20, now that I’ve made at least one full circle. So this fall, I will darken my hair as I do when the weather turns colder, I will paint and write what’s been swimming in my head for ages, and I will wear very dark lipstick as I haven’t done since I was a child, silent and waiting.
(1. Freja Beha Erichsen; 2. Dior Beauty Fall/Winter 2011/12. Both images via Jak & Jil.)