Makeup rigged the Chicago judicial system. “In the 1920s, a string of women killers arrested for murder … were housed together at Cook County Jail … where they discovered that the city’s court system favored white women who used makeup to look wealthy and beautiful,” writes Rae Nudson in All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, From Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian (out July 13). One was Sabella Nitti (above left), an Italian immigrant accused of killing her husband. Called a “dumb, crouching, animal-like peasant” by the Chicago Daily Tribune, she was demonized — until her attorney gave her a makeover. With meticulously plucked eyebrows, defined lips, and a bob, Nitti came to embody the modern American woman, and her charges were eventually dropped. Sound familiar? She and her companions on “Murderess Row” inspired the musical Chicago.
Cosmetics helped Empress Wu of China take the throne. A merchant’s daughter who became a concubine to Emperor Taizong, Wu “cultivated her image by wearing lavish cosmetics to indicate her rising status,” writes Nudson. At Taizong’s deathbed, Wu began a flirtation with his son Gaozong, who later made her empress. Upon his death in 683, Wu became the only woman in China’s history to rule the country.
Black beauty salons were hubs for political organizing. These parlors provided safe spaces where African American women could convene and talk about the politics of the day. Take Lucille Green Randolph, whose New York City salon, which catered to the Black elite, distributed — and helped finance — her husband’s socialist newspaper, the Messenger.
Despite legend, suffragettes likely did not sport red lipstick. “Makeup myths are everywhere,” Nudson writes, including this one about how advocates of women’s voting rights signaled their rebellion. In reality, they needed to appear respectable to be taken seriously, and during the early 1900s, cosmetics were taboo in upper-class society.
Theatrical makeup protected Hong Kong protesters from surveillance. In 2019, to make themselves unrecognizable, pro-democracy demonstrators painted their faces like the Joker’s: white base, an overdrawn smile, blue eye shadow, and a red nose.