During Spring/Summer 16’s fashion weeks, a scattering of the boldest designers and their show teams went extreme in their collections and their beauty looks. We saw painterly smudges over the eyes at Chanel and Missoni, Pat McGrath adorned the models’ faces with jewels at Givenchy for the second season in a row and clown-bright hair was seen at Gareth Pugh. This season’s beauty was out there for sure, but was pulled from references in the near and ancient past.
Since prehistory, men and women have decorated their bodies. Bright and garish colours on the face and body symbolised tribal identity and belonging. Body paint was literally used as war paint: to intimidate an enemy. In many ancient (and existing) cultures, natural dyes and pigments were applied to the body and the face in a ritualistic way; often to celebrate rites of passage, like births, deaths and coming of age. Scarification, body modification, piercings and tattooing have had a place in many ancient cultures from every part of the world.
Fast forward a few millennia to the twentieth century, and hair and make up products are cheap and available to just about everyone. In recent history, punks stand out because they used make up, hair and fashion to the best advantage. They used it to show their tribal belonging, and more impressively used it to rock the establishment and to stick two fingers up at the conservative governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were young and politicised, and their look came to represent a willingness to stand out and say what they wanted to say, usually at the top of their lungs. Punks were not afraid to look ugly to the outside world. They revived piercings and made it common place. Punk in its many guises, is a common reference in fashion, which probably boils down to this subculture’s authenticity. They lived, breathed, were punk. It was an attitude and a way of life which everyone could share in because the wearer didn’t need a lot of money to rip up their t-shirt, gel their hair into a mohawk or use safety pins to pierce their ears.
Hair and make up has long been important to festival goers- from hippies painting flowers on their bodies at Woodstock in the 1960s, to the naked but painted bodies of Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. In this setting people let themselves go and enjoy just being themselves and in the company of others. Getting away from the banal and mundane.
Do we hide who we are in wearing the extreme beauty seen at these fashion shows? With so many adornments and layers of greasepaint, it could be easy to lose ourselves. Like actors putting on make up to get into character, can we can become a totally different person and deceive those around us? Make up and hair can, perhaps, transform us into who we truly are. In donning this war paint, do we slip into our most authentic, primal selves; doing something that our kind has done since we could pick up sticks and mix dyes? In masking our faces, we can release ourselves from the boredom of our every day lives. We can let ourselves be freer, looser and less inhibited.
Perhaps then, there is more than one truth to this. Rather than transforming us into a totally different person, or helping us regress to our deepest self, maybe this dramatic armour helps us to tap into a different part of ourselves, one that we are less able to unleash in jeans and a ponytail? A tub of gel, a few grease paints and a sprinkling of glitter could be our greatest allies in helping us tap into something hidden inside ourselves.