The facade of the brand-new Makeup Museum is cleverly designed to beckon today’s influencers and the beauty obsessed. Across the street from the Whitney Museum, on Gansevoort Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, it greets passersby with a pink neon sign and a wall of plants. It’s a street perfect for Instagram in every direction. But once inside, you’re taken through Elizabeth Arden’s iconic Red Door, and then you dive into the “Pink Jungle: 1950s Makeup in America,” the Makeup Museum’s inaugural exhibition.
Here, patrons are met with a long wall covered top to bottom in magazine ads. The immediate confrontation of imagery makes a certain theme abundantly clear: This industry was for a certain type of woman. Women like Marilyn and Audrey. Women who matched their lipstick to their nails, because Max Factor said it on television. Women who could afford what was in the glass cases.
There isn’t a facet of this idealized woman’s life left untouched by the hand of consumerism and advertising. She has weighty powder tins with compartments for pills and cigarettes, heart-shaped lipstick with a display case reminiscent of opera glasses, nail polish (one for home and one for travel), an electric yellow portable hair dryer that weighs only 50 pounds, powdered toothpaste that she applies with red lipstick on (which somehow doesn’t smudge), and even glasses with lenses that flip down so she can perfect her cat eye. But it quickly becomes clear that this woman is more of a Don Draper fever dream than a real person.
As you move through the museum, glamour and lavishness are mainstays, but there is a parallel narrative happening—the hardships and evolution of the wearer. Movie-star blondes may be the target audience, but they’re far from the only people wearing makeup. Next to the table with Salvador Dali’s immaculate “Bird in Hand” compact, sits a triangular grid of lipsticks housed in bullet casings. Jewel-encrusted packaging on rows of pancake makeup almost distract from the fact that they come in shades such as “Juvenile Flesh” and “Arab or Hindu.”
On a wall to the side, a small collection of Jet magazines hangs above an array of well-loved pomades, and a black comb with gilded lettering. These items feel almost out of place, and are outnumbered by the hundreds of magazines next to them that have set their sights on this perfect imaginary white woman. But the disparity serves as a reminder that beauty products for Black people made in the 1950s were extremely rare. The irony of giving such prominence to products made for a demographic that beauty companies had to be convinced were not valueless is not lost on the tour guides.
In the last room, The Maker Room, images of men and women who created iconic beauty brands hang on the walls. They overlook a floor with pedestals holding glass cases of their products, some precious and untouched, some worn with time and affection. Some were created by men with every advantage, but the overwhelming majority were created by women, immigrants, people of color, queer people, innovators, and disruptors—people who fought to make a space for themselves, all immortalized by whoever left their fingerprint in the rouge or got a hair on their sheer coral lipstick 70 years ago.
There’s a special kind of nostalgia in seeing what was once an everyday product behind glass. Suddenly it’s possible that the heavily used Fenty Foundation rolling around in the bottom of your purse could someday be elevated. This excitement for the future is accompanied by a warm familiarity that feels almost universal. The powdery smell of Coty Airspun will always remind you of someone—maybe a grandmother or family member.
For me, I was transported to the cozy home of my old music teacher, Del, where I spent hours singing along to her piano as a kid. I remember watching her perfectly manicured fingers dance along the keys, her heavy but tasteful perfume wafting through the air. As a budding makeup enthusiast, I studied her closely. She was perfectly coiffed, even as an older woman. We were no longer in the ’50s, but the beauty lessons of the era were instilled in her, and therefore in me.
The Makeup Museum reminded me of the early experiments I did when I got home from class. Del wore blue eyeshadow, so I wore blue eyeshadow with glitter. Del wore peachy pink lipstick, so I wore bright red. Del set her makeup with Coty Airspun from a tin, so I set mine with Coty Airspun from a plastic jar. The Makeup Museum gave me an invitation to explore my own relationship with makeup, while also teaching me why I was doing those things in the first place.
The beauty of makeup is that it’s only a tool, and every person who wears it gets to decide what it means. The wearer creates its history. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes a powerful statement with her signature red lipstick, but it wouldn’t mean what it does today without Elizabeth Arden first defining red as the color of Suffragettes in 1912. Today, drag queens create entirely new personas with makeup, but their new mainstream acceptance would have entirely different connotations without the hostile societal rejection of “female impersonators” like Julian Eltinge and Kit Russell in the 1950s. And my setting powder wouldn’t mean much to me had I not seen it on Del’s dresser in 2008.
Leaving the museum and stepping back into a world of influencers and Sephora shops on every corner, it’s easy to appreciate all the advances in beauty we get to enjoy today. But it’s also important to remember that we are not finished evolving. The success of the Makeup Museum comes from its acute awareness of how ugly history can be, while embracing the beauty that grows from it, and understanding that history comes from everywhere. It shows us that adversity and artistry can exist together, and that we always have more to learn.