For decades, women of color have called for makeup that reflects the full spectrum of skin tones. With a new generation of inclusive products and brand founders, the market is finally catching up. Untitled (Putting on make up), by Carrie Mae Weems, from the artist’s Kitchen Table Series, 1990–1999.
I was born in 1937, bred, toasted, buttered, jellied, jammed, and honeyed in Harlem. Now, when people introduce me and they try to say that, they get it all mixed up. But that’s who I am. I still put my foundation on with my fingers and I blend, like I was taught in charm school when I was sixteen, even though everybody’s using a sponge now and watching tutorials.
Back then, there was really only one woman making cosmetics for black skin. She was based in Detroit, and her name was Carmen Murphy. We would press and curl our hair with a hot comb and an iron so it was straight, like a white girl’s, and we would buy Carmen Murphy’s foundations direct from one of the instructors at the Ophelia DeVore School of Charm. If we couldn’t get it, we would go downtown to buy Max Factor from a shop in the Theater District where the makeup artists used to buy pigments for the actors on Broadway. And we would just keep mixing one, two, or three different shades until we got the color we wanted. You can imagine my surprise when I went to Sephora the other day for my granddaughter, who is eighteen, and every cosmetics company seemed to have a range of shades from black to black-brown to “maple”—a far cry from what we had when I started modeling. You had to take care of yourself because the options were so limited.
Most magazines didn’t start using black models until the sixties, so I mostly worked for companies such as Dixie Peach and Camel cigarettes. I got a job as a model in the loungewear department at Bloomingdale’s and became an assistant buyer before moving to Chicago with my then husband and joining the Ebony Fashion Fair—the world’s largest traveling charity fashion show—as a commentator. That’s when I had an idea. Clairol did the hair for the shows, but we all did our own makeup. So I said to founder Eunice Johnson, “We need to have our own cosmetics.” Eunice was thrilled. We launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973, and we were in every store—Marshall Field’s, Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn, Bloomingdale’s. We had toners, we had skin-care products, we had blushes, eye shadows, foundation in every shade you can imagine. We were the only game in town; then, all of a sudden, there were all of these lines that launched to compete—Revlon put out its Polished Ambers collection in 1975; much later there were brands like Black Opal and Black Up. Black women were buying cosmetics like crazy, which is part of the reason I wrote a one-page proposal to Vogue’s then editor, Grace Mirabella, while I was working as a freelance stylist for the magazine in the early eighties. It had a simple message: You need a column for black women. There was a real absence of information—and Beauty Now . . . From a Black Woman’s Point of View filled that void. During my four-year run, I covered our lips, our skin, our breasts. I was the first to get an exclusive with Vanessa Williams before she won Miss America. The interest and the demand for these kinds of stories were partially due to all the new products that were available to us for the first time, and partially due to the fact that finally, we had all of these black women to be inspired by: Nancy Wilson and Patti LaBelle—both of them had their own cosmetics lines; Diahann Carroll; Angela Davis with her gorgeous Afro; and Iman, whose products are still setting the trends. It’s hard not to notice the present-day parallels. There are all of these wonderful, diverse artists in pop culture and on social media for young women to look up to: Rihanna, Beyoncé, Cardi B—fabulous women on the world’s biggest stages—and these girls wear makeup!