Good Taste, Bad Taste, and the Fear of “Too Much”

For a long time now, I’ve thought of myself as someone who takes risks with beauty. I know relatively few people who wear color makeup regularly, and even fewer who wear unconventional colors regularly. When you’re the only one in your group of friends who owns multiple purple lip colors, you start to feel smug about your offbeat taste.

Recently, though, I’ve been reconsidering that smugness. It started on Monday, when I was making myself up before what proved to be an abortive trip to the Asian Art Museum to see this summer’s special exhibit, an exploration of the idea of “gorgeous.” (The museum is closed on Mondays, which, true to form, I realized only after taking the train all the way across the city.) I’d been feeling guilty about neglecting the Kiko eyeshadows I bought in London two months ago, and had resolved to use one of them in that day’s look. I patted NARS Lhasa eyeshadow all over my lids and blended my glittery purple eyeshadow stick from Kiko into the outer half and along my lower lashlines. Some mascara, some neutral cream blush, a coat of semi-sheer red NARS Flamenco lipstick, and–wait. Something was wrong.

It was Too Much.

I felt uncomfortable wearing that much color on my face, even though Flamenco was my most muted red lipstick and I’d mixed the sparkly purple eyeshadow with a staid neutral. I didn’t change my makeup before I went out, but as I waited for one of San Francisco’s reliably unpunctual streetcars, I wondered where my idea of Too Much had come from. There was something WASPy and puritanical about it, and though I’m descended from real-life 17th-century Puritans, I was surprised to find this hidden vein of primness deep in my psyche.

Over the years, we all develop personal makeup rules far stricter than the ones we find in magazines. I suspect that all of us, no matter how eccentric or open-minded we think we are, have a deeply felt sense of aesthetic decorum. Our own aesthetic decorum, mind: a set of standards we apply to ourselves but not necessarily to others. In an interview with Into the Gloss, Dita Von Teese expresses this idea more vividly than I can:

“I discovered early on that people have their ‘drag’…and very few people really, truly want to stray from it. Generally, and I include myself in this, I have my drag and I don’t want anyone messing with it. I remember when I was little, I was watching the Phil Donahue show or something—that shows how old I am—and they were doing makeovers and they took all these ladies that had been wearing the same makeup for 20 years—you know, the green eye shadow, red lips, bouffant red hairdo, that type of lady. These were ladies who had never had their hair and makeup done any other way. I remember seeing the final makeovers and I was so devastated by how boring they made these women look…and how they looked kind of deflated, kind of disappointed, like they didn’t want to be made-over. Don’t take a lady’s green eye shadow away.”

I first read this interview almost two years ago, before I started writing a beauty blog or wearing much makeup at all. But it resonated with me then, and it still does. Though I often wear makeup that others might consider risky or experimental, I don’t usually wear makeup that I consider risky or experimental. The amount of makeup I wear has changed over the past few years, as have the colors and placements I favor and the people from whom I draw beauty inspiration. But the fundamentals of my aesthetic haven’t changed at all. And I’ve been guilty of using the phrase “good taste” as shorthand for those fundamentals, and “bad taste” to describe what makes me uncomfortable to wear.

Over the past few days, I’ve been making a list of all the makeup techniques, finishes, and combinations that I’ve been avoiding, consciously or not, for the entirety of my makeup-wearing life. It’s a pretty long list. I should emphasize that I don’t usually judge other people for favoring these items; they’re just things that I’ve filed away in the folder marked “too much for me.”

  • Non-neutral color makeup on both eyes and lips, even if that makeup is sheer or otherwise understated.
  • Heavy mascara.
  • More than one swipe of blush.
  • Bright eyeliner.
  • Perfectly matte skin.
  • Overdrawn lips.
  • Contouring.
  • Heavily filled-in eyebrows.
  • Eye looks with more than three different shadows.
  • Full-on smoky eyes.
  • Matte eyeshadow in bright colors.
  • Bronzer and fake tans.
  • Most shimmery or glittery lipsticks.

When I wear any of these, I feel less like myself than usual. You’d think a purple eyeliner would produce the same level of comfort as a purple lipstick, but the latter feels like an extension of myself, and the former feels like part of a costume. Or, put another way: purple lipstick feels like part of a costume I designed (my drag, if you will), and purple eyeliner feels like part of a costume designed for someone not quite my size or shape. My aversion to the items listed above is different from my aversion to, say, orange lipsticks or warm brown eyeshadows, both of which I’d wear if I didn’t think they were unflattering to my complexion. I’m sure contouring and matte cobalt eyeshadow and the right shade of bronzer would be flattering; they would just feel…wrong. Too Much.

For the sake of contrast, here’s my face from from yesterday, when I stayed well within my comfort zone (as proof of which, you’ve seen all these products on the blog already):

Here we have theBalm Sleek eyeshadow smudged gently into my eyebrows; Maybelline Bad to the Bronze all over my lids, with the shimmery plum shade from NARS Habanera in the outer corners; a light coat of Maybelline One by One mascara; Illamasqua Zygomatic on cheeks; MAC Up the Amp on lips. I’m also wearing NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer in Vanilla under my eyes, but I’ve been sick since Sunday and my dark circles are winning, guys.

That’s my makeup uniform: bold (or bold-ish) lips, neutral eyeshadow, very understated blush and mascara. In fact, I almost always wear Up the Amp with this shirt, and I almost always wear Bad to the Bronze with Up the Amp. I put those colors together and feel confident that I’m in good taste–good taste for me, for my character and lifestyle, for the persona that I choose to project into the world.

At the same time, I suspect that a lot of what I perceive as “good taste” or “bad taste” has to do with skill. Drivel about Frivol was the first beauty blog I read regularly, and I remember marveling at Kate’s ability to make the most counterintuitive color combinations look natural. “Natural” is probably the wrong word. Organic, maybe? Nothing she wore ever read as Too Much, because it was so much a part of her. Likewise, some people can wear multicolored cat eyes and black lipstick and pass it off as a part of them. Maybe it’s really about confidence, not skill. Maybe I’m rambling.

I thought about all this today while wandering through the four rooms that comprised the Asian Art Museum’s “Gorgeous” exhibit. Yes, I finally made it to the museum, after stopping at the hospital for a strep-throat screening; at Sephora for a rollerball of Fresh Citron de Vigne perfume; at CVS for two of the new Milani Bella eyeshadows (Taupe and Rouge!); and at the Ferry Building for a grilled cheese sandwich with Cowgirl Creamery cheddar, caramelized onions, and maple mustard. Five days of the sore throat from hell, plus every conceivable period symptom, will put you in a self-indulgent mood. (Speaking of good taste…)

“Gorgeous,” which features artworks from both the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA, is organized around the idea that gorgeousness is beauty with something off. Gorgeousness can be tacky, grotesque, excessive, or surprising; it’s almost always Too Much, except when it’s Not Quite Enough. Shiro Kuramata’s Streetcar-inspired “Miss Blanche” chair from 1988 was one of my favorite pieces:

I also lingered in front of this 16th-century (?) Japanese pot, deliberately misshapen and mis-glazed:

And Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled (Golden),” from 1995:

Definitely worth a visit if you’re in San Francisco between now and Sep. 14.

What is “too much” for you, makeup-wise? And where did your notions of good and bad taste come from? I’ve come to realize that I have next to no idea where mine originated, and that’s a little unnerving.

11 thoughts on “Good Taste, Bad Taste, and the Fear of “Too Much”

  1. Loved reading about DVT's interview. I think it is mainly about finding out \”what suits you best\”. I never knew why I hate getting makeover at the cosmetic counters. I don't think I was ever happy or remotely satisfied. Maybe it is because they don't know my face as well as I do. It also takes confidence and self-awareness. You probably feel comfortable wearing purple lipsticks because deep down you know the color looks great on you. (I'm pretty sure purple liners would look awesome against your eye color, btw. ;))I find the idea constantly evolves, too. It is not just colors but also textures and combinations that vary. In my case, it is also aging. The colors used to look good on me don't anymore, which is a sad thing but something I will manage to cope with.


  2. Lena, you're pretty much the embodiment of good taste for me. 🙂 I've never gotten a makeover either (except from my classmates in seventh grade, but that's another story). I'm not sure I'd trust someone to do my makeup even before a special event, though I know my skills could use improvement. I'm just so attached to being in control of my appearance.I do have one purple eyeliner, NYX Jewel, which I like but always forget to use! I should experiment more with it.


  3. This was a really interesting read. I don't know exactly what my own Too Much are. I used to think that Real Lipstick™ (not balm/gloss), or Wearing Eyeshadow were too much, and now I'm totally down with all of it. I hate when my brows are too defined? I think it makes me look really odd. I've gotten several makeovers, and I almost always hate them. I actually auditioned a makeup artist to see if I needed help with my wedding makeup, and although nothing was objectively terrible, I hated basically all of it. The eyebrows looked cartoony to me, and the lip color had a pearl-y effect, and nothing was a color I would pick, and those are probably some of my Too Much things, but I think it was probably part Too Much and part that I didn't feel it suited me. At any rate, I wanted to feel me-like, and did my own makeup for the wedding (and helped with the makeup of several other people).Something tangentially related is that, while getting foundation matched last year, I had one of the two makeovers I remember ever liking, and she added a bit of bronzey contour – and I went and showed my friend (from work), and she was like \”That is Too Much makeup. You could never wear that to work.\” and it made me… really sad. I felt I had naïvely thought it was fine, but then when she said it was too much, instead of understanding us to be disagreeing, I understood myself to be wrong. I've thought about it several times since then (wondering if my new bronzer or sparkly eyeshadow will be declared Too Much by her, usually), but never coherently enough to understand that I disagree. I think I find it hard to trust my own perceptions over other peoples' about my appearance, and this totally skews all of my data.


  4. I wrote a nice long comment, and then the browser crashed before I could submit it. The shorter version is that I love this post and how you point out our natural inclination to adhere to decorum while attempting to project persona at the same time. Skill AND confidence go hand in hand when presenting makeup artistry upon our own faces. I play around at home with bold colours and have to wipe off at least one or two things before going outside because, instead of appearing as The Look I Intended, often it's I Was Playing With Mommy's Makeup. Or sometimes I call it, \”Look good at home, go outside and look like makeup whore zombie.\” @__@I'm trying to get past that sense of inadequacy and continuing to experiment. It's especially awesome when a trained makeup artist at a counter or store compliments the makeup job. But their eyes are trained to pick up on the techniques and efforts behind such things. The average person on the street would merely think that it's Too Much. This is where self-confidence should kick in and transform their initial reaction into admiration instead.


  5. Nooo, stupid browser!While writing this post, I was trying to decide whether our sense of beauty decorum is predominantly internal or external. I don't think I reached a conclusion before the end! But you make a great distinction between different *types* of external approval. Makeup artists read makeup AS makeup, focusing on the details more than the overall effect, whereas the average person on the street probably thinks something like \”wow, she looks good.\” I think there's still a certain prejudice against makeup that's very obviously makeup and can't possibly be interpreted as part of the wearer's natural skin, and that's what triggers my feeling of \”too much.\”I took so naturally to bold lipstick because it requires far less skill than bold eye makeup does! Of course you have to make sure the color doesn't bleed, get on your teeth, look uneven, etc., but overall the effort is so small and the payoff so large. Whereas my eyeshadow experiments end up in \”makeup whore zombie\” territory more often than not…


  6. Our self-presentation is so involved with other people's perceptions of us that it's hard to dismiss their opinions. I've had a few friends express negative opinions about makeup I've liked, but it's gradually become easier to consider those opinions *as* opinions. I've written elsewhere on my blog about my difficulty figuring out the implicit makeup rules in academia, and I think the problem with makeup rules is that most of them *are* implicit. If your workplace forbids red lipstick, that's easier to work with than a general sense of vague disapproval whenever you wear it.If I ever get married, I'll probably elect to do my own makeup, too. From the little I've heard about wedding makeup, I find that it's supposed to be \”timeless\” (thus somewhat impersonal), so as not to make the photos look dated decades later. But makeup and fashion are never timeless and always bear the imprint of their own eras, which is what makes them so interesting to think about! I might want to write about the myth of timeless makeup at some point, since it's a pet peeve of mine…


  7. I know exactly what you mean, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the concept of owning it/having something look natural *on you*.This is how I explain to myself the fact that (for an everyday/nonwork sort of look) I will seriously consider blackened purple lipstick, but shy away from foundation any thicker than 'you're almost not actually wearing foundation, are you?', and blush that you can actually see from further away than 10 cm. Somehow, those things just don't feel like me, whereas purple lips do. Granted, blackened purple lips for a trip to the shops still isn't necessarily my go-to, but it wouldn't make that slight feeling of panic well up the way a slightly too dark and uniform brow does when I see it on myself…Having read the other comments, I keep seeing things I want to say, but they've said it much better 🙂 Or in Liz's case, the immortal 'makeup whore zombie'. 😀 That encapsulates perfectly the way I feel when I go outside, and all of a sudden I feel as though it looks like I have ten foot thick matte foundation on (when all I have is a whisper of a really gorgeous translucent powder foundation). I force myself to walk on, knowing that I did my makeup in natural daylight, nothing has changed since it looked fine in the living room, and by midday I'm OK with it. Then as the afternoon/evening wears on, I feel the confidence slip somehow, and I feel like I look progressively more mannequin like, even though technically my makeup is actually wearing *off*.Looking back over that last paragraph, I feel like I should hand in my beauty blogger stripes or something. 😛 It's hard to express, but the problems I have don't actually affect my enjoyment of the makeup. They just make me think 'well, maybe I'll try something different tomorrow…maybe with a blackened purple lipstick' 😀


  8. I actually feel the same way about foundation, and I've been meaning to write a post on why it makes me uneasy. A friend told me recently that she refuses to wear any kind of concealing makeup because \”it projects an unhealthy illusion of perfection into the world.\” I disagree with her opinion, but I do respect it, and I have a similar reason for never having tried foundation or tinted moisturizer. It strikes me as somehow…dishonest? Which is absurd! I don't resent or judge others for wearing it! I wear concealer almost every day! But, for me, there's a qualitative difference between applying makeup to specific spots on the face and applying it all over. Totally illogical, I know. And yet. I think I like to look a little messy at all times, just to remind myself that there's a flawed human being under all the slap. Maybe that's why I was so drawn to the Japanese vase I posted above–it embodies what Robert Herrick calls \”delight in disorder.\”


  9. Dishonesty! Yes! It's totally that feeling, and it is indeed totally absurd. Hello social conditioning, I suppose :-(. I know where your friend is coming from with her stance on concealing makeup, but I tend to feel that this falls by the wayside for me, as I can *always* tell when someone has concealer or foundation on. This doesn't make it badly applied, but for all we talk about 'natural' finishes, as the end of the day it's makeup, not skin, and it looks like makeup, not skin. The idea for me is not to achieve perfection (not happening, LOL!) but to achieve 'that zit on my forehead can no longer be seen from space, at least…right?' 😉


  10. […] When I think of “effortless beauty,” I think of Into the Gloss, a blog I’ve followed for about three years now. In ITG’s most beloved feature, The Top Shelf, staff members interview celebrities, models, creative types, and otherwise unremarkable rich kids about their beauty routines. Product junkies like Lindsay Lohan and Dita Von Teese show up occasionally, but if you scrolled through the Top Shelf posts and took a shot every time a French fashionista or LA-based juice mogul proclaimed that “I don’t wear much makeup,” the room would be spinning before long. The Top Shelf interviewees often imply (or, in some cases, declare outright) that piling on the color is a bit vulgar. You can wear bright eyeliner or blush or a red lip, but more than two at once is just Too Much. […]


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