Lipstick Chronology #27: Back to 1996 with Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face

In the summer of last year, while browsing the venerable Bookshop in Chapel Hill, NC, I made a curious find.

Published in 1996, long before “basic” became an insult, Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face is a “makeup workbook” co-authored by Crawford, the makeup artist Sonia Kashuk, and Kathleen Boyes. “What’s a basic face? A five-minute confidence builder,” the introduction explains. “It’s how we all wish we looked when we woke up. Simple, finished–but not looking as though you tried too hard. The basic face appears natural. Other women may know you’re wearing makeup, but guys probably won’t. A basic face is like a white shirt or a black turtleneck. It’s the best possible base you can have.”

I came to pop-cultural awareness circa 1999, a few years after the all-natural look had given way to futuristic iridescence. I have a theory that our greatest fear, makeup- and fashion-wise, is the era that immediately preceded our own preteen years. For me, that era was the mid-’90s. For years and years, I avoided brown-based lip or cheek colors for fear that I would look “too ’90s.” Finding Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face at the bookstore was my first step toward conquering my aversion. It was just so fascinating to read through a compendium of beauty advice from an era I barely remembered. That is, I remember many things that happened to me in 1996, but I wasn’t part of the overall cultural zeitgeist. Eight-year-olds rarely are.

For this post, I thought it would be fun to recreate the “basic face” outlined in the book, using the colors, finishes, and techniques it recommends, and holding myself to the arbitrary time constraint it dictates. “Makeup should never take more than five minutes tops! Fifteen, if you’re going to a black tie dinner,”writes Crawford (or Kashuk, or the mysterious Boyes, who I suspect had the greatest hand in the text). Since Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face is organized neatly into categories, I’ll transcribe bits of each one, adapting them for the products I already own. There will also be a lipstick review at some point, I promise.
  • “Less is always more. Less makeup is more attractive. Less can actually cover more. When applying any makeup, always begin with the least amount possible and add more only if you need to.”
  • “There are no rules. Forget preconceived notions about makeup.”
  • “Makeup is not cosmetic surgery. Don’t try to seriously reshape your face with makeup. It almost always looks obvious. Even professional makeup artists hardly bother with contouring anymore.” (Got that, Kardashiophiles?)
  • “Blend, blend, blend. Consider this a makeup mantra. Blending is the secret to successful application, whether foundation and concealer or blush and eyeshadow. Seek and destroy all telltale edges.”
Skin and Base Makeup:
  • “Stick with yellow-based foundations. Even if your skin has pink in it, the yellow will help to neutralize it. Remember, color should come from blush and lips, not foundation.”
  • “Powder is major. More than makeup, it’s a fundamental tool–and not just to buff noses. Powder blends. It protects. It sets makeup. It extends the life of a basic face. And, yes, it keeps shine in check. You need powder at every stage of the game, up to and including in your makeup bag.”
  • “If you live in a humid climate, don’t fight Mother Nature. Go with the glow; you won’t be able [to] sustain a matte finish for more than five minutes anyway.”

These tips were the hardest for me to follow, since I don’t own foundation or powder. The stereotype is true: people in the ’90s were obsessed with powder. There were times when I thought I was reading an 18th-century wigmaking manual.

I’m also getting some mixed messages here. Don’t try too hard to achieve a matte complexion, but always use powder, whose principal purpose is to mattify your skin. Don’t add unnatural color to your complexion, but use yellow-based foundation even if you’re cool-toned. I threw up my hands in frustration and stuck to my normal base-makeup routine: NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer in Vanilla for my undereye circles and CoverGirl concealer in Classic Ivory for spot concealing.


  • “Nobody blushes in orange, carnation pink or eggplant, so avoid them. Think in terms of pink-browns, apricot-browns and red-browns…And don’t forget that it’s more important for blush to complement your skin than your lipstick.”
  • “Essentially, blush comes in one of two ways: CREAM or POWDER…Use your foundation finish to decide which way to go. A moist face should use a cream blush and a powdered face should use powder blush. To mix finishes (i.e. [sic!] a powdered blush on a moist face) is to invite splotches and unevenness. So remember, cream to cream, powder to powder.”

Do you know me, Cindy Crawford? Have you ever seen me when someone points out that I’ve made yet another accidental double entendre? I do not blush in muted shades of brown. That said, my only cream blush (since I assume my foundation-less face qualifies as “moist”) is a Crawford-approved pink-brown, so the choice was a no-brainer. You saw this coming: Illamasqua Zygomatic.


  • “Don’t try to radically redefine your brow. If you have very thick, dark brows, don’t go pencil thin. The upkeep will drive you crazy. (Going pencil thin is iffy anyway since brows could grow back with bald patches.)”

The book was published a few years before the sperm-brow trend took hold (though the black brows above are clearly tending that way), and almost two decades before the advent of the opaque sharp-cornered “Instagram brow,” so its brow advice is blessedly even-handed. I filled in my brows with theBalm Sleek, then used Milani’s clear brow gel to hold stray hairs in place. (I bought it just two days ago and am liking it so far! Review to come, eventually.)


  • “Shadows are available in matte or shimmer finishes. Matte finishes offer a more natural look and therefore can be safer to work with.”
  • “The basic face should be foolproof. No step challenges this more than eyeshadow…I avoid colors and stick with neutral tones in the brown family. Why? Because it’s hard to mess up neutrals. Even if it’s not perfect, no one will be able to tell. And that’s foolproof enough for me.”
  • “You may want to use your coloring as a guide. Redheads, for example, look great with brick-browns, while brunettes are flattered by mochas.”
  • “Always set finished eyes with powder.”

Plus, three application techniques: “a wash of color on entire lid,” “a medium tone worn in the crease,” and “a dark color next to lashline.” I’m not sure why the second item was the only one that got a definite article. Basic Face ain’t winning no Pulitzers.

I get it, Crawford: you like brown eyeshadow, and you really like powder. (Had eyeshadow primer been invented yet? These days we have so many effective base products that I doubt anyone uses powder in the innumerable ways this book recommends.) Not trusting myself to apply more than two eyeshadows in five minutes, I opted for an all-over wash of color. I don’t own many matte eyeshadows, so I used Sophisticated, a cool-toned medium brown from theBalm’s Nude ‘tude palette. Sophisticated has a slight shimmer, but it reads as matte when applied lightly.


  • “Take the time to make it look natural. For example, I do lots of thin coats, rather than one thick one.”
  • “Dust loose powder on lashes as a thickening agent between mascara coats. Just be careful that all powder is covered with the final coat.”

Again with the powder. I suspect it would take me more than five minutes to dust my lashes with loose powder, wipe the powder off my cheekbones (though if my face were already powdered, surely a few more granules wouldn’t hurt?), and reapply my mascara. I appreciate the emphasis on natural-looking lashes, though, and I think Crawford would approve of my favorite mascara, CoverGirl LashBlast Length.


  • “Lip color is purely subjective–and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you think a color looks good, it probably does. The most flattering shades bear some resemblance to your natural lips–nudes, roses, berries and soft browns.”

Despite Cindy’s protestation that “trying on different colors is fun,” most of the images in the book feature her in a dark nude or medium brown lipstick. Here’s the back cover (this book cost $25 in 1996, and I paid $7.50 for it in 2013…):

Shortly after buying Basic Face, I went in search of a brown lipstick of my own, ending up with Maybelline Crazy for Coffee. Since I haven’t featured it on the blog, I’ll do a mini-review: call this Lipstick Chronology #27. CFC is a medium reddish brown, less yellow-based than Cindy’s. Like all of Maybelline’s brown lipsticks, it comes in a transparent brown tube the color of a chocolate Tootsie Roll pop.

The color is pinker than coffee; I’d describe it as a rosewood, and it could well be an MLBB or even a nude for someone with darker skin than mine. You can always tell which lipsticks I’ve neglected, because they haven’t been worn down into a pointe-shoe shape.

I’ve swatched it first alone, then between Revlon Lacquer Balm in Coy (left) and Revlon Lip Butter in Pink Truffle (right). Crazy for Coffee is redder than Coy, darker and browner than Pink Truffle, and more opaque than either. It also lacks the sparkle of Coy, but like all of Maybelline’s Color Sensational lipsticks, it has a relatively shiny finish.

It’s strange how much I love the formula of Maybelline’s Color Sensational Vivid lipsticks, since the ordinary Color Sensational line has never impressed me. The Vivids have a shiny, moisturizing, almost jelly-like formula; the Color Sensationals range from satin to semi-matte and tend to dry out my lips. Crazy for Coffee doesn’t last very long, either: just two hours, and I didn’t eat more than a single cookie in that period.

With that out of the way, let’s put together a basic face! Here are all the products I used (minus the brow gel, which I forgot to photograph):

Swatches of the color makeup, left to right: Sophisticated, Zygomatic, Crazy for Coffee. (Sometimes I want to play Mad Libs with makeup names.)

I laid out all my products and tools, including an eyeshadow brush by Sonia Kashuk herself, and got to work. The entire face took me six minutes, four of which were consumed with applying concealer and blending eyeshadow. This was the result:

I don’t hate it, though I think Crazy for Coffee is too warm both for me and for my eyeshadow, and such a literal interpretation of a mid-’90s face can’t help but look dated. I also tried to copy Cindy’s open-mouthed expression on the back cover, but succeeded only in reminding myself why I’m an academic and not a supermodel.

I think I looked like this for the entirety of the talk I heard last week.

Some lessons I took away from this exercise:

  • Nothing looks worse with a warm brown than a cool brown. This is why I never wear more than one brown product on my face at a time, damn it. I also think, contra Crawford, that brown makeup is very difficult to get right. Teal, for instance, looks predictably artificial on everyone, but brown can go corpsey or muddy in a way that a fluorescent color never will.
  • I never want to see the color brown again. Thank goodness I’m putting together an Effie Trinket look in three days.
  • It’s impossible for me to achieve this book’s “basic face” in five minutes. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken if I’d also used powder to set my makeup, thicken my mascara, and blend colors together. Sorry, Cindy. One of us failed.
  • Basic Face recommends “the new foundations or moisturizers with built-in SPF,” which made me smile. It’s strange to think that a product I take so much for granted has a very short history.
  • The book goes to great and awkward lengths to establish that there are “no rules,” but of course there are rules. The writers know that; they even admit it. “Guard against time warp,” they warn. “The passage of time necessitates change. On the fashion front, it may be rethinking blue eyeshadow or black nail polish…Always re-evaluate what you’re wearing and how you’re wearing it.” It’s refreshing to see this sentiment put into words. I don’t believe in blindly following trends, of course, but I also don’t believe that “timeless makeup” really exists. Makeup and beauty are always rooted in a specific time; that’s what makes them so fascinating. Most of us obey conventions that render our makeup legible to the people we see every day. We won’t even be conscious of some of those conventions until decades have passed and we can isolate what went into a “2014 face.” But by looking at a 1996 face, we can put together a sort of negative image. It all comes back to history for me–but you knew that.

16 thoughts on “Lipstick Chronology #27: Back to 1996 with Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face

  1. I loved reading this post. :DI do know a little bit about the 90's face. This explains the \”twincake\” (powder foundation) madness back then and those lip liners all named as \”coffee\”. And while reading this, all the brownish classic Revlon Super Lustrous (or even Moondrop) shades flashed through in my mind. ;)Although I have never spent more than 15 minutes for my \”basic\” face, I haven't exactly followed any rule of any time, either. Back then, no Asian girl wore blue eyeshadows, for example, but I loved wearing them. The current instagram stencil eyebrow trend, I abhor. (I do wish my brows were visible after applying filters, though. LOL)It is funny because today I actually wore two layers of powder for my base instead of the usual liquid foundation and loose powder. It was an experiment and I quite liked the result in terms of looking natural. But setting eyeshadows with powder (always!)? Uh, no. ;p


  2. This post, it is made of much win (as the internets would say. Or Internets? I'm not sure…) :-DI'm sorry Cindy, but if I had to go through my life wearing only browns, I would rather wear no makeup – just to let the interesting, natural splotchy watercolour of blues, yellows, greens and pinks that suffuse my vampire face lift the mood a little. I agree that there is some sound advice here, but I also feel like it's the sort of book that purports to make people feel more confident in their makeup application, but ends up sucking a lot of the fun out of it. You are correct (in my view) that brown makeup is actually quite tricky to pull off – my biggest issue is usually muddiness, and this goes double for matte shadows. I think shimmer goes a long way to lifting a look and making it look lighter and younger on people of any age – especially the lid colour. Browbone shades are probably best matte unless you want to make a statement, but dammit, I want my lids to twinkle gently!You're still doing an excellent job of making me want to try Pink Truffle and/or Coy, but I'm afflicted with the growing suspicion that on my zombie lips it will read…just brown. I don't have your magical roseifying natural lip colour ;-)Mention of both the sperm and Instagram brows sent a shudder down my spine. Is it wrong to be proud that the sole picture of my eyebrow(s) thus far in Instagram is completely natural? I don't want to be Captain Smugbrows here, but… I think the Internet needs more brows like yours, with their Bronte-esque dark, wild romance. :-DThe wigmaking thing made me snort tea over my keyboard. Thanks 😛 Also, that picture of you trying to do the open mouthed thing made my day. That's exactly how I look when I try to take full face photos of my makeup ❤ Since, unlike you, I don't also look cute in these photos (just gormless), I haven't the courage to put them online ;-)Final random note: my favourite thing about that back cover picture is that her hair has not been straightened to within an inch of its life. I'd forgotten how nice it was to see natural cowlicks…


  3. I really like the fact that you turned the book's dictates into a makeup challenge :)Yes, I remember the brown. In 1997, I made tentative steps into wearing makeup, starting with a fuschia lipstick. There was much disapproval and explaining of how wearing brown = being cool 🙂


  4. AB! This is by far the best post I've read on the beauty blogs in a while! Kekekeke! A 90's beauty manual critiqued through the eyes of a person of the current generation makes for excellent and fun reading. I remember the 90's with fondness, as well as the big supermodels with their big personalities. I do recall Cindy Crawford with particular fondness for her braininess as well as her non-waify beauty.Some of the advice seems sound(ish) like light multiple layers of mascara vs. a big gloppy coat. And the 3 basic eye shadow placement. For a newbie starting out, that seems okay…. I guess… Unless you're a person of east-Asian heritage with lots of lid fat that makes you mono-lidded. In which case, you wonder why you dont have a crease and why you can't ever look like Cindy. *cries* *slaps self*


  5. So many interesting thoughts! I love your theory about dreading the makeup/fashion era just before your own adulthood. For me, that would be the 80s and I lived in terror of blue eye shadows and neon. Like Belly, I quite enjoyed the 90s brown phase, although having OD'ed on it, I now despise brown lipsticks. And I don't know why, but there was something very pleasing about brown tones with minimalist fashion of the 90s. Black and tan is still very much an elegant colour combination. I guess it was a collective generational reaction to the garishness of the 80s.


  6. It's crazy how many of those classic '90s shades Revlon still makes! I guess someone's buying them. And congrats on wearing blue eyeshadow in a decade that was hostile to it. 🙂 When I referred to \”rules,\” I was speaking in a general way: we don't all follow every single rule, but I think we all follow *some* rules, and sometimes we're not even aware of the rules we're following.I don't think I was quite fair to powder in this post, since I've never even tried it. I should, one of these days!


  7. It's interesting how the concept of \”natural beauty\” changes over time. When I look at Cindy's face on the back cover, \”natural\” is not the word that comes to mind. Who in the world is so uniformly beige? And yet the book's main emphasis is on looking \”natural.\” I'm with you on the importance of shimmer, too. I love matte lipstick and blush, but my eye makeup has to have a bit of shimmer somewhere! Otherwise I look sort of dour and sleep-deprived.It's true that Coy would probably look more brown on you than it does on me, but I think the shimmer would set off the color of your eyes really nicely. That said, magical roseifying lip color is a great thing to have. 🙂 And you shouldn't be worried about looking gormless in full-face photos! I can understand wanting to keep your face off the interwebs for privacy reasons, but I'm sure any photo you chose to post would be lovely.Now I want you to do a comic strip featuring Captain Smugbrows (akin to your \”who stole the biscuit?\” eye comics). And yeah, everyone in my dad's family has the wild-romance brows, the men especially…


  8. I'm glad I started wearing makeup in an era that was more friendly to fuchsia! Well done keeping the fuchsia torch burning in such a brown decade. Honestly, after reading Cindy Crawford's Basic Face, I'm surprised fuchsia was available to you at all. The only lip colors she seems to wear are light brown, medium brown, and brown-based red…


  9. Yay, I'm glad you enjoyed this post! I had a lot of fun writing it. I wish today's models were allowed to have bigger personalities (and bigger bodies). Aww, poor '90s Belly! As I recall, the book has one throwaway eyeshadow tip for \”Asian eyes,\” but no real acknowledgment of the fact that millions of women don't have eyelid creases. I'm glad the beauty world has gotten a bit more inclusive over the years.


  10. I've never minded the '80s/early '90s gaudy neon look! My theory is that because the Barbies of my early childhood wore screamingly fluorescent pink and green, I was brainwashed into liking those colors. I still can't quite get behind blue eyeshadow, though. A touch of navy is the most I'll do; those quads and quints with several shades of blue just look tacky to me. I agree with you about black and tan! Such a beautiful look. But it's even better with a red lipstick, I think. 🙂


  11. \”The stereotype is true: people in the '90s were obsessed with powder. There were times when I thought I was reading an 18th-century wigmaking manual.\”Baha! So hilarious and yet so true.I'm really curious about this book. From your post, it seems like it was the quintessential guide to the 90s \”heavy natural\” look. It also looks like she borrowed a lot of her tips from Bobbi Brown, ie, \”always wear yellow foundation.\”


  12. \”Heavy natural\” is the perfect way to describe this aesthetic, though the photos and the text seem to be making two different arguments. The book keeps stressing the five-minute timeframe, but I'm not sure how a normal person could achieve the look on the back cover in five minutes. The layers of powder alone would eat up that time, if not more…Wikipedia tells me that Bobbi Brown's first book also came out in 1996, though her makeup was certainly around for several years before that, so it's possible that Basic Face borrowed from her. Now I want to buy her book and see how it differs from the Crawford/Kashuk philosophy, if at all!


  13. […] Looking back over press reports from the 2014 gala, I notice an odd reluctance to describe Beyoncé’s lipstick as “brown” instead of “aubergine” or “burgundy.” Yes, the color has hints of red and plum, but it’s brown, people. Nor is it “goth,” to quote one source; it’s meant to evoke the ’20s or ’30s, in line with the 2014 Met Gala’s Charles James theme. This is the kind of brown lipstick I favor. I don’t mind lighter browns if they’re a bit sheer, like Revlon Coy; but if I’m going to wear an opaque brown, I want it to be more Beyoncé than Cindy Crawford. […]


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