Is there any makeup more ephemeral than blush, or whose promise, through the ages, has proved more alluring? “They wish to find the springtime of their earliest years hiding in a pot of rouge,” an 18th-century social critic observed of the ladies at the court of Versailles, whose vermilion cheeks, floridly blooming in artificially snow-white complexions, signaled their allegiance to the aristocracy.
These days, after years of heavy-handed “shake and bake” contouring, fashion is embracing the freshness of blush anew. But this is not your grandmother’s rouge. On the Chanel cruise runway, makeup artist Lucia Pica draped intense pink tints from models’ cheekbones all the way up across their temples. The look was “punky, almost rebellious,” Pica tells me, “tough and soft at the same time,” and a tribute to the New Romantics of the 1980s. Otherworldly pink parentheses, stretching from brow to cheekbone, also framed the faces of models wearing Molly Goddard’s fall 2021 tartans and Fair Isle sweaters for day, or her tulle party frocks for evening. This was blush as defiant as armor, jolting and vibrant. And then there were the sweet roseate patches, reminiscent of 18th-century portraits by François Boucher or Thomas Gainsborough, that adorned the cheeks of damsels wearing Vivienne Westwood’s signature drunken tailoring, along with tricorn hats, pin curls, and Prince-of-Wales-plaid platform boots, in the designer’s exquisite mash-up of historical styles for the rentrée.
Westwood said her collection was inspired by Boucher’s Daphnis and Chloe, a painting based upon the ancient Greek tale of a shepherd and shepherdess who fall in love without knowing what love is. And really, in these world-weary times, who couldn’t use a dash of eroticized innocence—an emotional flurry, conjuring a quick flush to the face? We, the very, very lucky ones, have survived a global pandemic, and yet a lingering malaise may leave us wondering what exactly we are living for.
It had been over a year since my face, finally emerging from lockdown and unmasked outdoors on the sidewalks of Manhattan, had felt the full, life-giving heat of the sun when dozens of these cream, liquid, and powder blushes in peach, caramel, petal pink, tomato red, and deep burgundy began arriving on the proverbial beauty counter: Kylie Cosmetics Pressed Blush Powder with its new and improved vegan formula; Charlotte Tilbury’s protean, buttery Pillow Talk Lip & Cheek Glow; Milk Makeup’s liquid Bionic Blush with its translucent, hyaluronic acid–spiked veils of color. If only pressing the reset button on my late-pandemic complexion were as simple as applying a flush from brow to hairline—a technique Patricia Regan, the makeup artist behind the hit Netflix series Halston, reveals she uses on set “especially if someone looks tired.” Along with Halston, I had recently watched Matt Tyrnauer’s excellent documentary Studio 54, and I found myself longing for the sweaty freedom of communal release, when the siren thump-thump-thump of disco called and “we danced with the entire club,” Sandy Linter, makeup artist and a regular of the legendary hotspot, recalls in the film, her face awash in a dewy pink glow. Movement and vitality! Cosmetics might not endow me with these precious qualities, but they could potentially offer the illusion that I hadn’t spent a whole year in my apartment.
“Blush is one of the things that speaks most to a natural condition of the body,” says the makeup artist Dick Page, whom my fashion whisperer describes as the guru of rouge. “I like it most,” Page continues, “when it expresses the energy of someone in motion.” In fact, while redness in the face carries with it a range of associations, it’s also key in creating the illusion of youthfulness. “To help understand why and how to use color, observe the faces of babies and healthy young people after exercise,” the legendary makeup artist Way Bandy counseled his disco-era readers in his iconic 1977 tome, Designing Your Face. So I pulled my teenager, recently returned from a walk in 90-degree heat, over to the window and studied his visage carefully, as a rosy flush spread from his cheeks across the bridge of his nose. (Needless to say, he found such scrutiny unnerving.)