The heat starts in my cheeks like a very focused fever. It travels down, blotching my neck and chest, scorching my ears, and shooting up to my scalp, where it pricks the root of every hair. I could, at any moment, spontaneously combust.
My skin has betrayed me, in fourth grade history and sophomore physics, in class plays and dances, at podiums and in television studios. I’m blushing just thinking about it. Charles Darwin, who believed blushing was caused by “thinking of what others think of us,” called it “the most peculiar and the most human of expressions.”
That’s comforting. And with my history it would make perfect sense that I’d avoid this particular category of makeup, because my natural inclination is so florid. But I love the stuff. The first blush I owned was a squat glass bottle holding a vivid liquid. It was called Colour Rub, an American product with a fancy u for pedigree. The word rub should have been printed in bold, uppercase letters on the label, because as soon as you dotted the liquid on your skin, you had to rub like mad before it dried in streaks like a Cy Twombly painting. It was makeup as athletic event.
I moved on to powder blush, learning from the makeup artists I interviewed in my first job the skill of applying a gentle swirl to the cheeks. One suggested adding a hit under each eye and along the hairline to imitate the effect of the sun. A “healthy flush” was the goal, and I typed those words so often they were practically inseparable. It took a few years to break that habit when I realized there was nothing healthy about a flush from the sun, which was, let’s face it, a sunburn. That came from experience too.
“O blush not so! O blush not so!/Or I shall think you knowing,” wrote John Keats, somewhat judgmentally. There is good blush and bad blush. Innocent and guilty. Outdoorsy and febrile. Sweet and lurid. Virgin and whore. It’s impressive, really, that one physical reaction manages to hold so many warring emotions, so much conflict and contradiction.
The products that imitate a flush play with those paradoxes. By naming his pale, shimmery blush Orgasm, François Nars turned a demure peachy pink into a racy proposition. Keats would definitely call it “knowing.” Benefit’s popular cherry-red Benetint started life in 1976 as a nipple stain made for exotic dancers out of rose petals and carmine and later commercialized for the unexotic rest of us.
Now Hermès is bringing its characteristic refinement to the matter with the introduction of Rose Hermès, a collection of blushes that’s about as far as you can get from the stripper pole. “Rose for us is very poetic,” says Agnès de Villers, chief executive officer of Hermès Parfums. “It’s an evocative way of bringing some light and blood circulation to the face.” The Silky blush, an elegant powder embossed with the Hermès name and with ribs that resemble the weft of Hermès silk, comes in eight shades, from the pale Rose Abricot to the deep Rose Feu. The blush is scented a milky sandalwood, with arnica and green tea, a blend dreamed up by the house’s perfumer. It’s also immaculately dressed in a white and brushed gold compact with a bright gold Hermès seal on top—a crisp, modern disk. Pierre Hardy, creative director of Hermès shoes and jewelry, calls it “sensual, discreet, soft and beautiful and tender.” With it, Hermès turns a functional piece of makeup into an object of desire. Keats no doubt would approve.
Blush came into being, as many things did, in ancient Egypt. How Cleopatra got anything done is a miracle, between the milk baths and the hairstyles, the embellishments and the seductions. Ancient Egyptian and Roman women of means covered their skin with a chalklike powder made from gypsum, adding red pigment to perk things up a bit. That pigment came from red clay or berries. Chinese women in the Tang Dynasty fashioned rouge out of pomegranate, safflower, and cinnabar, a mineral containing toxic mercury. In medieval medicine, one book of formulas included a recipe for a cheek-reddening powder to be applied with a feather. Yes, a feather! It sounds so delicate until you read the warning that comes with the recipe: “It corrodes all flesh and all bodies.” Religious authorities soon condemned beauty products and activities, apparently out of concern not for corroded flesh but for corroded minds. Anything that altered God’s creation and distracted from the beautification of the soul was problematic. But blush prevailed again during the Renaissance, with concoctions of cochineal, sandalwood, or cinnabar mixed with grease or wax.
The rest of blush history follows a pattern of aristocratic embrace and rejection, leaving rouge to the prostitutes and showgirls, and then lifting it back up the social ladder. By the early 20th century, women of all stations wore makeup in general, and blush in particular, without threat to their reputations or health. Makeup became not just a key aspect of grooming but a sign of femininity, an expression of optimism, and, in wartime, a show of strength and patriotism. Beauty was also the rare industry with women in leadership roles, and the success stories of Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and, later, Estée Lauder gave their products an additional gloss of ambition and achievement.
Estée Lauder, the woman, was a makeup evangelist, applying lipstick and blush to people in stores, at parties, and even at parent-teacher conferences. In 1991, I saw Mrs. Lauder at the gala opening of the short-lived Galeries Lafayette store in New York City. We chatted for a moment, and then she took my hand and led me to her cosmetics counter. We were both in evening gowns and full hair and makeup, but never mind. She dipped into a virgin tester unit and rubbed blush on my right cheek. “Just a little more glow,” she said, and then turned to greet another guest. And there I stood, with extra makeup on one side of my face. I wasn’t about to sneak to the restroom and dab it off with a wet tissue the way I did when people who were not named Estée Lauder did my makeup at a department store. This was like getting a little glow from Renoir. So I hovered over the tester, trying to duplicate her work on the other side. Lauder believed that everyone could benefit from a little more blush.
To embrace blush is to embrace life. Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor, thought so, wearing red blush on her cheeks, temples, forehead, and ears in great, emphatic excess. A flight attendant once offered to rub in some of Vreeland’s rouge, believing it was unintentional. At that, Vreeland turned to her seatmate, Bill Blass, and remarked, “Isn’t that sweet? So American.”
Over the past five years or so, blush has taken a back seat to contouring and highlighting, in the highly sculpted Kardashian mold. “Young girls now know how to change their faces [with contour],” says de Villers. “Blush is another way of being and accepting your face, your skin.” Dick Page, the makeup artist known for his deftness with blush, rejects trends in makeup and especially in blush. To those makeup artists who declare, “I’m not feeling blush this season,” Page responds, “What? You’re not feeling human?” Blush gives the skin animation, says Page. “The heightened response to being alive is to have blood under the skin.” He enhances that with a creamy red from a variety of sources, including lipstick, that he mixes and warms on his fingers. “I like transparency. It makes the eyes look brighter. It’s emotion. It’s human.”
The humanity of blush is what inspires the creators at Hermès. “It’s blurry, subtle, very close to your skin,” de Villers says. “When you put rose on, it blends with your skin. It’s very revealing. It gives strength to your beauty, your person. When I’m feeling dull, a hint of rose makes a difference.”
When makeup artists get me camera-ready—an adventure that seems like a lifetime ago—they apply blush to the apples of my cheeks, telling me first to smile. Sometimes I’m not feeling so smiley, distracted by what I have to say or do, or the thoughts in my head, but I comply, grinning and pushing out my cheeks to form two circles. And there it is, a little glow, a little life, some animation. Pretty soon my smile becomes genuine. Blush is makeup as mood lifter, an affirmation of humanity, proof that emotion and passion are right there, for everyone to see.
Photographs by Elliot & Erick Jimenez
Styled by Jessica Willis
In this story: Hair by Hiro & Mari for Bumble and Bumble at 87 Artists. Makeup by Bo at the Wall Group. Nails by Nori for Chanel Le Vernis. Casting by Shawn Dezan at Home Agency.
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