Not to be all faux-intellectual about the subject, but I think that to love beauty -- to drink it in, understand it, challenge it -- you have to read about it. Most of us encounter beauty visually, but thinking about it is important. Otherwise, all you have are pink lips and gleaming teeth and glossy hair, and there’s not a ton to say about that beyond “Ooh, pretty.”
I think reading about beauty, whether for fun or intellectual stimulation, is important if we’re going to be informed about the subject. That goes for everything from knowing how to take care of your skin to being able to parse advertisements, by the way -- both the soft subjects and meatier issues deserve attention. So, I’ve selected 10 of the best beauty books of all time. Some are light, some are heavy, but all of them are worth a read.
Is this still required reading in women’s studies classes? It should be. I first read this book about 20 years ago, and because of Wolf’s insightful observations and fiery critiques, I was able to identify a lot of the harmful messages and impossibly “perfect” images involved in our cultural definition of beauty. The book is a feminist classic, and whether you’re staunchly against wearing makeup or you doll yourself up daily, it’s bound to make you think about who gets to be seen as beautiful -- and why so many girls and women don’t like the way they look. I am so glad that I read this as a teenager, because it allowed me to define beauty on my own terms. (For the most part, anyway.)
If you know nothing about makeup, you should read Makeup Manual. If you are practically a pro, you should read Makeup Manual. It’s just that good, covering the basics along with less-obvious advice on everything from foundation to skin care. One of the things I appreciate about Bobbi Brown is that she’s positive and encouraging, and her voice makes you think, “Well, yes, of course I can master a smoky eye.” Also, she always features non-model women of different ages, which is as refreshing as it is rare.
Madeline Poole is an ace manicurist, and she’s also an all-around cool, down-to-earth, and creative lady. I’m usually not big on nail art, but Madeline’s designs always make me want to put leopard print on my pinkies -- they’re cool and stylish, not over the top or juvenile. (I’m sorry, but I cannot wear a pikachu on my nails, in part because I don’t know if it’s “a pikachu” or if the little yellow cat-bat critter is named Pikachu. Get off my lawn!) The step-by-step guides make it easy for nail newbies to get everything right, and the art itself feels about as timeless as nail art can be.
Ugh, this is such a beautiful makeup book. Page after page of gorgeous photos in a binder, plus clear acetate overlays to show you where each product should go on the face. Obviously, unless you’re a pro, the end result probably won’t look exactly like François Nars’s work. Still, what eye candy! What inspiration! (By the way, if it were 2012, I would have made a “binders full of women” joke.)
This is a newer book, but I’m slipping it on the list because it’s filled with eye candy. Part historical review, part inspirational lookbook, it’s a joy to look through. Laurent Philippon is one of the world’s most influential editorial stylists, and the photographs are stunning and stylish. I think it would be near impossible to read this book and not consider hairdressing a form of art.
You know who Kevin Aucoin was, don’t you? If the answer is no, get this book before the makeup aficionado in your life discovers that you don’t own it. (Okay, some of the looks are way ‘90s, but we’re having a revival, so there.)
As much as I love beauty products, I do get freaked out by what’s in some of them. (Call me high-maintenance, but I like my lipstick without lead, thankyouverymuch.) This is the Silent Spring of cosmetics: a primer on cosmetic safety, background on the small amount of industry regulation, and a call to action. Since reading this book and learning about how many iffy chemicals are in lots of our personal care products, I’ve shifted to using more natural products. The book is refreshingly non-alarmist in tone, but still, it’ll rile you.
Full disclosure: This book was written by my friend. But if she were my enemy, I’d be annoyed, because her book is just that interesting. Barbara knows just about everything about vintage perfumes, from their cultural contexts to their now-impossible formulations. (Wait until you read about the ingredients that used to be in perfume. Feline anal glands are involved. ) Vivid writing, vintage ads, theories of perfume as “language” -- it’s all fascinating, and you’ll probably start tracking down old perfumes as soon as you finish the book.
As the perfumer for Hermès, Jean-Claude Ellena is regarded as one of the world’s best perfumers. Here, he shares his journal over a year, writing about creative breakthroughs and mundane days with equal skill. If you’re looking for a guide to perfumes, this isn’t it (get Perfumes: The Guide for that). But if you’re interested in understanding the process of developing a scent, look no further. Reading about a man who clearly loves his work makes me so happy, and if you like Frenchmen who are passionate about their métier, it’ll put a smile on your face, too.
Dr. Lancer is a big-time dermatologist in Beverly Hills, and you’d expect him to talk mostly about injectables and peels and so forth. And yeah, he knows they can produce good results, but this book takes a more holistic view on feeling and looking youthful. He's all about exfoliation, reducing stress, eating better, and avoiding procedures that don’t actually do anything to boost the skin’s health. (Also, like me, he’s on the no-dairy train.) If you are old enough to remember the Iran-Contra hearings, you should probably check this out. From the library, because it’s a book. Haw haw haw. That is a terrible joke.
What about you? Did I miss one of your favorite books? As I am a voracious reader, I’d love to hear your picks. Or come say hi at The Glowhow.