Like the rest of the internet I watched Orange Is the New Black this weekend, although I’m a bit later to the game than most people and only up to half-way through Season 1, Episode 10. (I try to stop watching episodes halfway through to circumvent cliffhangers, a trick I learned from binge-reading Goosebumps as a kid.) It took me a while to even get this far. I started watching the series about six months ago before canceling my Netflix subscription over Christmas because I was pissed the service only offered Home Alone on DVD. But it turns out FOMO is more powerful than principle, and I resumed my watching of the ‘Moscow Mule’ episode on Sunday.
Most of what happened flooded back like a foggy teenage hookup after a sip of Malibu rum, but there was something I didn’t notice when I watched the show last time. For a series set in prison, it is probably the best show about beauty and makeup I have ever seen.
Sure, there are the conventional inmate face attributes: The pallid complexions, the dark-circled eyes, the greasy hair, the disgusting teeth. After six months of reading interviews with the cast in fashion magazines and stalking them on Instagram, the makeunders are even more startling. My favorite actress on the show is Natasha Lyonne, who as Nicky Nichols has the smudged eyeliner and severely matted hair of ’07 Mary Kate Olsen on a class-A narcotic (or Lyonne herself if she’d kicked drugs via arrest rather than choice.) In two halves of two episodes, Piper’s all-American blonde hair went through more changes than mine goes through in two months — prison-grease slicked for most of it, yuppie soft and buttery blonde in a flashback, jazzed up by resident beauty queen Sophia Burset in anticipation of her fiancé’s visit, and wet and straggly when she’s put into solitary confinement.
Alex Vause’s sperm brows infuriate me beyond all reason, yet they evidence that she does give at least one fuck about her appearance since she’s clearly got access to tweezers. Actually she gives at two fucks, one about eyeliner, which she loses at the end of the ‘Moscow Mule’ episode when she catches the flu, lets her guard down, and invites Piper into her cell. There’s also Morello’s red lipstick and Tricia’s (RIP) intense cornrows.
But makeup isn’t just used by the show’s makeup artists to create identities — it’s used by the characters to preserve them. Alex trades in her anti-depressants for the eyeliner, and early on Piper cuts a deal with Taystee, giving her a lock of blonde hair in exchange for food. Red, who holds more sway than the other women, has access to illegally-obtained hair dye, which Norma applies via in the kitchen basin. (In the flashback scene following Red’s in a café serving coffee to her husband and a few members of the Russian mafia, her smooth waitress’ coif serves as a different, more submissive side to the Red we know from Litchfield.) The hair washing is mirrored in the next episode when Sophia washes Piper’s in anticipation of Larry’s visit, and Piper talks about how much she misses the human contact. When the characters faces are stripped bare, a stick of eyeliner or a head of clean hair is both far more noticeable and far more precious.
Beauty as a talking point happens far more often than I’d expected too. Suzanne’s “Crazy Eyes” mom, a Nice Blonde Lady like Piper, scoffs at her daughter’s bantu knots when she makes her own visit. Pre-Litchfield Suzanne was probably not the kind of woman to click though sideshows of Spring’s hottest pop-of-color lipsticks, but who would Crazy Eyes be without her knots? (It’s interesting that the idea came from Uzo Aduba, who showed up to them in audition, rather the show’s creators.)
In most television shows where the characters supposedly aren’t wearing any makeup, they’re really wearing five different contouring products and intricately applied top eye liner. The artists on OITNB revealed to The Cut yesterday that they also use fancy products, i.e. Dolce & Gabbana’s Perfect Matte Liquid Foundation, though it’s used to both correct and to mess up the faces of the normally very presentable cast. ”We are just doing terrible things to these people!” Michal Bigger said. “And all the time we see things written about how there’s no makeup on the show. It is so far from the truth.”
Also far from the truth, the majority of the time, is the no makeup look currently being celebrated by Vogue spreads, New York Times trend pieces, and the insufferable #nomakeup Instagram hashtag. It’s refreshing to see an approach to women that’s the exact opposite of pretending you’re too normcore to care when you’re actually wearing Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Teint Touche Eclat. Media tells us that spending time on your identity is an act of vanity, a sign you’ve succumbed to the patriarchy or boys on OK Cupid or whatever. In Litchfield, the women’s pallid skin might be in serious need of a heavy-handed airbrush. But at the same time, spending time doing stuff to your face and hair seems to signify resilience rather than pretension.
I’m not an inmate myself though, and still can’t help but worry whether Laura Prepon’s real eyebrows will ever recover.
Reprinted with permission from Styleite. Want more?