Frenchwomen prize a fresh, unaffected appearance that adds to their age-defying allure. Therefore, nowhere do they apply more subtle artistry than with their maquillage. As young girls, they may have played with crazily colorful eye shadows, glitter, and blue lipstick, but that was just for fun. As women, they want to underscore subtly and enhance their features so their best selves shine through.
“Let’s be clear,” Olivier Echaudemaison said, “all Frenchwomen above a certain age use foundation. I associate foundation with lingerie. Both reassure and give a woman confidence, both are worn first and foremost for her; they are her little secrets.”
Adopting a French mindset when performing a daily grooming routine that might otherwise seem mundane truly does change one’s outlook on life. I’ve always enjoyed the process of putting on makeup, particularly for a party, but putting on my underwear was simply what I did before I put on my clothes. Now I like thinking of both of these gestures as exquisitely feminine, personal, and morale boosting. Mind over matter can be a remarkable confidence builder.
Maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s silly, but I can’t help being drawn to these French notions of putting a positive, feminine, take-pleasure-in-the-moment spin on the quotidian. That’s what I was thinking as Eric Antoniotti was showing me how to choose and apply foundation. I’ll get to that in a moment.
You may think a no-makeup look suggests, literally, not wearing makeup, but nothing could be further from reality.
“Too much is the greatest makeup misstep any woman can employ to look older and no makeup does more or less the same thing—no color, no light, no enhancement.” Et voila, there we have Olivier Echaudemaison’s take on the subject.
“For Frenchwomen, it’s all about nuances,” Echaudemaison continued. “And to admit to taking time to apply makeup is unthinkable. A compliment about how wonderful a friend looks might, at most, elicit a swift response of ‘Oh, it’s just a touch of Terracotta, chérie.’ ” (Terracotta is the iconic compact bronzing powder from Guerlain that comes in scores of tones for every skin color and really does make one look rested with a just-back-from-vacation glow.)
“A Frenchwoman can be sipping a glass of wine while she tells you she’s not drinking,” Echaudemaison said, laughing, “and you believe her!”
The first question every woman asks is “How do I choose the right color?”Never mind trying to use the famous wrist test. “The blue of the veins makes it impossible,” Olivier Echaudemaison said.
How about this trick from Eric Antoniotti: the palms of our hands. Really? You need a friend or two for the test. I did it with two women during our interview. We all thought it was great fun, though bizarre. He told us to turn our hands over, palms up. Two of us had very rosy skin, and the other had a sort of peachy cast to her skin. The result: the woman and I with the rose-colored palms need a yellow-based foundation, while the woman with the more orange tone should look for a rose-based foundation. “Opposites balance and color-correct,” Antoniotti said.
Yellow is for éclat and rose is for freshness; both are necessary, Antoniotti added.
Texture tends to be a personal choice; I like liquids.
I have the impression that no makeup artist really expects, although they may hope, women will apply their base with a brush or one of those purpose-made sponges the professionals use. Thinking this attitude might be another example of my American laisser-aller, I asked a couple of my French girlfriends how they applied their makeup. “With my fingers,” they all replied.
I’ve started applying my foundation with a brush when I’m feeling ambitious. It’s worth learning the technique (not complicated, but not habit either). The result is barely there because of feathery strokes and, to my surprise, the product goes on quickly and evenly.
I’ve always used foundation, but never all over my face, only on my nose, a dot on my forehead, around my eyes, and a dab on my chin. According to the experts, that’s all you need. Don’t you just love positive reinforcement? After they helped me solve the color conundrum, I admitted that I often wondered whether my application technique needed improvement.
This is how it’s done they told me: dab, dab, dab where you think you want foundation (no, it’s not necessary all over the face; who does that anyway?), gently blend, no boundary lines. Here comes the secret: place your warm hands on your face and lightly press where makeup has been applied. It is now perfectly “set”—and immaculately naturel.
My dermatologist, Valerie Gallais, mixes day moisturizing cream with a squirt of self-tanning product in the palm of her hand, and that is her foundation. “Then I add a touch of powder,” she said. I can attest to the fact it doesn’t look like she has anything to camouflage. If she does, mission accomplished.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been afraid of powder, and until recently, as in the last year, I had never used it. Powdered blush, yes; powdered eye shadow, yes; powdered bronzer, sometimes; powdered eyebrow enhancer, not so much, as I prefer a pencil. But I had never used translucent powder, even though it sounded tantalizingly seductive. I avoided the temptation. Most Frenchwomen of a certain age use powder, albeit sparingly. It’s the sophisticated finish to natural makeup.
Finally, thanks to Eric Antoniotti, I now know how to use translucent powder. He pointed out the important distinction between shine and glow. (I knew the difference, actually, but didn’t know what to do about it, which is the crux of the matter.) When an invisible veil of powder is properly applied, the skin beneath it glows, he promised. Then, he took a medium-sized brush, stroked it across a powder compact, shook off most of the contents, and gently swept the brush over my forehead and down my nose and then flicked the merest whisper on my chin. Result: a no-powder look, exactly what I assume every article I’ve ever read on the subject was trying to explain, and what every woman who uses powder learned years ago.
Like just about every Frenchwoman I know, I, too, am hooked on those divine bronzing powders that make us look healthy and sun-kissed, particularly if they have a smattering of illuminating whatsits in them. Olivier Echaudemaison chose the right color for me—there is one out there for every skin tone, from dark to light—took a huge brush and gently whisked it across my forehead, over my nose, onto my cheekbones, onto the tip of my chin and under my jawline. I assumed he was giving me a trompe-l’oeil neck lift with the last swipe. I hoped it would work.
When choosing the color from the zillions—I never exaggerate—of gradations of tone and illumination, I suggest a conference with an expert. Bronzer is not a product to buy on instinct. I tried on my own a couple of years ago, and I managed to create an effect I imagine no one wants—a dirty face. The powder was strategically placed and artfully applied, but the effect was ridiculous, not to mention expensive.
Now that we’ve established the foundation/powder rituals and confirmed that they exist, the next steps in front of the mirror are the personal details, like the accessories in a wardrobe that make a look unique: mascara, eyeliner, lipstick and, most likely, a hint of blush.
A sun-kissed look—accomplished either cosmetically or intelligently with sun exposure using proper SPF products—is one many Frenchwomen covet. It says vacation, tropical islands, ski slopes, Saint-Tropez, Brittany.
In the past, though, having the slightest tan was out of the question for women of a certain stature. Tanned skin implied a woman was a peasant; a ghostly white face announced she was a lady of leisure. During the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV, when women of the court were obliged to participate in promenades, they wore masks over their faces to protect them from exposure to the sun. These masks were held in place by clenching a button between one’s teeth. (There were actually two advantages to this bizarre custom: masks ensured that skin remained porcelain-like, and the ladies were exempt from participating in the exhausting exercise of clever repartee.)
It wasn’t until the start of the twentieth century that a tan began to indicate something quite different: a sunny holiday, good health, natural beauty.
I finally know how to apply bronzé powders, and even an alternative darker foundation to give me the look of a light tan, which I never would have had the courage to try before Olivier Echaudemaison chose the color and showed me how to use it, just like a Frenchwoman does.
Every woman needs two lipsticks, the experts agree. They should be in the rose family—there is a rose, bunches of roses actually, out there for every woman—a lighter shade for day, a deeper, richer tone for evening.
So many perfectly innocent subjects or objects take on sexual connotations in France, which I’ve come to understand is more of a joke than anything else. Take lipstick, for example.
French magazines explain how to find the perfect rose: they tell us it’s the shade we see when our lips have been “lightly bitten.” How’s that for a sensual reference?
In the eighteenth century, the color of a woman’s lips indicated her social position. Among les dames de la court, pomegranate was the predominant color; among the bourgeoisie, it was a clear red; violet was reserved for women with dubious reputations. Perhaps the choice of a vibrant violet was a form of advertising; otherwise, it seems strange that a woman would have chosen to announce her questionable virtue.
Even the words have changed over time. Once we said “rouge,” today we say “blush” to indicate the slightest hint of color—the natural flush of color that spreads across our cheeks when we blush.
Cream or powder? The experts indicate powder, because they believe it’s easier to control and gives a lighter finish. Many women, particularly those who have wrinkled cheeks (I know, I know), prefer cream.