Luminosity: How An Age-Old Obsession With Light Has Made Its Way Into Cosmetics

Reflective makeup is a tool to control how different light interacts with the human face.
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Reflective makeup is a tool to control how different light interacts with the human face.

Humans have always tried to master light. It's one of our greatest aesthetic preoccupations. We want to control it, bend it to our will, and imbue it with symbolic significance.

“To love beauty is to see light,” from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, symbolizes the power of light in the western conception of beauty. This quote can be interpreted metaphorically--in which beauty represents truth and light represents revelation--but read literally, it’s a good summary of the value of luminosity in aesthetics.

In European tradition, the lightness and grace of gothic cathedrals replaced the darkness of medieval churches and represented the infusion of the terrestrial world with the celestial light of God. New construction techniques allowed for soaring windows, often colored, to flood the structure with controlled light. 

The beauty of luminosity challenged the dominant ideals of Grecian proportion and proposed a new definition of refinement.

La Sainte-Chapelle chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris, France.

La Sainte-Chapelle chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris, France.

In the realm of fashion, luminosity was the aesthetic obsession of Gabrielle Chanel. In her careful choices of her personal wardrobe and makeup, she sought to attract as much light as possible to her face. Despite her love of summer tanning, in the winter she would wear thick, pale makeup to suggest a porcelain complexion. She always wore something white near her face--such as a pearl necklace or diamond earrings--to bounce light towards her features.

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Today, in the cosmetics world, luminosity is one of the keys to beauty. Reflective makeup is a tool to control how different light interacts with the human face. An overall lustrous quality to the skin and features is often a desired goal itself. But reflective products used selectively can be a way of adding definition and punctuation to the face.

In makeup, light equals volume. Reflective products will make a feature look larger, rounder and more open. Shine on the skin evokes youth by mimicking the sheen of young skin while reflecting light away from wrinkles and other flaws. It gives a look of smoothness and freshness to the skin.

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As a light pink individual, the tools I use to control light tend to be light pink. I like to use the middle shade of Guerlain’s Écrin 6 Couleurs in 93 Rue de Passy as a finely milled highlighter for smaller parts of my face. I dab a spot on the inner corners of my eyes, on top of my mobile eyelids, under the brow, and just above the center of my upper lip.

Also from Guerlain, their limited-edition highlighter from spring 2012 Météorites Cruel Gardenia is the perfect peachy pink highlighter for my temples and cheekbones. I use a bigger, fluffier brush to swipe it on with a light touch. Dior Vernis in 108 Ivoire in one coat adds the perfect creamy shine to my nails. For my lips, Chanel Rouge Coco Shine in 54 Boy adds just enough sheen and smoothness.

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On the left, I am wearing entirely matte makeup on my skin and eyes with bare lips. On the right, I’ve applied the luminous products above to give my face openness, roundness, and glow. 

Now for the rest of the day, I’m going to walk around smirking that I’ve tricked the light into falling onto my face wherever I go.