Semiotic: Relating to signs and symbols.

Madeleine Ogilvie
Student No. 3993195
Faculty of Business and Law
Submitted for the award of
PhD, May 31st, 2005
These are the notes, and random observations made by me, on the body of work by Madeline Ogilve for a PHd.

Findings suggest that women wear make-up to adhere to a strict societal appearance code and from this code they derive secondary benefits such as power, status, sexual allurement, and increased self-esteem. The use of make-up is extremely ritualistic and harnesses the properties of myth and magic to create powerful transformations.


The drive to decorate the body and face has its inception in prehistoric days when initially man used it to camouflage his form from predatory animals and to induce fear into threatening opponents. As time progressed, body painting and tattooing became linked to identity, being used to mark clan membership, as an artifact in ritual celebrations and worship, and as a medium to allure and attract the opposite sex. The role of make-up as a symbolic medium has ancient origins and, whilst the meaning and symbols painted on faces may have changed over the centuries, the myth and mystery associated with facial adornment has not.

“Throughout recorded history cosmetics have been used to create the beauty ideal of each passing age and for centuries a daily routine of beauty care has been an accepted ‘ritual’ within a social context”

Make-up has been used as a sign/symbol for thousands of years because of the symbolism attributed to colour. As primitive people feared the dark and derived safety from the light of day, red and yellow (symbols of the sun) had a special emotional significance for many people. Red paint or dye was often used to represent blood; black paint signified night or more sinister implications; and white colours were used to represent the underworld, death or some spiritual dimension.

Interesting observations on the use of colour. Possible symbology that could be used within the Chimera project…

Make-up, as part of the everyday lives of women, has undergone significant cultural changes throughout the ages and often appears to reflect the society’s contemporary outlook. As the codes of make-up throughout history have changed, make- up practices of the day could often be observed to act as a mirror or social barometer of the society and its values.

20th Century:

The relaxed use of make-up was considered to be more than a beautification process and became a significant statement about personal freedom and rejection of the male-dominated doctrines of the past. Women envisaged make-up as creative, fun and culturally liberating.

In 1952, Revlon launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history when introducing a new lipstick and nail polish called ‘Fire and Ice’. This seductive advertisement had remarkable reach and was targeted to communicate with every user of cosmetics throughout the United States. It featured a dark haired model in a silver sequin dress with a red cape in front of a glittering backdrop and included a catchy questionnaire which women would answer to determine if they were made for ‘Fire and Ice’. There were fifteen questions such as: ‘do you close your eyes when you are kissed? Do you think any man really understands you? Have you ever danced with your shoes off?’  If women could answer yes to eight of the questions, then the advertisement claimed that they were made for ‘Fire and Ice’. Needless to say, to attain the seductive qualities promised from the advertisement, most women hoped to score at least eight. According to Vice President Martin Revson, hope is what Revlon were selling and what every woman was searching for. This was the beginning of a new era for advertising glamour, and sex appeal took precedence over quality. As Meyer claims, “…the name of the lipstick was no longer a description of a colour but a promise of excitement and allure”

Make-up becomes a description of lifestyle, or promise of lifestyle. More than a colour.. a symbol of an aspiration. Symbolic of a better life.


The feminist perspective is quite different in its philosophical outlook on cosmetic consumption and, once again, make-up is the source of a battle ground.

As the historical perspective of cosmetics demonstrates, make-up has been heavily influenced by the changing social landscape.

Advertising continued to link cosmetics even more tightly with women’s identity and the female form, depicted with “…images of flawless female beauty – mostly youthful, white, and increasingly sexualized.”

The ‘Fire and Ice’ advertisement was significant because it began a trend of tapping into the sexuality of the ordinary American woman. From this point on, cosmetics and sexual allure became much more blatantly linked in the advertising dialogue promoted to American consumers.

American critics attacked the cosmetic industry and the patriarchy behind it, claiming that women’s obsession with beauty and appearance was manipulated by a male-dominated capitalist society and was the means by which men maintained control over women personally and politically. As such, so they argued, women were relegated to objects of male visual pleasure.

Naomi Wolfe claims that mass media images of today enforce normalised beauty ideals of young, thin and sexually provocative females which pit woman against woman, young against old in order to competitively succeed. Where value is based on male approval, and young women suffer erotic degradation as they mimic and conform to these sexual stereotypes.


The normalised image of beauty is one of a “tighter, smoother and a more contained body profile.” This represents the individual’s ability of control, – to keep the body tight, control desires and transformations that are not within the accepted state of appearance and/or behaviour. In this way body and form still indicate one’s social identity and place within society.

Excess body fat has come to represent a weak character and lack of will which demonstrates an individual’s lack of control over latent and infantile impulses.

A similar analogy exists with adhering to the make-up code. Those not conforming are labelled and categorised as more masculine if they are not wearing any make-up, and rebellious and irresponsible if their make-up is considered ‘way-out’. It is only those individuals who demonstrate that they wish to conform to the appearance code, and those who try to, who gain support and acceptance from society.

The use of normal makeup normalises a persons position within society. As an “old” Politics graduate student of the 1970s the following observation is interesting.

In 1953 the cosmetic debate intensified and the ‘Bustello’ controversy, as it has now been termed, became so heated that it caused a split in the Socialist Workers Party (Waters, 1986). This came about as leading feminists debated the use of cosmetics as, either the adoption of capitalistic bourgeois propaganda, or a woman’s right to beautify and break free of the drudgery of house work. This allowed women a means of expressing themselves and creating a new identity beyond the home.

Marx and fellow travelers have some sharp observations on the use of adornment and makeup in general:

…they became fashions and decorations that signified social inequality: the division of society into rich and poor, into rulers and subjugated. Cosmetics and fashions became the marks of social distinction between the classes.

It would be fair to say that how women use makeup is still an indicator of class. “Essex Girl.” etc

The way women consume appearance would therefore continue to be a significant barometer to the social order of the time.


Academic Claims… as to why women wear cosmetics….

“…the lips remind us of the labia, because they flush red and swell when aroused, which is the conscious and unconscious reason why women have always made them look even redder with lipstick.”   Diane Ackerman (cited in Pallingston 1999, p31)

Seems an outdated analysis. The desire to look younger seems more plausible to me.

Beauty is a universal part of human experience, and that it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes. … …We love to look at smooth skin, thick shiny hair, curved waists, and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success.


The debate of what constitutes beauty has previously highlighted the huge influence that culture has on determining beauty ideals for that society.

The use of female beauty in the mass media of popular culture to market products to males and females is extensive, and is mainly due to the assumed linkages of a woman’s appearance and her measure of self worth.

In general, women use make-up and other external facial adornment to influence the non-verbal communications they wish to make. Facial make-up has been used extensively to enhance the wearer’s value and beauty within society. The face itself is considered an important component in measuring attractiveness, and provides a window from which people derive all sorts of information about a person and their role and status within society. (my emphasis.)

Furthermore, the reason for using make-up by women is diverse, and covers the enigma of young women wearing it to look older and older women wearing it to look younger.


Appearance plays a significant role in shaping and ascribing self-identity. Transformation of form and appearance is often synonymous with a transformation of the self.

One of the key factors in understanding women’s more intimate and private motivations for wearing make-up is that of identity and self. The ‘self’ concept is the cognitive and affective interpretation of the individual’s identity and describes who we are.

This is a vital concept regarding my project. The idea that the subject is painted by me, according to their request, is to explore that transformation. The paint is the signifier of self-identity. The paint is the transformer, and indicator of “self.”  The removal of the paint is to remove the projected self and to explore what lies beneath.

Just as the early markings of man were used to claim clan identity and status, now possessions herald a message about the individual’s position in society, their idiosyncrasies and image of self within the community. One of the more common symbols used in this differentiation process is that of gender. Consequently, cosmetics play an important role in this silent symbolic language.


The mask is interesting as it is simultaneously an ‘icon’ (or resemblance) of identity, as well as, an ‘index’ that draws on extensions of the signal to create meaning. The mask of make-up has striking transformational abilities. It is often ritualistic and is linked with traditional scripts.

In any ritualistic behaviour, such as the use of make-up, it would seem that underlying myths play an important part in driving behaviours that are not necessarily based on logic but have their source in the myths, rituals and traditions of the culture.

Myths: All advertising can be reduced to four fundamental themes of: comedy, tragedy, romance and irony, the fundamental components of myth. Consequently, myth still holds an extremely symbolic place within the fabric of most cultures.

The myth of romance is by extension the myth of attractiveness and beauty..? However…

The number of respondents that indicated that they would wear make-up for sexual allurement was extremely limited. However, the benefit of receiving compliments from others and, in particular, the opposite sex did tend to drive the appearance outcome for some women. These women felt that maybe they still did subconsciously wear make- up to attract the opposite sex but it was not something they thought about or did intentionally.

An interesting quote. 

“Your make-up and what you wear is a part of that self that you think that you are, and I don’t know whether it’s the self that other people think that I am, but you know, its more like I put make-up on for myself. I don’t actually believe that I put it on for anybody else or for a man, or to look sexually attractive. No, no, I mean yeah, maybe as a result of that you might feel that you look more attractive or whatever but I always put it, I think I put it on for me. (Female34)”

“I put it on for me”

The use of make-up and the transformations that women achieve through its application has strong parallels to magic. Magic is reasserting itself in contemporary consumer culture and is deeply embedded in everyday practices and the transformational experiences stemming from them. The use of cosmetics can be considered as such a transformation and the daily routine of ‘making- up’ is encased in a magical formula as it is performed.

The central theme of magic is that it transforms the individual in some way and then returns them to their original state, in the same way as a woman applies her make-up, engages the world and then returns to her original state with its removal.

Trans formative and cyclical. Biologically diurnal!

Magic is a ritual and a rituals are “agents of transformation” and, whilst repetitive and exact, “are themselves transformed by the histories to which they belong.” (Weddings)


The thesis concludes….

Women are not victims but active players in the consumption of make-up. Through their experiences they learn to understand the appearance code and what it communicates, as well as learning what society values and expects of them.

False signs where extra linguistic signs deceive others and oneself, are also evident with the sign of make-up. This deception includes occasions where people mistake appearance for reality, and what Peirce (Merrell, 2000) terms deception. In many instances women perceived that their face without make-up was a false sign, as it did not represent the self as they perceive it to look. To them, the real image of themselves is one with make-up upon their face. Certain women even prefer to miss an event rather than present the non-self. To present without make-up is like a false icon, as the visual representation is not true to the reflection they perceive their identity to really be.

The real person is the person with the make-up. The false person is un-made-up person..

Women wear make-up because..  The most compelling reason that emerges is women’s desire to conform to a societal appearance code. The code is strong in moulding and guiding facial appearance in every-day encounters and the benefits derived from adhering to this code are numerous. It seems that by conforming to the code the individual increases their chance of acceptance and success within their respective community.