This René Gruau advert for Payot lip pencil from 1951 highlights the glamour of applying lipstick.

As a chronic over-sleeper, I do my makeup on the bus. More or less every day, I squint into a tiny pocket mirror and apply my eyeliner and brow pencil and so on under the watchful eyes of my co-commuters. Aside from the fact that it’s kind of tricky and it’s taken me a long time to even be able to apply makeup on a bus ride full of bumps and turns, aside from the fact that this time of year it’s so dark in the morning I can’t even see what I’m doing – I kind of enjoy that little morning ritual. I don’t usually do a full face – that’s too fussy for public transport – so messier steps like foundation and contouring (as if!) are left out. But I always do brows, eyes and lips.

Sometimes I notice people watching. I, myself, like to spy on other girls applying makeup in public, because it’s a fascinating ritual. The transformation, however small, is intriguing – hence the popularity of youtube makeup tutorials. And more than anything, it is glamorous. You have your mirror, a chic tube of lipstick – these are your props. You handle your products expertly, flourishing, revealing, and letting out satisfying clicking noises as products open and shut. I’ve written about this before – it’s like a little show. No wonder we care so much about packaging design.

It’s exhibitionism, and a strange intimacy – after all, you’re not supposed to let anyone know your beauty secrets. You do your makeup at home, in your bedroom or bathroom, alone. You’re not supposed to show it off. But women, thankfully, don’t always do as they’re told.

Detail of a Para Ti advert from the 1920s showing an elegant “modern girl” or “flapper” applying mascara.

When makeup became a status symbol after world war 1, adverts for makeup flooded every city and making up in public was a deliberate show of style. Compacts were expensive and beautiful, made to be seen. The act of applying a luxury face powder from an exquisite compact showed everyone how cosmopolitan and chic you were, and peeking into a little mirror gave you an opportunity to do some spying of your own – Susan Keller covers this fascinating topic in this paper. And in the documentary “The Powder and the Glory” author Kathy Peiss (whose book I recommended in this post) explains the way women in the 1920s applied makeup as part of a dance routine!

So you see, putting on your face in public is only fun and chic. It highlights the artifice and the self-constructing nature of beauty and identity, so if you’re in a hurry and have to wing your liner on a bumpy bus ride, I say go for it.