The History of the Dark Lip Liner Look That Defined the ’90s Begins Decades Earlier

Clara Bow’s cupid’s bow. Marlene Dietrich’s overlined lips. Marilyn Monroe’s contoured pout. All three of these now-iconic makeup looks could not have been done without lip liner. The simple, slim colored pencil is one of the tools the world’s best-known makeup artists have been using since the 1920s to literally etch out the American Beauty standard. And that standard, naturally, was very white.

But by the 1990s, a lip liner aesthetic emerged that was, to its core, quite the opposite. Those of us who were around remember it clearly: deep, rich dark brown liner, contrasted by a lighter lip. Sometimes the lipstick was a neutral hue. Other times, it was a glossy red or even a shimmery metallic that looked like liquid when you swiped it on. But one thing it always had to be stark. Instead of gently blending the lipstick into the liner to create a seamless ombré, the edges are left bold, existing in sharp contrast to the lip color. It was the defining look of the decade, worn by everyone from Naomi Campbell to Naomi in HR. Like many things beloved by mainstream America, this iconic makeup style has roots in communities of color.

Meet the Experts:

  • Sam Fine, renowned makeup artist with decades of experience working on high-profile faces like Brandy, Naomi Campbell, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and several more. He is Fashion Fair Cosmetics’ global makeup ambassador.
  • Jillian Hernandez, PhD, scholar and author of several books examining sexuality and culture within Black and brown communities in the US She is an associate professor at the University of Florida’s Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research.
  • Priscilla Ono, Los Angeles-based makeup artist and global makeup artist for Fenty Beauty.
  • Professor Bernadine Hernández, PhD, assistant professor of literary studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Pre-Runway Origins

Sam Fine knows. The legendary New York City-based makeup artist was creating the look on Campbell in the ’90s, but by then, it was nothing new to him. He’d watched the Black women around him line their lips in this way as a high schooler in the ’80s. They did so out of necessity — at the time, there were few brands making lip liners in shades that worked for melanin-rich complexions. “Shades of brown weren’t even considered in the makeup industry,” Fine tells Allure. Back then, one of the only brands making products for Black women was Fashion Fair. The company was the brainchild of Eunice Johnson, co-founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, which put out Ebony and Jet magazines. Today, Fine is the brand’s global makeup ambassador.

“Black and brown women had to be the creators of their own beauty with so few references and tools,” Fine shares. That moment of scarcity, ugly as it was, inspired beautiful innovation. Those who couldn’t make it to the Fashion Fair counter made do with what they did have access to: brow pencils and eye liner, which typically came in shades of dark brown and black which were more flattering against deep skin tones. Maybelline’s classic Expert Wear Twin Brow & Eye Pencil (which you can still buy today,) was in the makeup bags of the women Fine grew up around. “It was a cultural makeup staple at home,” he says, “a common consumer trick to achieve definition in the lips.” But it was more than just a simple makeup hack. This style of lip liner was part of a beauty tradition Black women had no choice but to create in a society that intentionally excluded them.

The Origins of the Chola Aesthetic

Black women weren’t the only ones who embraced dark liner with light lips. Latinas living in urban areas were also early adopters of the look. In Los Angeles’s Mexican neighborhoods the liner style was a marker of the chola subculture. Cholo (the masculine form of the word) culture emerged in poor LA neighborhoods densely populated by Mexican-American youths, whose circumstances steered them into gang activity. They were the manifestation of the other: poor, brown, ethnic — the opposite of mainstream white America’s idea of ​​”good” kids. And they looked the part in their loosely-fitted Dickies pants, oversized button-front shirts layered over common white tank tops, dramatic eye makeup, and, of course, that trademark lip liner.

But before there were cholos and cholas, there were zoot suit-wearing pachucos and pachucas. This generation of Mexican-American youths living in the 1940s Los Angeles are considered the predecessors to their ’90s counterparts. They were the targets of racially-motivated violence, most notably in 1943 during the “zoot suit riots” that happened in the area. Zoot suits initially became popular in Harlem, America’s most famous Black neighborhood, during the 1930s. The ensemble, which at the time was a variation of a “drape suit,” consisted of oversized trousers that ballooned out past the waist and through the legs, tapering in at the ankle. Denizens of the day would pair that with equally roomy, extra-long suit jackets with exaggerated lapels. The suits were in themselves a rebellion, transforming the “respectable” staple into something infinitely more fashionable and subversive.


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