At one stage in my early career, I worked for a London fashion company. Everyone, regardless of their position, was expected to project the right image by wearing the company’s brand and making sure they were perfectly turned out at all times.
Once a month, the company would organise an in-house sale of all the designer samples that were no longer required. Everything was up for grabs for a nominal amount, so there was no excuse for not looking stylish and chic.
Some of these samples didn’t make it to the retail stores, so I had a few outfits that were one of a kind. For example, one of the skirts I bought, a beautiful form-fitting number that ended mid-calf and had a little split up the back, had the most exquisite stitching I’d ever seen on an outfit of any sort.
The first day I wore it, I realised why it had been relegated to the sale bin: it was so narrow around my calves that my stride was reduced to baby steps, à la Marilyn Monroe. For the first time I understood why the star often looked as if she was teetering around in her movies. I’d assumed that it was part of her femme fatale image, but it might simply have been because her dresses were so tight they restricted her ability to walk properly.
I tried to modify my mermaid skirt (as I had christened it) by making the split up the back a little longer, but there is only so much elongating you can do before you run the risk of exposing your nether regions to a draft. I finally gave up on the mermaid look when I discovered I couldn’t lift my leg up high enough to get onto a bus. I’ve heard about people suffering for the sake of fashion but not going to work was not an option.
There wasn’t a written rule at the fashion house about wearing makeup, but female staff were expected to make an effort to turn themselves from drab to fab.
I’m not a morning person so I tried to find as many shortcuts as possible to speed up the morning transformation process. I would have my shower late at night, apply one coat of mascara, dry my eyelashes with a hairdryer, apply and dry another coat, and try to sleep flat on my back so as not to wake up with my eyelashes stuck together in unflattering clumps.
I’d read about a French woman who followed this routine every Sunday evening, separating each lash as she did so with a pin, so they would look as natural as possible. If she was extra careful she could make her two coats of mascara last a week.
The first thing I did every morning was check my eyelashes in the bath-room mirror. On a few occasions, I looked like a racoon, but mostly I got away with it – for three days at the most.
During this time, I began dating a man who also worked for the fashion company but in a different department. He’d only ever seen me with my makeup on and all dressed up as if I’d just stepped out of a spread in a fashion magazine – like all the other clones who worked alongside me.
Two months later, while having dinner in a restaurant, he drew an imaginary circle with his forefinger in the air in front of my face while saying, “I don’t like this very much.”
“Don’t like what,” I asked, feeling confused.
“That muck on your face,” he said.
“Do you mean the makeup?”
“Yes. I would prefer it if you looked more natural.”
The first time I’d met this man, I’d been wearing makeup, and he’d obviously found me attractive. But now he was telling me that I pretty much looked like muck.
If my mascara-ed eyes could have shot laser beams, I would have vaporised him on the spot.
Nonetheless, after sleeping on his comment (flat on my back to preserve my mascara), I decided not to wear any makeup the next time we went out.
The following week, we met to have a coffee in a cafe. As I sat opposite him with my naked face, I felt disappointed that he didn’t even acknowledge that I’d come out without my usual camouflage. It had taken a lot of courage on my part to show him what I really looked like, warts and all, and he hadn’t even noticed the difference.
I also noticed he spent 50% of the time staring at a woman at a neighbouring table. A woman, I might add, who was wearing so much makeup it looked as if it had been applied with a trowel.
I never saw him again, but I continued my makeup routine long after I’d left the fashion company. After that experience, I didn’t feel confident enough to let people see the real me.
These days, I couldn’t care less about makeup. I’ll put it on for a special occasion, but I often go to work without any on. Having to always wear makeup, for whatever reason, is a form of tyranny that I’m glad I’ve overcome.
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