Number Seven is a make-up brand, found in Boots chemists, which is celebrating its eightieth birthday this year. In celebration, Nottingham Lakeside Arts has an exhibition on the history of the brand. It’s a fascinating thing, not least because it really offers some insight into the history of women. Lisa Eldridge details this overlap in her book (which I reviewed here).
The exhibition showed the sort of society that the 1930s make-up brand came in to for context. Some awful misogyny was on display here from over the years, but it was so awful that it became funny. Here’s the lovely George Saville, in 1688, writing a guide for his daughter:
‘She doth not like her self as God Almighty made her, but will have some of her own Workmanship; which is so far from making her a better Thing than a Woman, than it turn her into a worse Creature than a Monkey.’
Firstly, what does George have against monkeys?! I suppose he wouldn’t have been aware that we are descended from them. I have heard echoes of this sort of thinking being repeated today, which saddens me, but it is important to know that make-up has always angered some men.
So, back to actual Number Seven products, which arrived in the Britain of 1936. 1930s products were more skincare-based, so as not to appear obvious. The following decades would subtly allow for more make-up / make cosmetics almost mandatory. It was perfectly okay for women to wear non-obvious make-up in the 1930s then, but obvious make-up was for stage actresses (gross!). Look at this dainty box set, one of Number Seven’s first:
My favourite thing at this exhibition was the tower of make-up, seen at the top of this post, with 1930s products at the bottom and going up to today’s products at the top (which I, sadly, couldn’t fit into one photo). You can see how the products became less “natural” and skincare based.
I loved seeing things from the distant past, but also loved seeing things that I could remember. My mum had some of these products as I was growing up, which made me feel comforted for some reason. These simple lipsticks and mascaras can be deeply personal. Also, when you’re doing your make-up you’re concentrating on yourself, which many women are unable to do for the rest of the day. We can become intimate with the cosmetics we choose to put on ourselves.
My only quibble with the exhibition is that it wasn’t big enough. I would have liked to see more pretty pieces of the past. And I would like to see something of the brand’s little sister, Seventeen, which I used when I was younger (I had a green lipstick from them. They’re still going though!).
This exhibition made me want to buy a red lipstick (which I did). I had always thought that an un-made-up face was giving the middle finger to society, but it’s far more complicated than that. Who would have thought that lipstick could be so loaded?!
As you may be able to tell, I have conflicting feelings on this whole issue. Cosmetics have consistently been ignored and seen as frivolous, or condemned in a slut-shaming way. Choosing what make up to wear, or even wearing none at all, is and always has been fairly political. But, crucially too, these products are beautiful aesthetically. Perhaps I am overthinking a beautiful exhibition, but it has stayed on my mind in the weeks since I went. This is surely the intention of any good exhibition.
‘Inspiring Beauty: No.7’ is on at Lakeside Nottingham until April 17th.