What is British Beauty?
It has been described as ‘refined’ and ‘well-bred’. It has been named ‘bonny’ or ‘quirky’, even charmingly parodied and at times judged as ‘unkempt’.
Whatever ‘it’ is, British Beauty has always been a particular inspiration to me as a make-up artist.
To succeed in fashion, I’ve always felt that you have to be highly aware of detail. You are more the observer than the participant, and with regards to the elusive definition of British beauty, this is a particularly useful skill.
For example, on one of my very first jobs as a make-up artist, I assisted an incredible English make-up artist, Linda Cantello, on a fashion shoot for Tatler magazine.
The location was Chiswick House in West London, and was where I first met the photographer Bruce Weber, whose iconic black and white images were responsible for the mythical, Anglicized version of the American dream (Polo, Rugby, stately homes, sailing and the traditional clothing of the lifestyle) for Ralph Lauren.
It was quite the grand start to my career. There was a beautifully bored assortment of double-barrel-named beauties and their matching double-barrel-named beaus with a lot of well-bred noses to powder.
As is often the case in Weberworld, these teenagers were oh-so intimately thrown together in high sartorial style for a large fashion spread, the kind of naughty content then editor Tina Brown intended, for what she affectionately called: ‘an upper class comic’.
The fashion editor at the time, Sophie Hicks (whose own daughter Edie Campbell is now one of London’s bright young things, modeling for all the big names, winning horse races and dating rock star Jonny Borrell) had a definite air of ‘Bloomsbury’ (mother and daughter are poster girls for the scent). She wore what seemed like vintage Jermyn Street like a second-skin, her hair foppishly barbered like a public schoolboy with not a scrap of make-up on. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She made such an impression on me, at the time, an overly made-up club kid with the bleached hair.
It is here, on this shoot with Linda that I learned my first, and most important lesson – that it is more beautiful to be natural and for the idea of sophistication to come from within. She taught me in an instant what now seems incredibly obvious: naturally good skin is an asset, so leave it alone; there is nothing to improve upon. She left all the ‘English roses’ clear skinned, loosely powdered and faintly flushed, then stained their mouths discreetly with a hint of soft-plum lipstick. Their youth, taffeta and nonchalance bestowed them with more glamour than anything out of a make-up bag. Their attitude came for free
Beauty is not ‘created’, it is simply there and if the photographer presses the shutter at the perfect moment, he/she might get lucky enough to capture it before the moment is lost.
Across the centuries, from Elizabeth I through to 20th century British beauties such as Nancy Mitford, Vanessa Bell, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Christie, Tilda Swinton and Marianne Faithfull, all seem to have also possessed a rebelliousness that adds to their attraction.
Nothing much has changed today, as Britain’s biggest beauty export Ms. Moss proves. I remember her scent being a Penhaligon Bluebell, and only in England would such a naughty girl smell so innocent. Maybe that’s why Kate’s carefree charm has captivated the greatest photographers and inspired artists to create so many likenesses of her on canvas, film and stone, just by being herself.
Who is Kate, this ultimate British beauty? Is she the prettiest or funniest person in the room? Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not it. Kate just has fun. She does things her way, turns up when she likes, and successfully makes boring clothes look interesting, generic brands look iconic and make-up into an absolute necessity. All this makes her a beauty, and I never, ever feel like I’m at work when I’m with her.
As the rest of the world continues its fascination with our class system, I look at our beauty icons throughout history and to the present day and see quite the contrary. When you consider the aristocratic, Stella Tennant, Croydon-born Kate Moss, West London girl Jourdan Dunn and fellow Londoner Adele all being feted by magazines, fashion houses and beauty brands, it is clear that ‘British beauty’ cannot be confined by a definition of class, age, size or even colour anymore.
Feminine allure in Britain now comes in all of the above, we like them posh and we like ‘em when they’re not – and now, with the Middleton sisters we even like them in the middle.
Tatler photos Bruce Weber. Editor Sophie Hicks Hair Sam McKnight Make-up Linda Cantello
Calvin Klein Obsession ads of Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti
Hair Drew Jarret. (Total lack of) Make-Up, Me.
Originally written for BEAUTANNIA for SpaceNK below.