How a Complicated Asian-Style Skin Care Routine Fits into a Vintage-Inspired Lifestyle

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently re-investigated Asian or Korean skin care and started developing my own multi-step routine. Currently, I mostly use relatively ordinary, Western products, but both the outlandish products and the ritual of the routine fit into my vintage-inspired mindset for my lifestyle. So many people have memories of their grandmothers or mothers sitting in front of the vanity and carefully doing their skin care routine. My own grandmother, though she is not fussy or vain in any way, had her vanity with her jars of creams. I used to play with them sometimes when I was over there, and had to be reminded that grandmother’s room is not for children.

Vintage-style beauty hearkens back to days when makeup was neither widely commercially available nor socially acceptable. While the red lipsticks of the mid-20th century are well-loved, and the feminist makeup boom of the 1920s is known, before that, women were expected to at least look like they were bare-faced and came by their glow honestly. What better way to do this, at least in part, than by having lovely, tended-to skin? And this philosophy is explicitly shared by Korean skin care devotees. The idea is to spend more time on your skin care so you don’t need as much makeup.

Obviously, some of us do just need makeup for things that skin care alone cannot entirely fix. I know I personally have inherited dark circles that no amount of eye cream will diminish, and so I use concealer as well as eye cream. But the idea that the right combination of skin care products will leave you with a perfect, makeup-free glow is an old idea indeed. And while so many “vintage beauty” guides focus on the fact that historical skin care products were made from pre-industrial ingredients, human beings have always had a fascination with the new and outlandish. Before widespread cosmetic manufacturing, odd ingredients or the odd use of ingredients piqued the interest of historical beauties. Rumors about beautiful women bathing in this or that showed that there was an idea that seemingly extreme beauty products were the secret to eternally youthful skin. Cleopatra and Empress Sisi were both said to have bathed in milk. Empress Sisi even wore raw meat sheet masks to enhance her beauty. So is snail secretion or donkey’s milk really that different or new?

And once cosmetic ingredients started to become industrially synthesized, such as the 19th-century discovery of fatty alcohols, people were fascinated by these new ingredients. Perhaps one of the reasons women would put radioactive materials on their skin was because such things were a novelty and thought to be the next big thing. I promise you that if Empress Sisi could have gotten her hands on a peptide serum, she would have tried to bathe in the stuff.

Finally, all this involved skin care helps me stay connected to the practice of enhancing one’s beauty through care and attention. Women in history, particularly in the upper classes, had to engage in elaborate routines to get their hair to curl or even to get in and out of the clothing they wore. So much of modern convenience has meant that some of us no longer spend that time on ourselves. And reconnecting with that bit of self-appreciation has been highly therapeutic to someone to whom “getting ready” used to mean pulling on jeans and a t-shirt and putting her hair into a ponytail (or pinning back a third-day-unwashed pixie cut). Becoming the kind of woman who has a skin care routine has helped me feel better about myself, even when I don’t bother putting on makeup. And that has always been the goal of a beauty routine, throughout history, I think.

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