Why Makeup Is Back In 2021 — And Bolder Than Ever

Even in the face of chaos, beauty is still a bright spot.

model with colorful lipstick

It’s been nearly two years since the world went figuratively dark at an unprecedented scale. Emerging from the ashes of what can only be described as a relentless dumpster fire, however, is a flurry of kaleidoscopic makeup that signals brighter days are (fingers crossed!) ahead. And creators of all kinds are channeling that optimism into brilliant beauty looks. 2021 makeup trends like rainbow lids, avant-garde appliqués, and explosions of glitter are erupting everywhere from the runway, to social media, and to the streets as lockdowns are cautiously lifted.

“So many things happened both externally and internally for everyone,” says Danessa Myricks, makeup artist and founder of an eponymous cosmetics line, Danessa Myricks Beauty, of the last 22 months. “Everyone is eager to step into the light!” The pro notes that this tumultuous period also provided many with a rare moment of reflection and introspection, resulting in a new commitment to live every day authentically and unapologetically. “We saw lives, careers, and freedoms lost without warning — it became so clear that tomorrow is not promised,” she adds. “There was a strong reaction to this; a need to rebel and unleash what has been suppressed or hidden. People are breaking rules and barriers by expressing themselves in ways they’ve always dreamed.”


Beauty History Never Fails To Repeat Itself

Turning to powder and paint in times of turmoil isn’t exactly a practice exclusive to the last 22 months. “For some, makeup is armor, and for others, it is a means of expression, but it’s always been a powerful tool throughout history,” says David Yi, author of Pretty Boys: Legendary Icons Who Redefined Beauty and co-founder of Good Light. For the Hwarang — fierce warriors in 6th century Korea who applied pearly face powder and fiery red eyeshadow before venturing into battle — beautifying was a “spiritual practice,” he notes. “Makeup was also a way for many LGBTQIA folx to feel liberated and they would risk their lives to do so,” he adds, citing William Dorsey Swann, America’s first self-identifying drag queen and queer activist, who was routinely punished and imprisoned for challenging the gender binary during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“If you think about what’s happening now — economic chaos and social despair — people are still finding solace in controlling how they look and present in the world,” Yi explains. The key difference between the past and present is that “society has become much more inclusive, and self-expression is being celebrated,” says Tyron Machhausen, a Chanel makeup artist.

In the post-lockdown era, the beauty rebellion is stronger than ever — as is the public’s appetite for bold makeup. McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, reported that the sales of color cosmetics dropped by 33% globally in 2020, but experts from the company anticipated the category would rebound quickly. According to recent data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, makeup in the United States is on the road to recovery in 2021, especially in the eye area, up 7.1% over last year (which makes sense, given the fact that lids and lashes are prime real estate when sporting a face mask).

At the helm of her own beauty brand, Myricks has observed the effects of the current creative renaissance firsthand. “Pre-pandemic, complexion was number one for our brand and our best-sellers were all focused on skin and glow,” she says. “As we transitioned from 2020 into 2021, we noticed a dramatic shift in that our high-impact color products, like Colorfix, Twin Flames, and new Infinite Chrome Flakes [a now sold-out formula that produces a reflective, jewel-like effect], became our top performers.” Myricks doesn’t expect the desire for drama to calm down anytime soon. “Our customers are experimenting more with non-traditional colors and textures like neons, foils, metallics, and multi-chrome [finishes],” she adds.


Fortune (& Fashion) Favors The Bold

Seasoned pros on the runway and red-carpet scene are undoubtedly excited to unleash their stifled creative juices, as evidenced by the myriad of jaw-dropping makeup looks at the Met Gala and on the Spring/Summer 2022 catwalks. From technicolor aliens tripping on mushrooms at Rodarte to vacay-worthy color and shine at Anna Sui, there was no shortage of maximalist beauty moments this season. The bedazzled complexions, fluorescent lids, and Crayola-like lips makeup artist Lucy Bridge dreamed up at Dries Van Noten were especially memorable and completely mesmerizing. “It was a celebration of the face!” says Bridge, who emerged from 2020 “with optimism and a new focus.” Machhausen, who routinely uses intense color as an “accessory for the skin” (exemplified by the pop of neon green paillettes dotted across actor Whitney Peak’s lash lines at the Met), emphasizes that makeup serves one primary purpose: “to make you feel good about yourself.”

William Scott, a makeup artist known for their work with celebrities like Padma Lakshmi, Karlie Kloss, and Barbie Ferreira, says that cosmetics are no longer a “uniform to please the male gaze” but are instead a “form of expression for anyone who wants it.” Scott notes that millennials and Gen Z in particular aren’t shy about showcasing their true selves. “They’re doing things that are forcefully not sexy, but they look hot because they are fully-fledged,” says the pro. This gender-neutral approach to beauty really hit home six years ago when the face painter started exploring makeup on a more personal level. “In a moment when I'm feeling colorful and bright, I want to emphasize that,” says Scott. “I stopped dimming that part of myself.”

Making choices about your appearance can “increase a person’s sense of agency” and help people “own their differentness,” explains Jim Jacobsen, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is not at all surprised people are looking for ways to “flip the energy” after many months of under-stimulation. “The fact that one is different does not have to feel like a source of oppression or shame. It can be something that is celebrated.”

Marissa Botello, an associate marriage and family therapist who is trained in art therapy, echoes those sentiments: “Makeup can be an ever-evolving journey in which we understand what we like, what we don't, and what makes us feel beautiful, connected, or proud,” she says. The act of applying cosmetics can also be an effective coping skill and form of mindfulness that “helps slow our thoughts, moves our brain activity from our limbic system (our emotional brain) to our prefrontal cortex (our decision and logical part of the brain), and keeps us focused on the present moment,” adds Botello.


Joining The In-Crowd Involves Standing Out From The Pack

Anya Tisdale, a self-proclaimed “face decorator and art creator” who started whipping up culinary-inspired beauty looks in quarantine, confirms the therapeutic effects of makeup. “Being able to ‘dress up’ my face, even with no destination in mind, made me feel great about myself,” she says. “It also counted as a little task for me to complete during the day, which helped make me feel like I was accomplishing something and that helped curb some of those feelings of hopelessness, boredom, and restlessness that came with being cooped up inside.”

For those who do venture into the great outdoors, like Mi-Anne Chan, the New York-based director of creative development at Teen Vogue, Them, and Love Magazine, serving full looks at the grocery store rarely makes her fellow shoppers bat an eyelid. It does, however, spark conversation in the checkout line. “Social media has democratized the beauty world in a significant way,” she says. “When I first started [playing] with makeup, it was tutorial city, like how to do a smoky eye the ‘right’ way … but the community is changing in that people want to experiment more.”

Karla Garcia, a multifaceted artist who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue styling, costume design, and creative direction, says the reactions she’s received IRL have also been “surprisingly positive” — even in rural Pennsylvania. “I would get some stares, that I would have to ignore in order to protect myself from feeling insecure, but on the other hand, I did get kind and unexpected compliments from strangers, which would brighten my day,” she adds.

London-based makeup artist and influencer Wendy Asumadu, who went viral after giving followers a glimpse into her technicolor universe, says her glam still gets gawked at on the train. “Sometimes I forget that I have colors all over my face and I’ll wonder why a person is looking at me!” laughs Asumadu, who proudly “lives in a rainbow” and never wears black. “Sometimes I’ll be wearing the tiniest bit of eyeliner, but it's two different colors, and people say, ‘Oh my God, your makeup is amazing.’ It still surprises me.” She continues to use her face as a canvas to explore her own beauty and fill a void after realizing there was a lack of visibility for Black creators.

When the Black Lives Matter movement began getting widespread attention, she also started a platform called EditorialBLK to amplify Black voices and give more people the confidence to experiment. “Once we get to a stage where all people can express themselves freely, I think the world will become a better and safer place,” she says.


The Beauty Hype Is Real — Or So It Seems

As for whether or not the fabulous color and fantasy are here to stay after surmounting this hump in modern history is still hazy. (After all, who could have predicted the past 22 months?) Once the storm clears, however, many artists are confident that the masses will continue playing and pushing the envelope on the other side. “People will always need an outlet for their creative energy and I don’t see makeup falling out of favor anytime soon,” says Scott. “If anything, I see more space being created for beauty trends to live alongside each other, whether they’re minimalist, maximalist, or somewhere in between.”