It still has wings.
If you’ve ever been to a car show, or at least found yourself deep into lowrider TikTok (it’s a thing!), you’ve more than likely been mesmerized by the beautiful classic cars, decorated in sparkling candy paint and intricately airbrushed murals, many of them defying gravity and wowing crowds with their bouncing hydraulics. Although the lowrider community has largely been dominated by men since its beginnings in the 1940s, the Mexican-American women in the scene, also known as Chicanas, are icons themselves. Their makeup, which often consists of heavily winged eyeliner, a darkly lined lip, long acrylic nails, gelled-down baby hairs, cut-crease eyeshadow, and a penciled-in, arched brow, is a longtime makeup aesthetic that has persevered, inspiring the beauty industry along with it.
This type of makeup has been seen everywhere from YouTube tutorials to New York Fashion Week, but it’s important to know that the looks come from core elements of Chicana beauty traditions that have been passed down over the years, from the 1940s, ‘90s, to now. Many modern-day Chicanas have gotten inspiration for their beauty rituals from the women in their families, such as Winnonah Sarah, a member of the Bay Area lowrider community and a popular TikToker who goes by @cholanona.
Sarah’s love for makeup came from looking at photos of her mother, who passed away when Sarah was only three years old. “I was just taken back by how she represented her beauty,” she says to TZR. “It was very strong, and you saw her struggles in her beauty, but you also saw her strength. And I thought that that had a lot to do with her makeup, which I call war paint,” she explains. “So when I put on this war paint, it’s bringing out my own lioness. Beyoncé once mentioned how she did the same thing. You know, when she goes out on stage, she just becomes this different person. That's where my fascination with this type of makeup really came alive.”
Sarah, who currently has over 127K followers on TikTok, started posting during the 2020 pandemic when everything was shut down and she would take her daughter cruising in her ‘51 Chevy Bomba. She grew up in the lowrider community with her father, who was a lowrider himself, and says that compared to other women in the current scene, her look is more dramatic, with pachuca-inspired (more on this term ahead) red lips and a throwback to the ‘70s chola look with eyeliner “that extends all the way out to the tip of my eyebrow.”
Sarah also posts beauty tutorials that show her applying her makeup (one shows her performing an old-school beauty trick of melting her lip liner with a lighter, allowing it to go on more smoothly) and giving herself a bang trim. “I noticed that a lot of people had a lot to say about my hair because it's two different lengths,” she laughs, referring to how the front part of her hair, which is shoulder-length and the rest that goes down to her knees. “That caused a lot of commotion, so now I get to use this platform to educate.”
The dramatic makeup that Sarah references can be traced back to the 1940s during World War II, when pachucas began to pop up in areas like Southern California. Pachucas were the female counterpart to pachucos, Mexican-American teens who rebelled against societal demands to assimilate into white American society. Pachucas expressed both rebellion and pride through their makeup and manner of dress. Like the men, some of the pachucas wore zoot suits (which were seen as unpatriotic due to textiles being rationed for the war effort), but they also wore tight sweaters, knee-length skirts (which were considered “short” for the era), huarache sandals, and fishnet stockings, donning heavy eye makeup and darker lipstick, their hair teased into sky-high pompadours (which sometimes held concealed razor blades for defense). Pachucas were also referred to as cholitas, and are considered to be the precursor to cholas.
Alison Anders, who directed Mi Vida Loca, the 1989 cult film about a chola gang in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, points out the inventive way in which “Mexicans will take something American and twist it” to make it their own. “It’s kind of an amazing thing how they do that; it's not a copying of something — it’s like, ‘I'm going to take that and I'm going to do something else with it,” she explains. “And that's what's interesting to me about what cholas did with makeup and clothes, and what they do with their cars, for that matter. It's all very much a personal style.” For authenticity, the film’s makeup artist, Jay Wejebe, took the girls from the cast (some of them were active gang members at the time) to Woolworth’s in Echo Park to have them buy the makeup they usually use, like brown lip liner and burgundy lipstick.
While the dark lip look would go on to become synonymous with the makeup trends of the 1990s, even more elements tied to Chicana beauty have found their way into the mainstream. The extended cat-eye liner, full fake lashes, lined lips with a lighter shade filled in, and dramatic, cut crease eyeshadow are all popular among the beauty community. Even the beautiful airbrushed murals often seen on lowriders have made an impact. Just ask Lila Robles, aka @nailjerks, a Bay Area-based nail artist known for her intricate airbrushed designs that are inspired by the lowriders she saw cruising around her hometown of San Jose, California.
Rosie Rodriguez, owner of the makeup brand Lucky Lashes, created a lowrider-shaped palette featuring shades with names like “Low N Slow,” “Candy Paint,” and “Cruisin'.” Rodriguez was inspired by her Chicana culture and her mom, who grew up in LA and went to car shows. The lowrider palette was her own homage to the car she dreams of owning someday herself. “Everything from the custom paint job to the rims is eye candy, and I thought it would be awesome to put one on a palette,” she says. The palette became one of her best sellers. Other Latinx-owned cosmetic brands inspired by lowrider aesthetic and Chicano culture include Sweet Street Cosmetics, Gatita Gang, Homegirlz Beauty Shop, and La Reina Cosmetics, the last of which has palettes inspired by two of the characters in Mi Vida Loca, Mousie and Sad Girl.
“I’ve always appreciated the beauty and been inspired by the women in lowrider culture, because it is so Latina and predominantly Mexican,” Regina Merson, founder of the cosmetic brand Reina Rebelde, explains. “Before launching Reina Rebelde, I moved to LA and spent months studying the beauty of lowrider culture. My brand is definitely inspired by parts of it, in particular the chica on our Reina Rebelde logo and packaging. She’s beautiful but so fierce, she’s classic but modern — my interpretation of lowrider culture is that it embodies so many of these exact dualities.”
The long-lasting impact Chicana culture has made on the beauty industry comes with complexities, especially in the case of cultural appropriation. Over the years celebrities like Lana Del Rey and Fergie have all been accused of appropriation, along with designers like Creatures of the Wind and Kendall and Kylie Jenner through their clothing line. In the ‘90s, Gwen Stefani rose to fame with her band No Doubt, and frequently wore makeup and clothing that co-opted chola style, something that most likely resulted from her Southern California upbringing. Rodriguez says there’s a “fine line” when it comes to appropriating for people who grew up immersed in a certain culture and were heavily influenced by it. “We love it when our culture gets love and appreciation, but it’s important to respect cultures without appropriating them into a temporary trend or fad,” she says.
Merson personally feels eager to share her culture’s love of beauty and rituals with women everywhere. “At the end of the day, our beauty rituals are about self-expression and empowerment, and those are feelings that I want all women to be able to access,” she says, adding, “Also, I have always believed that in such divisive times, it is a win for our community when other people are curious, embrace, and appreciate any part of our culture — even our makeup style.”
The Chicana beauty ideals will undoubtedly carry on far beyond the mercurial trends of the beauty and fashion industries, thanks to the women who continue to keep them alive. After all, the makeup is much more than about looking beautiful, it’s about strength, expression, and being proud of where you came from. As Sarah says about Flaca, a personal beauty icon from her youth who drove a vintage car and worked at the shop where Sarah would pick up her Teen Angel magazines: “Self respect is a big one for me. You can just feel the pride someone has in who they are. Their self respect shines in how they treat others, and she was a big role model for me.”