It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, we were blithely carrying on with our lives, blissfully unaware of a little-known makeup technique called contouring. Now the term is practically ubiquitous, thanks in large part to a certain someone with hyper-sculpted cheekbones and an affinity for taking selfies. But before the Kardashians, before the era of airbrushed Instagram selfies and clown paint tutorials, contouring was a much subtler technique, used by makeup artists and stage performers out of necessity, rather than a desire for a super-sculpted face.
And before even that, contouring still existed (yes, really)—but it was less of the Tom Ford Shade & Illuminate ($80) variety, and more like greasepaint and soot.
We took a trip through history to document exactly how the contouring craze reached the peak it has today. From Elizabethan England to silent films, keep scrolling to find out the fascinating history of the makeup trend we all know and love (well—know, at least).
Lest you think contouring is a modern development, one confined to the era of red carpets and editorials, think again. The art of contouring (which sounds like a coffee-table book just waiting to happen) started way, way back—as early as the mid-1500s. Stage actors in Elizabethan England would apply chalk and soot to their faces so audience members could read their expressions more clearly.
The 1800s marked the introduction of artificial lighting—i.e., everyone would notice if actors had soot on their faces. Thus, in the flood of new electric lights, it became necessary for performers to use other means to accentuate their faces under the spotlight. These actors were the pioneers of what we know now as contouring, using “pancake makeup” (more on that later) and even greasepaint on themselves to help accentuate the emotions they conveyed on stage.
Another fun fact: In the 1800s through the 1900s, few people other than stage performers and prostitutes wore makeup at all. Queen Victoria, regally ruling over the pond, had declared that makeup was “vulgar” and should be reserved for actors. Supposedly, cosmetics were so unpopular that they couldn’t even be bought in department stores; they could only be purchased at costume shops.
Contouring eventually made its way to the film world, where screen legends like German actress Marlene Dietrich started incorporating it into their film makeup. Dietrich was said to believe in accentuating the natural lines of her face with shading and sculpting. According to sources, she always paid close attention to overhead lighting, and knew the power of a perfectly cast shadow (as well as a thin, super-arched brow, one of her signature features).
Legendary makeup artist Max Factor was the go-to for creating and applying makeup for screen actors. He was influenced by stage actors’ technique, but added his own spin on shading the face for film so it didn’t appear too flat. In 1945, his makeup school released the first step-by-step tutorial on how to contour your face, even breaking it down by face shape (yes, tutorials existed pre–Pinterest era). Today, many makeup artists credit Factor for coining the contouring term and technique.
You might recognize the name Ben Nye if you’ve ever been in a high school play, given it was most likely plastered across the stage makeup you were told to smear on your face. Named the makeup director of 20th Century Fox in 1944, Nye was another legendary makeup artist, who created characters for iconic films like Gone With the Wind and Planet of the Apes. A makeup line seemed the next logical step, and his products are still used by professional artists and everyday women—supposedly, the queen of contouring herself (Kim, obviously) swears by his Banana Powder ($13) to set her makeup.
The ’50s were a time of Old Hollywood glamour, with actresses like Aubrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor filling giant movie screens with doe-eyed glances. If you look at portraits from this era, almost all of them feature subtle contouring and shading—you just wouldn’t know it at the time, since makeup secrets weren’t shared with the masses back then.
Ah, the ’90s. The decade of all things tight and cropped, stenciled brows, and the hint of contouring migrating to the mainstream. Celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin made a subtle sculpted, chiseled look his signature on clients and friends like Gwyneth Paltrow, Cindy Crawford, and Janet Jackson. Still, contouring remained an industry-only technique (as in, social media did not exist).
Otherwise known as The Turning Point in the makeup world, 2012 was the year Kim Kardashian tweeted a before-and-after photo of herself pre- and post-contour (makeup artist Scott Barnes was responsible for the look). It all went downhill from there, when millions of people realized they, too, could create razor-sharp cheekbones with a stroke of the brush (well, many, many strokes).
Contouring turned into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon the following years, with everyone from top models like Joan Smalls to YouTubers in their bedrooms trying out the long-held makeup artist technique. With mass appropriation comes change, and the subtle shading used by makeup artists morphed into something a little more… obvious.
Contouring spinoffs like tontouring, strobing, and even henna contouring now run rampant on the Interwebs, while Instagram “celebrities” rack up millions of followers for their mind-blowing makeup transformations. This fall, the designers at Hood by Air marched their models down the runway with unblended contour, shining light on the slight ridiculousness of the current "no-makeup" makeup trend (which is often anything but that).
So what’s next in the makeup frontier? Will there be another trend to match contouring’s magnetizing prowess, or even—perish the thought!—exceed it? Only time will tell. That, and perhaps Kim Kardashian’s next well-timed tweet.
Are you a contouring fan, or are you team natural? Sound off below!