Put It In Neutral


For years, I walked right by anything that fell into a “neutral' category, and tsked a little tsk seeing women choosing a muted rose lipstick. I went straight for the blood red, the bright pink—the biggest color payoff for the product. Otherwise, what are you paying for? If I want nude lips, I just won’t wear anything, right?

It’s not a position totally without merit. A little balm-and-go is always fine. But this no-neutral position was borne of a time of blunter understanding, of nuance shuffled away to one side in favor of the strongest flavor, the brightest light, the loudest sound. I was a teenager, and all my thoughts were on CAPSLOCK.

Not that I’m so old and wise now. Well, not wise, anyway. But with a little age comes the swelling suspicion that there’s more to know, more to be understood, than the things you already know and understand. And the shaky mental ground on which you’ve built all your straw men and bald associations starts to fissure and cave and you fall headlong into epiphany. And I fell straight into, ahem, neutral territory. I broke into the experience-broadening, possibility-rendering world of nude lipstick—a world of deft and nearly infinite nuance.

Of course, nude isn’t one color. It’s your own skin color—in this instance, your own natural lip color. Which obviously means that there’s a pretty broad spectrum of possible shades. But there are certain pockets of people that fall into similar categories. And, as much as my sartorial palette would dispute it, my neutral is pink—I’ve got naturally pinkish lips. May sound nice, but, like anything nice about yourself, you always want the opposite.

I’ve always loved that lip so pale it matches the skin. That 2000's Gucci concealer-lip. And like Al Pacino in The Godfather II—his lips were the color of his forehead. It’s beautiful, striking, and sets off a smoky eye like nothing else. Alas, my lips are just too pink, and my skin too warm to make this work. Take me much lighter and I’m working as Walking Dead extra.

What I’ve learned: a good nude doesn’t match your skin—it matches your lips. And my lips are what the color-mixing masters might call a dusty rose, a category I’ve long resisted because it sounds like a cowgirl porn name. And the pleasures of coloring your lips in slight variations on your own personal color theme are subtle, but strong. A half-shade lighter and you’re the closest you’re getting to Bardot; two shades lighter and you’re Barbie. One shade darker and you’re Serious Business Woman of indeterminable age, and two shades deeper you’re Tipper Gore. All slight nuances of shade, all nearly your own, but gives you enough room to shift reference points, set off dramatic eyes, and give your look much more intrigue than clear balm ever could. A run-down of what I've been using:

Nars Audacious in Brigitte: This goes on in that instantly-famously Audacious creamy way that settles and smooths itself into all lines and blends into your lip for the long, gentle haul. Use for the lighter, Brigitte-inspired look; it’s a cross of rose with peach. Not unlike Bardot herself. Didn’t take much imagination on my part, but took a lot on Francois Nars’.

MAC Amplified in Cosmo: It takes the pinkish rose look the tiniest bit into brown, like there’s a tinge of a brick red mixed with ol’ Dusty. Brick Red and Dusty Rose: a match made in porn-name heaven.

Laura Mercier Lip Color in Creme Coral: The easiest to apply, as the sheerness makes it forgivable to swipe on blind. It’s a pinky, super light mauve that suggests fullness of lip and lends on overall brightness of face without making lips a flashpoint in themselves.

Lancôme L’Absolu Rouge in Rose Amnesia: A true Mom shade, but you can see why she picked it. And there’s that unmistakable Mom’s-lipstick-smell you get from Lancôme. Stays reliably based in the pink range while adding a little haze of smoke to deepen the tone.

And it’s amazing how much of a woman you feel like in a neutral lipstick. Where the bright reds and fuchsias usually just signal FUN to me, the dusky rose feels like a lady’s tube—the lipstick of someone old enough to appreciate the importance of subtlety. One rose at a time, I’m getting there.

—Trace Barnhill

Photographed by Tom Newton.

Trace is wearing Nars Audacious in Brigitte