Have you started watching Ratched yet? Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series imagines the origin story of Mildred Ratched, the wicked nurse from the Ken Kesey classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s twisted and thrilling and makes for perfect #spookyseason viewing.
The drama and deviance alone are hook-worthy, but the other thing keeping me glued to my laptop is the looks. A late ’40s feast of victory rolls, nipped waists and prim hats. And the makeup! It had me fishing for a tube of red lipstick for the first time in months.
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“I’ve had a few people say to me ‘They’re wearing reds all the time. Didn’t they wear any other colours?’” says Eryn Krueger Mekash, head of makeup on the show. “But there weren’t any other colours—that was it!”
Indeed, up until the 1950s, when pinks began making their debut, lipstick was solely available in red. “There were several different shades, darker reds and brighter reds, but we just wanted to stay very true to the time period,” says Krueger Mekash.
That time period, namely the 1940s in the U.S., is sometimes referred to as the lipstick era because many women were issued a lipstick with their uniform during the war. “It was supposed to inspire optimism and patriotism in America,” explains Krueger Mekash, a long-time Murphy collaborator who also worked on his previous Netflix series, Hollywood.
“The difference between this and Hollywood is I wanted Hollywood to look very Los Angeles, which meant bright reds across the board on everybody.” Ratched, by contrast, is darker in tone and aesthetic. “The only two reds that are represented in Ratched are lipsticks and blood—there aren’t any other reds at all in the entire show,” she says. “A lot of times, Ryan Murphy likes to have the blood be its own character. We’ve done that several times in American Horror Story, where the lighting is very dark and the only thing that’s bright is the blood. He’s always very conscientious of the impact of red and for Ratched, he only wanted to have it be in blood and lipsticks.”
And what striking lipsticks they are, evolving ever so slightly from scene to scene. For instance, inside the hospital, all the lips take on a cooler tinge to mirror the sombre setting. (The blue-toned shades also look smashing with those darling teal uniforms.) “And then outside, I wanted it to be warmer,” says Krueger Mekash. “The outside world is a little more optimistic for the people who get to leave the hospital.”
She also selected shades for each actress based on their colouring and character. For example, Cynthia Nixon, a.k.a. Gwendolyn, gets a coral hue to play into her red hair, but also to give her “a very warm, homey feeling,” says the makeup pro. The icy Mildred Ratched, played by frequent Murphy muse, Sarah Paulson, lands on the other side of the spectrum, often donning a cooler, berry red.
Every shade on the show is based on actual lipsticks sold at the time. That’s because the pro used colours from Bésame, a brand founded by cosmetics historian Gabriela Hernandez, who creates replicas of makeup manufactured in decades past. “The lipsticks of that time period were more wax-based, so they stayed on very well,” says Krueger Mekash. “They were very matte, very opaque. There was no sheerness to them. That comes later in the ’60s, when we start seeing through the lipstick.”
In keeping with the era, Krueger Mekash paired the bullets with slightly filled-in brows, mascara and a bit of blush. “The ’40s was a very clean look,” she says. “We didn’t get into any eyeliner until the late ’50s. So when you see a lot of pin-up makeup nowadays, it’s kind of an amalgam of all kinds of different time periods.”
She did make two tiny anachronistic exceptions, however, starting with lip liner, which wasn’t in vogue at the time, but proved indispensable for keeping colour from bleeding. Secondly, she bucked the vintage powdered skin look in favour of a little more “life.” “I always like to have a tiny bit of glow because our cameras can be very strong,” she explains.
Tempted to go red, yourself? “A lot of it has to do with skin tone,” says Krueger Mekash. If you have pink undertones, she recommends a blue-based shade. For warmer skin with more of a yellow undertone, she suggests an orangey red. Deeper reds can yield more drama, whereas lighter, pinkier shades are especially flattering on very fair skin. “A lot of it is trying things on,” she says. “It takes a little finessing but there’s a right red for everybody. Every single person can wear red.”