I have a lowkey love of all things with a vintage aesthetic. I don’t really have the budget or chutzpah to go full vintage, full time–though many women are these days, to the point that there’s a full blown vintage-aesthetic subculture. My Instagram timeline has a lot of perfectly-coiffed women in immaculate outfits, and I draw inspiration from women who can actually wear hells for my own budget-friendly clothing style. But I also pay attention to what they wear on their face, and there’s a brand that’s mentioned again and again: Besame Cosmetics.
I first heard of Besame Cosmetics in relation to the Agent Carter TV show, when the lead actress, Hayley Atwell, revealed that the lipstick she was wearing for the series was Besame’s Red Velvet lipstick. Many Burbank locals and vintage enthusiasts were already familiar with the brand, but there was a strong contingent of female Agent Carter fans who were eager to purchase her exact shade of red–after all, it’s a strong, compelling shade, and finding a good red lipstick is famously difficult. In the years since the TV show went off the air, the cosmetics brand has kept fans’ loyalty, and has even made their association with Disney official–they currently offer a Snow White-inspired makeup collection and will be launching a full Agent Carter collection sometime this year.
Even Siri knows about Agent Carter’s lipstick–now that’s brand recognition!
It’s perhaps not hard to see why Besame is a hit with vintage enthusiasts. The brand’s raison d’etre is to resurrect vintage makeup, and to resurrect it faithfully. The founder, Gabriela Hernandez, recreates the makeup in Besame’s main lines from real colors used in various time periods ranging from the 1910s to the late 1960s. Besame offers cake mascara, as well as cream mascara and cream rouge, all relative relics of makeup past, and all of their red-and-gold packaging is made to reflect the design aesthetics of the past. The makeup is vegan and cruelty-free, and Besame also considers price as a factor in all of their products. Whereas many luxury makeup brands can and will charge whatever they feel like for their makeup, especially if it’s actually any good, Besame Cosmetics keeps every product around $20-35; the most expensive item they currently offer is a $40 vanity mirror from the Snow White collection. $24 on average for lipstick is a little pricey compared to what you can get at Walgreens, but it’s a lot more cost-effective than most boutique makeup brands.
From left to right: the Red Velvet, Merlot, Dusty Rose, and Portrait Peach shades. I did not actually know how to apply this shape of lipstick at first–I learned from watching Agent Carter!
My first purchase from Besame was Agent Carter’s Red Velvet and I’ll admit, it wasn’t a strong start. I bought this lipstick in 2014, and it’s very drying and smears easily. It’s also, frankly, not a great red on me; it looks good when I cosplay as Agent Carter, but when I dress normally it looks more fire truck red than I’m comfortable with. The Besame lipsticks I’ve bought since are no longer drying; if anything, they’re very kind to my lips! They’re also less smeary, and have a lot more staying power. Besame’s Merlot is the perfect red shade for me; it’s a darker, wine red that looks great when I go out at night. I also have Dusty Rose and Portrait Peach in their pink shades, and I love both for different reasons. Dusty Rose is a very mature pink, almost a burgundy in certain lights; it also works well for going out, or when I’m looking for a bold look that can go with different outfits. Portrait Peach is a frothy bright pink, with just a hint of orange, inspired by a 1960s shade. Portrait Peach is my go-to everyday work shade; since it’s less of a bold color, I get away with more imprecise applications, which is good when I’ve only got a few minutes to make myself up before I head out the door. The other shades look best when you get a really crisp lip line with them, and when you set them properly, so they do take more time to apply.
A sidenote: I did accidentally put a tube of Dusty Rose in the wash, and the seal is tight enough on the lipstick that I didn’t ruin the rest of my clothes! Which was a minor comfort when I was crying over my poor, destroyed lipstick. (My lovely, understanding husband got me some water–and ordered another Dusty Rose.)
Portrait Peach, with its original packaging.
I’d recommend the lipsticks as a good first purchase for anyone interested in the brand–they’re high quality, with diverse options–it’s a little more exciting to shop for lipsticks than for rouge brushes. Besame is also really good about swatching their lipsticks on models with diverse skin tones (not just white!). Going to their storefront in Burbank isn’t realistic for me–or for international customers–so the swatches are incredibly helpful when I’m planning a purchase.
The French Vanilla Brightening Powder and Vanilla Rose Brightening Powder.
It was when I got married last year that I first started testing out a wider range of their products. Ideally, your wedding pictures represent you as your ideal self at that age–I really wanted to use part of my budget to invest in beautiful makeup that I could then use everyday after, that would make me feel luxurious in the way that $10 foundation didn’t. Out of all of Besame’s non-lip products, I probably use the French Vanilla Brightening Powder the most; it’s a great as a setting powder. Setting sprays make me itch, and liquid foundation likes to melt right off my face, so setting powder was a great find for me. I also love the Vanilla Rose Brightening Powder. It’s meant to correct dark spots, so I use it on my under-eye circles and any zits that have turned angry and red. Those are the exact parts of my face that make me have a self-esteem crisis, and I never knew there was a product that could tackle both at once!
On the left, Raspberry Delicate Rouge; on the right, Sweet Pink Delicate Rouge. Pictured with the Rouge Brush.
I really like using the Raspberry rouge for when I go out at night, but it’s a little bolder than I like for everyday looks; I recently acquired their Sweet Pink rouge, which I like a lot better for everyday use. It’s fun to pair the Raspberry and Sweet Pink with different lipsticks to create different moods; I used to only ever own one blush at a time, and the variety is nice.
Black cake mascara. The mascara comes with a brush applicator, but this Besame-branded brush is sold separately.
Mascara once came in firm cakes; you would run your mascara brush under the faucet and swipe it along the mascara cake, similar to the way you use watercolor paints. The black cake mascara is a bit of a bear to apply, compared to modern tube mascara, but it can also be used as an eyeliner. It’s really comfortable to wear; it isn’t itchy like cheap mascara. And once it’s dry it’s very water-resistant! (Almost annoyingly so! I keep going to bed with my eyeliner still on!) It can also be used on eyebrows, but my eyebrows are already black, so I can’t really comment on that aspect.
The Decades of Fragrance 1920 scent, which is described as inspired by “rumors and secrets…Old Hollywood.”
I only just got the 1920 fragrance, and it is lovely. It smells exactly like a perfume either my mother or my grandmother used to wear; whenever I smell it I get a powerful sense memory of a woman’s wrist with a gold bracelet on it, watching as she applies her perfume before a night out. The fact that the perfume evokes a glamorous memory from my past means it’s working as intended, so that’s great, although I wonder how others might feel about it. I would guess that how the perfume strikes your fancy is way more likely to be subject to your own perception of the past. This was also the piece that I most wished I could try in-store; you can order a kit with mini-bottles of the fragrances of every decade, which I probably should have tried first. While I got lucky with an essentially random choice of fragrance, I’d recommend other online buyers try the sampler before you commit to a scent.
Besame’s Red Velvet shade.
I haven’t always been a fan of makeup, and even these days, I don’t do my makeup every day. Sometimes not even most days! I like my face as it is; I don’t necessarily like it any more or less with makeup on, and I’m not wearing it to please men. Whether it’s makeup or clothes or hair, pretty much any part of female beauty has a long history intertwined with the way women have had to visually please men over the centuries, not always by choice. For a long time, I saw makeup exclusively as a product of women pleasing men, consciously or subconsciously, and I didn’t want any part of an impossible standard that requires so much extra effort to meet.
My Agent Carter cosplay, circa 2015.
Agent Carter was what really brought me to my own appreciation of makeup. For Agent Carter, a woman working on the front lines of World War II among a sea of men, her red lipstick is a sign of power. It is not meant to seduce Captain America; she wears it regardless of which men are in the room or how much she wants to attract them. Instead, Peggy Carter wears makeup as her shield, asserting her femininity as a point of pride. We often conflate feminism with androgyny and masculinity–with women doing exactly what men do. But feminism has always been intended to raise all kinds of women up, including those who embody the purest forms of feminine expression. In a way, makeup’s recent, peak popularity is reactionary, a way to make the feminine out-there, in your face. Makeup has also become abstracted and explored in new ways, seen more as an art form than simply as a way to look like the idealized form of yourself–although that’s an equally considered desire in modern makeup. Makeup has been increasingly embraced by the queer community, especially in abstraction, using bold eyeshadow shades to reflect pride in one’s truth. Makeup is increasingly diverse, and for many people, it’s empowering. For me, it has become empowering. It makes me feel powerful, connected to the strength of women past. I stand straighter when I wear eyeliner, and my smile is a little broader when I wear a bold lipstick, because I feel connected to other women, to my own strengths as a feminine woman.
Besame Cosmetics doesn’t make any bold claims about the nature of feminism or makeup; they simply like it, and moreover, they like it best when it’s vintage. Gabriela Hernandez’s story of founding the company centers around a personal memory, of watching her grandmother apply her makeup. For her grandmother, makeup was an important ritual, filled with rich smells, colors, and products, and Gabriela internalized the glamour in her grandmother’s ritual, and wanted her makeup to evoke that same glamour of the past. It is perhaps reflective of Gabriela’s Latina heritage that the past she sells is open to everyone, with makeup made for multiple shades of skin and explicitly advertised to all types of vintage enthusiasts. To me, to other fans of Besame and fans of vintage in general, wearing these products is not about pretending time hasn’t passed, or pretending that everything was better then. It is more about borrowing glamour, borrwing grace and poise from a time period that was so aesthetically beautiful even when it was ethically imperfect. Besame Cosmetics and other vintage brands sell a type of power to their fans, and their fans are all too happy to wield it.
Talk to the author about makeup, vintage, or Agent Carter in the comments or on Twitter. All pictures were taken by me and my husband (who was very patient about it all). These photos are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License–you can borrow or remix these photos, but please credit me or my blog.