Purely cosmetic?

Make-up is so much more than just face paint.

A woman's handbag is, quite rightly, a mystery. But within the folds of fluff and amid the wraps of paper that register phone numbers of unimag inable importance, there is something of such value that it could be described as the beating heart of the handbag: the make-up bag.

It takes time to build a cosmetics purse. Sure, you can go to those shiny counters, staffed by women whose eyebrows are tamed beyond any possibility of revolt, and spend a couple of hundred pounds, and you would, indeed, end up with a fully staffed make-up bag. It wouldn't be yours, though - and it won't be, until the lipstick has been worked down into a shape that exactly fits your lips, and until the eyebrow colours in their neat-no-more palette have been broken down to make them more malleable, and therefore easier to apply.

In terms of status in among the cosmetics, the lipstick is queen. Lipsticks have had entire books dedicated to them. Next is mascara. These are the two items most women say they cannot live without. It's nonsense on one level, of course, but the power of lipstick, and how it makes a woman feel, must never be trivialised. From the silly everyday occurrence - the woman having to "put her lippy on" before a relatively difficult exchange - to the enormous impact make-up and lipstick can have on a woman's psyche, there's more going on than just colouring in one's face.

The skincare guru John Gustaf son shocked me one day by telling me how he gave all the excess (unused) make-up he got in the course of his job to a women's refuge. It seemed a frivolous, almost insulting, thing to offer women who had been beaten by their partners; but apparently it was a huge help psych ologically for the women, many of whom had had to leave their homes with very little.

Some years ago I read this powerful extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, one of the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. (I have verified the source from the Imperial War Museum.)

"I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives . . . It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted. We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick . . . At last someone had done something to make them individuals again: they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity."

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom