But before we get into the 90s lip trend, let us get into the history:
The simple, slim colored pencil is one of the tools the world’s best-known makeup artists have been using since the 1920s to etch out the American Beauty standard. And that standard, naturally, was very white.
But by the 1990s, a lip liner aesthetic emerged that was, to its core, quite the opposite. Those of us who were around remember it clearly: deep, rich dark brown liner, contrasted by a lighter lip. Sometimes the lipstick was a neutral hue. Other times, it was a glossy red or even a shimmery metallic that looked like liquid when you swiped it on. But one thing it always had to be was stark. Instead of gently blending the lipstick into the liner to create a seamless ombré, the edges are left bold, existing in sharp contrast to the lip color. It was the defining look of the decade, worn by everyone from Naomi Campbell to Naomi in HR. Like many things beloved by mainstream America, this iconic makeup style has roots in communities of color.
Black and brown women had to be the creators of their beauty with so few references and tools. They did so out of necessity — at the time, there were few brands making lip liners in shades that worked for melanin-rich complexions. “Shades of brown” weren’t even considered in the makeup industry. This style of lip liner was part of a beauty tradition Black women had no choice but to create in a society that intentionally excluded them. It was a cultural makeup staple at home, a trick to achieve definition in the lips. But it was more than just a simple makeup hack.
The Origins of the Chola Aesthetic
Black women weren’t the only ones who embraced dark liner with light lips. Latinas living in urban areas were also early adopters of the look. In Los Angeles’s Mexican neighborhoods, the liner style was a marker of the Chola subculture. Cholo (the masculine form of the word) culture emerged in poor L.A. neighborhoods densely populated by Mexican-American youths, whose circumstances steered them into gang activity. They were the manifestation of the other: poor, brown, and ethnic — the opposite of mainstream white America’s idea of “good” kids. And they looked the part in their loosely-fitted Dickies pants, oversized button-front shirts layered over white tank tops, dramatic eye makeup, and, of course, that trademark lip liner.
But before there were cholos and cholas, there were zoot suit-wearing pachucos and pachucas. This generation of Mexican-American youths living in 1940s Los Angeles are considered the predecessors to their ’90s counterparts. They were the targets of racially motivated violence, most notably in 1943 during the “zoot suit riots” that happened in the area. Zoot suits initially became popular in Harlem, America’s most famous Black neighborhood, during the 1930s. The ensemble, which at the time was a variation of a “drape suit,” consisted of oversized trousers that ballooned out past the waist and through the legs, tapering in at the ankle. Denizens of the day would pair that with equally roomy, extra-long suit jackets with exaggerated lapels. The suits were in themselves a rebellion, transforming the “respectable” staple into something infinitely more fashionable and subversive.
Eventually, the zoot suit ministry of Black Harlem made its way to the West Coast, where it was embraced by young Mexican-American pachuco and Pachuca. Their flamboyant style of dress stood in stark contrast to the attire of white Americans in the area, but it wasn’t completely divorced from it — just re-imagined through a different lens. According to Jillian Hernandez, Ph.D., author of Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment, pachucas drew inspiration from the makeup popular women actors of the ’40s were wearing but turned the drama up to eleven. The eye shadow was heavier, the lipstick was darker, and the pompadours were higher. The effect of the drama they infused into their makeup was a declaration of pride in their heritage and a challenge to traditional notions of feminine beauty. The Pachuca aesthetic created the foundation for what would be the ’90s with the chola look with its dramatic eye makeup, baggy clothes, and bold lips.
Diasporic Style Formations
Dr. Hernandez calls the popularization of this lip liner a “diasporic style formation,” born of the interaction between the Black, Afro-Latinx, and non-Black Latin-American communities living in low-income urban areas. Proximity in both location and socioeconomic class creates an environment that allows for cultural exchange. When groups of people interact, they tend to influence each other. When those groups experience similar (though not the same) degrees of marginalization, their expressions of rebellion against that are likely to overlap, intertwine, and ultimately develop alongside each other. Cholas employed dark liners to affirm their identities and establish their standards of beauty. At the same time, Black pop culture figures like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and Mary J. Blige were bringing a beauty standard set by their community further into the mainstream.
Priscilla Ono has vivid memories of this moment. The makeup artist is a native Angeleno still based in the city. “Everyone thought the Cholas were cool,” she recalls. “I also grew up watching hip-hop music videos, admiring the makeup.” Ono, who is Mexican-American, was raised in a predominantly Black and Latinx community and directly recognizes the impact hip-hop culture had not only on the Chola look but her own lived experience. The two cultures, she says, felt like they “melted” together, which should be a shocker to no one. Hip-hop itself was created by Black and Latinx youths in the South Bronx during the 1970s — it makes sense that history would repeat itself in this way.
By the time Ono was in high school, everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background, had fully embraced the dark-liner trend. “All my tias did it, my mom, my friends,” she says. “Lip liner and a lighter was in everyone’s makeup bag — that was the thing in the 90s.” The lighter, both Fine and Ono note, played an essential role in getting the look just right. It was used to melt the tip of the pencil just enough to draw some more pigment out of it. Back then, affordable, high-quality lip liners were few and far between, plus, finding a shade match for darker-skinned women of either ethnicity was a challenge. “I can smell it just talking about it,” Ono recalls.
By the end of the ’90s, the dark liner/light lips style of makeup had spread far beyond the confines of the communities that created them. White celebrities like Pamela Anderson popped up wearing versions of the style, modified to fit their skin tones. But before it went mainstream, the lip liner look affirmed the femininity of women who, to varying degrees, had been stripped of it by a white hegemonic social structure.
Professor Bernadine Hernández, PhD, from the University of New Mexico sees this liner look as a “gender performance” of femininity, “but not a ‘proper’ femininity,” she tells BeautyLeeBar. Both Black and Latina women have been historically (again, to different degrees) marginalized in this country, and left out of the mainstream idea of womanhood. So they created their standard of beauty, one that centered them and their experiences and stood in stark contrast to what was deemed acceptable to white America. At the time, that particular liner style went against notions of what “tasteful” makeup looked like. “If you think about the lip liner that’s not blended — it’s not proper, it’s not ‘right,'” Dr. Hernández continues. “Even the outlining of the lips, it’s very symbolic of a type of gender performativity that is racialized.”
Of course, once the liner look went mainstream (when white women started wearing it), the negative connotations associated with the lower-class women of color who originated the style seemed to evaporate. It became chic and sophisticated, edgy and fashionable. Today, this type of liner is now a classic in the makeup world, and is still, in many ways, associated with the communities that pioneered the look. Younger Black and Latinx celebrities still carry on the tradition their predecessors put forth in the ’90s. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion quite frequently pairs dark liner with light, glossy lips. Euphoria star Alexa Demie, a native Angeleno of Mexican descent, still pops up on red carpets and social media feeds with extra dark chola-inspired liner. She most recently turned out to the Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2023 show with her lips lined in an inky eggplant hue and finished off with a glossy mauve in the center.
Their beauty choices reaffirm the beauty of Black and brown women and remind us how makeup has been used as a tool for progress and social change. The people in these marginalized communities unknowingly created a legacy that challenges Eurocentric standards of beauty and has ultimately, laid the foundation for the more inclusive beauty culture we enjoy today.
Now that we have gone over the history of this dark lip liner look, here is your guide to mastering the iconic 90’s lip trend right from the comfort of your home.
While this overlined look can work with just about any shade, there’s no denying that brown/black and nude pink were the most prevalent back in the day. As always, start with a hydrated lip to prevent creasing and flaking. You can always go the extra mile and use a lip scrub when running through your usual skincare routine, but consider a lip balma must. From there, the most important task of recreating the 90’s lip trend is to find the ideal lip liner color. We recommend grabbing a shade that is about 3 times darker than your natural lip color for the best results. Natasha Denona’s I Need a Nude Lip Liner has the perfect range of neutrals to choose from. Lightly blend this line out for a more natural finish. Then, use a lighter shade of lipstickto add a bit of a pinkish hue to your lips.
You can stop here for a matte take on the look or go a step further and add a touch of gloss. Focus this on the center of your lips for a little bit of dimension and you’ll be left with a statement-making, 90’s nude lip.