Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
With few exceptions, beauty products move forward. Makeup trends might be retro or nostalgic, but even then, the products now used to achieve them are almost always new formulations, like waterproof liner pens or long-wearing, ultra-matte liquid lipsticks. The reasons for that are practical: In spite of its accessible exterior, beauty is a chemist’s game that advances along with science, adding elements that make cosmetics more effective and easier to apply while removing harsher or more harmful chemicals. Whatever is The Best doesn’t stay that way for long; almost all the beauty products available now are objectively superior to the ones that were available even as recently as when you or I started buying makeup. In my 15 years of beauty consumership, I can think of only a handful of exceptions, and really only one that feels near-universal: Clinique Almost Lipstick in “Black Honey.”
Black Honey as a shade has been in Clinique’s lineup since 1971, but the key to its legendary status is the Almost Lipstick formulation. That combination of color and texture was introduced in 1989, when I was only 3 years old and still another three years away from raiding my mom’s makeup stash every morning after she had gone to work and before my dad drove me and my little brother to school. My mom has always been the sort of fanatical skincare devotee it’s only recently become fashionable to be, and in a white, middle-class suburban household in the early 1990s, that meant she was a Clinique customer.
The marbled green plastic compacts and silver tubes that constituted most of the brand’s packaging at the time looked to me like physical markers of adult womanhood, like tools I knew would eventually be important but that I was not yet skilled enough to wield. And when I did start using makeup, it was almost all castoffs from my mom’s devoted beauty shopping, including plenty of Clinique gifts-with-purchase that included mini tubes of Black Honey, long the brand’s most popular lipstick shade. My mom, blonde and fair-skinned, is more of a bright pink kind of woman, so all of those went to me.
What makes Black Honey so special is both what it looks like it’s going to be and what it’s not. Clinique’s Almost Lipstick range is the Virginia Slim of color cosmetics: the tubes are long, thin, and metal, like elegant, purse-sized magic wands—starkly different than the cheap drugstore packaging of the products that constitute most women’s first foray into makeup. And at $17, they feel special while still being accessible to a 13-year-old with accumulated babysitting money who wants to perform one of her first rituals of feminine consumerism.
Twist up a tube and you’ll get a cylinder of product so dark you can barely tell it’s berry-tinted; to a suburban tween clutching her first fancy lipstick, it looks like trouble during the period of adolescence when dipping a toe into trouble is the most seductive thing in the world. When I asked my best friend, JM, if she had ever been a Black Honey person, she told me about getting a tube along with an evening gown at 14 to go to prom with her older boyfriend. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like hot shit.”
The reason so many people my age managed to get their hot little hands on Black Honey back in early adolescence, of course, was because of what it turned into when applied to the lips. Instead of saturated color, Black Honey is The One Your-Lips-But-Better Color to Rule Them All. It deepens your natural lip color by a couple sheer shades with a balmy, high-shine finish, and the simple berry tint is as close to universally flattering as I’ve ever come across in color cosmetics. To apply it doesn’t require a mirror, a steady hand, or any practice, and the resulting look isn’t one that would make most mothers wonder if they’ve been too permissive. Black Honey is the Trojan Horse in which a burgeoning interest in personal aesthetics can safely ride into a middle-schooler’s life.
At some point, though, I forgot about Black Honey. I moved on, grew up, and accumulated 16 densely pigmented lipsticks in bright red alone, which make my eyes look greener by comparison and take studied practice to apply uniformly in a special makeup mirror. But by now I’ve mastered that and have found myself wanting something easier, lighter, more casual. I thought about Glossier’s Generation G Lipstick (basically just Almost Lipstick), but a friend complained it was too drying for the color payoff. I wanted one of the dark, sheer shades (also basically just Almost Lipstick) from Urban Decay’s Vice line, but my color wasn’t at Sephora. I tried tinted balms, but they weren’t quite enough.
And then this spring, at the solidly grown age of 31, I found myself back in my childhood bedroom during a visit home to Atlanta, sitting on my old bed, sorting through my mom’s castoffs once again. (Although this time, they were from Sephora’s monthly subscription box, not department store bonuses — Mom may be retired now, but she will never retire from keeping up with whatever’s going on in beauty and skincare.) In one of the little bags was a sample tube of Black Honey, which I swiped onto my lips immediately, without consulting a mirror until I was done, through pure muscle memory. And when I did look at the results, it was as it always had been: perfect. Just enough. I threw the mini tube directly into my suitcase to make sure it made the trip home with me, and in that moment, I re-learned a lesson I thought I had internalized a long time ago: Teenage girls know a good thing when they see it, and that’s true even if those teenage girls are me and my friends nearly two decades in the past.