Sex Education is a delight to watch, not only because of its endearing approach to sex positivity, but also because it’s a feast for the eyes. There are the dreamy non-time-period-specific wardrobes and the lush landscapes in which the world is set, but perhaps the most exciting visual treat is the makeup.
For seasons 3 and 4, Emily Bilverstone spearheaded hair and makeup on the Netflix series, which she adored since the first season. “I still really remember watching the beginning of season 1 and thinking, ‘God, this is a dream job for hair and makeup because it’s got such a huge variety and it’s obviously not set in a particular era, and it’s all sorts of hyper-real and it’s got so many different characters.’”
When Bilverstone joined the Sex Ed team in season 3, she was given specific instruction for the makeup. She clearly remembers director Ben Taylor saying “that he wanted us to create looks that would be aspiring to teenagers.” It was exciting “to give teenagers an opportunity to be able to at that age find who they are through their hair and makeup and explore different paths,” she says. “It’s fun to be able to put ideas out there that someone might go home and think, ‘Oh, I might try that tomorrow, and I might see if that makes me feel a certain way.’”
We saw that last season through Eric’s colorful eyeshadow and Lily’s out-of-this-world pastel eye liner. This season’s makeup is amplified with peacock like color palettes, neon eyes and rhinestone accents. For season 4, that do try this at home ethos is still there, especially when it comes to Eric and his new friends—we’re still left wanting to emulate them for sure.
The makeup, hair, and wardrobe in Sex Education is not separate from the kids’ internal struggles, but rather an extension of them. They teach us the importance of self-expression and reflect their evolutions and maturity. Let’s dig into a few of the characters here.
There is a lot of color in Sex Ed, as seen in sparkly shadow, glitter, eye gems, and bright neon hues. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) wears these the most, which makes sense, given he is “probably is one of the most colorful characters on the show,” Bilverstone says.
Regardless of what he’s wearing, even if he’s at church with no makeup, “the energy that Ncuti brings to the role as Eric has always been a really vibrant and really joyous character.” So adorning him in bright colors and neon was simply “matching his personality,” Bilverstone adds.
We see a progression in his looks that mirrors his arc throughout the season. He starts session 4 on a fresh slate at a new school, finally able to wear makeup to class again after the former Moordale headmistress quashed all forms of student expression last season. As he begins at Cavendish, “he’s wearing makeup again because he is allowed to,” Bilverstone says, but “he doesn’t know what kind of school it is yet and how accepting everyone’s going to be.” So he didn’t go too bold at first.
“Then as he settles into the school, he realizes how open they are and how encouraging they are of people being themselves, and it’s a kind and welcoming environment. Then obviously [with] Abbi bringing him under her wing, the looks kind of grow as he carries on spending slightly more time with them.
“Obviously they’re helping to draw out Eric’s queer side that maybe Otis obviously wants to understand and he wants to be a part of, but he doesn’t appreciate it to the same extent that Abbi and the Coven do. As he’s spending more and more time with them, that’s as his looks start to get brighter and bolder.”
Ncuti Gatwa, a fan-favorite from the series who has gone one to get cast in Barbie and Doctor Who, was collaborative with Bilverstone and her team in customizing Eric’s makeup. “He’s great at giving ideas, but he’s also great at allowing me to experiment,” she says. “He would sit and he’d just sort of allow me to try different things out and say what he liked. He also just looks incredible no matter what you do.” They would talk through Eric’s scenes, especially the more poignant ones, and Gatwa liked to be involved. The same goes for the rest of the cast, Bilverstone says.
A few makeup must-haves for Eric included Karla Cosmetics pigments, Glisten Cosmetics eyeliners, and a lot of metallic eye shadow from Lisa Eldridge. A base from Eldridge was also used on Gatwa’s skin.
When it came to his fundraiser look in the finale, Eric wears a multicolored pearl headpiece that tops his head almost like a crown. Here, Bilverstone and her team did a little bit of improvising; she wanted to create a “dramatic look” for Eric’s hair without dyeing it again like he did for Queer Night (green) or when he met God in his vision (lilac).
When Bilverstone saw the sequined patchwork jacket that costume designer Daniella Pearman selected for Eric in that scene, she bought a pearlescent ASOS headband and planned to paint the pearls to match the outfit. At first, she tried nail polish, but the colors didn’t pop the way she wanted them to. Luckily her trainee, Robyn Wesley, thought of mixing the Karla Cosmetics pigments with clear nail polish, giving the pearls a “perfect iridescent metallic chrome finish, which was catching the light.” They almost looked like “tiny little disco balls on his head.”
After struggling to reconcile his conflicting religious beliefs and queer identity all season, Eric learns it’s possible to nurture both of these things; he doesn’t have to choose one over the other. God tells him, “I made you this bright so that others would see in the darkness.” And that brightness manifests not only through his high-octane beauty, but also his empathy and contagious warmth.
Each character on Sex Ed has a different mood board, but when it came to newcomers Abbi, Roman, and Aisha—a.k.a. the “Coven” of popular kids at Cavendish College—Bilverstone sought a “more current” aesthetic. “I was trying to go for something that was more apparent in what teenagers were wearing now,” she says, like graphic eyeliner.
Unlike other characters like Aimee and Ruby, who wear more traditional makeup, with the Coven, Bilverstone tried to be “a bit more bold and a bit more creative and just a bit more experimental and have fun with it.”
These friends, too, wore a lot of Glisten Cosmetic eyeliners ad metallic loose pigments from Karla Cosmetics, which Bilverstone mixed with liquid for easier application. In their finale fundraiser looks, Roman and Abbi wear bright metallic eyeshadow by the latter. “I was trying to purposefully use brands for the Coven that I also thought teenagers might also be using,” Bilverstone says.
God herself appears in Sex Ed season 4, in the form of Jodie Turner-Smith.
“I was doing lots of research into how God has been portrayed previously by a Black female woman,” Bilverstone recalls. “A lot of the imagery had her head surrounded by some sort of circular piece of art or just…something around her head. Lots of different artists had portrayed her in that way.”
Then she remembered Iman dressed by Harris Reed at the Met Gala last year. “I just had this instantly, I was just like, ‘That’s what we have to do for God. We just have to.’”
After running the idea by Pearman, Bilverstone got in touch with a friend who works with Reed, who connected her with his assistant. Next thing she knew, Reed was eager to collaborate. Even better, he’d already created a look for Turner-Smith—a silver sequined drop-waist gown with a matching halo-like headpiece—which the actress ultimately wore in the show.
“I just thought in terms of hair and makeup, it was still quite metallic and glamorous,” Bilverstone says. “I didn’t want to take away from everything else that she was wearing so I kept the makeup and the hair quite simple. We made a metallic hair wax that matched the outfit that she wore, and then she had that metallic smoky eye to go with it.”
Working with Turner-Smith “a real pinch-me moment,” says Bilverstone.
Now, Maeve doesn’t wears over-the-top makeup in dream-like hues, but her looks still have a deeper meaning. Even her signature grungy beat evolves with her character through the series.
In the beginning of season 4, Maeve is studying in America, grieving her mother, and more independent than ever. Emma Mackey, who plays
Maeve, as well as Bilverstone and the directors thought that by this point, the character is maybe “starting to grow out a little bit of the heavy, heavy eye makeup.” She had gone through other transformations in the past, anyways; she has outgrown her bleached hair from season 1 and “punky micro fringe,” as Bilverstone calls it, from season 3.
“I think we thought by season 4, maybe these moments of armor that she’s wearing, she’s starting to shed them a little bit. She’s starting to mature into a young lady, and she doesn’t necessarily need to wear this protection.”
After growing up and learning to trust in other people, Maeve’s look in season 4 “feels a little bit softer, slightly more mature.” By the end, Bilverstone says, “She’s not a teenager anymore, and she’s really grown into who she is.”
Speaking of growth, mean girl Ruby has also learned some big lessons about empathy and compassion by the series finale. But when season 4 begins, the Moordale queen bee has to find her place among Cavendish’s very progressive student body, and it turns out, the nice queer kids who don’t gossip are the alphas.
“Then she obviously starts to think, ‘Okay, in order for me to become popular here, I’ve got to impress these guys,’” Bilverstone explains. “She does quite a fickle day where she wears her rainbow badge, and she’s got her rainbow eyeshadow and she’s got her rainbow outfit on, and she’s like, ‘Excuse me, ally coming through.’ I think that was a fun hair and makeup look for her because it was her version of trying to show that she’s an ally…she thinks all she needs to do is paint different colors on her eyelids, and all of a sudden they’re going to accept her.”
Ruby’s usual makeup is “very feline” and “sleek,” with a contoured face and flawless cat eye, which “emphasize her [belief that] everything has to be perfect,” Bilverstone says. But she ditches that aesthetic in the finale, especially during a pivotal scene in which she owns up to her mistakes.
“We take that off for the fundraiser and just go for a more pinky, glittery eyeshadow, which is something that we haven’t ever seen her wear before. Everything just feels a bit more, almost like she’s been inspired maybe by Abbi because she’s wearing her metallic colors. She’s like, ‘Oh, actually, maybe I’m going to try this look for a change.’ Her arc is that by the end of it, she’s softened her look a little, and she’s got her little sequin bow. Very sweet, I think.
“I think as a teenager admitting that you were wrong is quite a tough thing to do, especially standing up in front of your whole school and being like, ‘Oh, actually, maybe what I was doing wasn’t quite right and maybe what you are doing is.’ It was about trying to find a softer Ruby and exaggerating that.”
The Euphoria Effect
It would be remiss to discuss the Sex Education makeup without acknowledging its provocative contemporary, Euphoria, which is also known putting its high schoolers in elaborate, glittery makeup that inspires copycat looks all around the internet. There are certainly similarities between the two, but whereas Euphoria’s makeup feels vampier, Sex Ed’s approach feels more playful. Still, Bilverstone was inspired by makeup artist Donni Davy’s work on the HBO series and her ability to push boundaries onscreen.
“Yeah, [I am] very much inspired by her, even if not necessarily specific looks that she did,” Bilverstone says of Davy. “I’m definitely subconsciously always inspired by that sort of creativity that she has. I am very much a fan. I feel like I like her taste in what she does, and I think that’s something that I’ve always aspired to reach that level of creativity. I love that show. Euphoria is a dream hair and makeup job, as is Sex Ed, so I was very lucky.”
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.