A brief history of makeup

Audio: Medium

People used to paint their faces since prehistory, as evidenced by archaeological excavations that attest to this information. Most likely it was not made for decorative purposes as we do nowadays but either they painted their body to mark something, to write down a status, either as protection against spirits or to belong to a certain group.

Evolving we reach Ancient Egypt. Ever since we learned about them in school, I have seen those drawings on the walls or sculptures with Tutankhamun, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and so on. That’s how I could see what these Egyptians looked like. Egyptians have always been fans of more makeup, they used it regardless of social status or gender. They were known for the use of perfumes, perfumes to remove unpleasant odors. About them, we can say that they are the ones who “invented” the eyeliner. Because there was at that time the “Eye of Horus” which was supposed to have all kinds of magical and protective powers, they always wore this cat eye makeup, I would say.

They also discovered or invented the Kohl pencil, with a composition of ash, lead sulfate, if I remember correctly, and stibnite, burnt almonds, oil, and other essential ingredients that I obviously don’t master so well. As for makeup, they had two essential colors such as Galena black and Melakite green.

The eye of Horus

Arriving in Ancient Rome, they were not as “democratic” with makeup. Makeup was part of the daily routine only for prostitutes, a dubious social category. In other words, it was considered immoral. Even in the twentieth century, throughout history, it was reserved only for those women.

Instead, on the skincare side, they had all kinds of ointments and jars of care products, and wealthy women hired what is called in Latin “cosmetae”, a kind of beautician who helped them perform the care ritual of the day

For the Greeks, things are a little different. The idea of beauty was the man, not the woman. Women had no rights and the man was considered superior. They used a lead carbonate to whiten their faces, but this substance was very toxic, very often the men who used it died. For the eyes, they used a kind of charcoal and a paint obtained from henna to color their lips. In that period, the ideal of beauty represents the single eyebrow or the united eyebrows.

For Asians, the very white face of women was considered a sign of nobility. They used a kind of rice powder that they combined with water or other substances. The eyebrows were outlined in black and the lips were given a very strong red, but the lips were drawn somehow smaller like those of the geishas we all know. Also in this period in Asia, but especially in China, women used nail polish to mark their social status. The rich Chinese used golden nail polish while the poor did not have any color.

A tradition I had no idea about, but which has been practiced since antiquity and until somewhere in the eighteenth century, it was considered beautiful in Asia for women to have black teeth.

The make-up of a Chinese noblewoman in the 17th century

Going further, we arrive shortly after the Middle Ages. Makeup during this period has lost some of its popularity.

Queen Elisabeth, on the other hand, is the one who, using quite toxic cosmetics, died of mercury poisoning. Because she wanted a very white face and used all sorts of compositions with mercury, lead, and other toxic substances, this is supposed to have killed her. It was also fashionable with a very wide forehead and some women even pulled their hair out.

The white skin was considered a sign of nobility, of the aristocracy because at that time those who had tanned skin were those who dealt with physical work. Also during this period, this passion was created for red cheeks, precisely because red leads to an area of youth, of freshness. It is also a very sexual color.

If we talk about French Revolution and about Marie Antoinette who appeared represented in most paintings and not only her, we can see the same characteristics: a very white skin, the blush we were talking about a little above, and the lips in a reddish color. Then all sorts of white, and grey wigs appeared, but during this period men could also enjoy makeup.

1783 Marie Antoinette holding a rose by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun on Versailles

The Victorian Age, speaking here of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), was a very serious, very austere period. Queen Victoria was a lady who did not wear makeup., so clearly makeup was immoral, something that only prostitutes used and actresses.

That was the brief history of makeup, until somewhere in the twentieth century. After this period it amplifies and develops extraordinarily much. The twentieth century is the strongest moment in the development of the beauty industry.
In the following article, I will talk about some important pioneers in the history and evolution of makeup.


Sources: the vlog of Andreea Balaban – “The history and evolution of makeup”

One response to “A brief history of makeup”

  1. […] it became what we women love today. If in a previous article I presented the history of make-up ( A brief history of makeup ) but in which I skipped certain areas, countries, and populations, today I would like to talk a […]


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