A Not-So-Brief History of Makeup

As a makeup enthusiast myself, I’ve always been curious about where the trends began and why we started applying liquids and powders, potions and concoctions, to improve our faces.

A commonplace feature in the everyday woman’s morning routine, you could be forgiven for assuming that makeup and cosmetic enhancement are mere products of postmodern social insecurities. However, you’ll be pleased to know we’re not the only generation to view makeup as an essential to enhance our lives, and while we interpret this enrichment in a vastly different way, the principle remains the same – wanting to look different. From the geisha of Japan to the infamous Elizabeth Taylor look of Cleopatra, makeup has been a vital development of both female and male culture.

Both men and women in ancient Egypt often used eye paint, made from kohl, to accentuate their eyes in an almond shape, as we find evident on Pharaohs funerary masks and sarcophagi. Kohl was a mixture of crushed almonds, antimony, ash, ochre, malachite and copper, materials renowned for their strong pigmentation and healing properties, as kohl was also thought to improve eyesight and act as a barrier against optical ailments and glare from the blinding desert sun. A combination of copper and ore pigment named mesdemet was introduced around 4,000 BC to be worn around the eye to accentuate and attract attention. Also, dyes were formulated from henna and rouge to alter the appearance of hair, skin and nails, for both cosmetic and health purposes. Around 10,000 BC even creams to prevent stretch marks and wrinkles were available to those wishing to improve their chances of a good afterlife by perfecting their current life.

A thousand years later, the Greeks and Chinese associated whiter faces with purity, and as such put rice powder and white lead to use on their skin. In ancient Greece, a form of eyeshadow developed under the name ‘fucus’ because of the prominent green and blue pigments formed by powdered malachite and lapis lazuli. The Chinese utilised their cosmetics to determine social class, the wrong shade of red nail dye could make the biggest difference. An extreme cosmetic improvement we’ve thankfully grown out of is the Chinese way of painting their teeth black and gold dating from 1500 BC. Across the sea in 11th century Japan, girls were using crushed flower petals, rice flours and even bird droppings to beautify the eyes. Wiser cultures, however, would adapt edible materials for beautification that were readily available to all, for example the Greek use of berries to heighten lip and cheek pigmentation.

The Roman world initially objected to the trends coming in from across the Mediterranean as superficial and vain, and even used sacred Egyptian oils for sexual purposes to stain the reputation. However, after an influx of plagues, they began to consider the medicinal uses of makeup in order to ward off the bad spirits, just as they had witnessed Iraqi people painting their faces to keep the evil eye at bay. Butter and barley powder were improvised as a spot prevention mixture around 100 AD, and the age of the Roman baths saw in the age of purifying mud baths.

During the Middle Ages, the Church condemned cosmetics as breeding grounds for vanity, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, medieval England maintained the vision that pale skin represented purity, therefore women would often use egg whites on their faces, and as such a resource was widely available, the effects could be felt by many echelons of society. In comparison, the Renaissance period saw the introduction of less readily accessible ingredients, such as arsenic and mercury, in hindsight the most dangerous materials to adhere to ones skin. While the Middle Ages saw the golden age of dyed red hair, the 1500s brought the angelic qualities of bleached blonde hair to public prominence.

Alongside public consumption for personal gains, the theatrical application of cosmetics was the most prolific use under the reign of Queen Victoria, who formally denounced makeup as vulgar and as such theatrical use was the only acceptable means. That is, until the 1900s, where women visited beauty salons in secrecy to avoid others knowing they required products to preserve their youthful looks. While health has remained a significant factor in the use of cosmetics in the past, it has been documented that women used young boy’s urine or ox blood to reduce the appearance of freckles.

The question of a postmodern society’s recent obsession with appearance crumbles in light of this extensive evidence. Whether it be medical or purely cosmetic, society’s priorities can be determined by their dependence on makeup and the reasons behind it.


  1. http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/a-brief-history-of-makeup/
  2. http://www.webmd.com/healthy-beauty/guide/history-makeup
  3. http://www.essence-of-mineral-makeup.com/eye-shadow-history.html
  4. http://idealbeautyacademy.net/the-history-of-makeup/

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