All about the history of make-up

When you in front of your make-up mirror each morning, you’re probably thinking about a hundred things at once: what you’ll wear that day, what your schedule is like and if traffic will make you late for your appointments. One thing you’re probably not pondering while applying your make-up, however, is that you are taking part in a practice that has existed for many millennia.

Ever since 10,000 BC, people have been using cosmetics—albeit for different reasons and in different forms—making it one of the more defining characteristics of our species. Keep reading and take a journey through history to learn about how make-up and society’s attitudes towards it have evolved over centuries.

Egyptian make-up for the masses

The story begins in ancient Egypt, when cosmetics were used not necessarily to improve appearance, but for medicinal and religious purposes. The kohl Egyptians used to line their eyes, made from a combination of burnt almonds, lead and oxidized copper, was a tribute to the god Horus and the goddess Hathor. The lead was ingeniously filtered so that it was no longer poisonous and had the benefit of protecting the wearer from eye infections; this was a significant danger due to living in dust-ridden deserts or the swampy marshes surrounding the Nile.

From around 4,000 BC, Egyptian women began to use make-up for beautification purposes, grinding malachite to apply on their eyelids for a green pigment and extracting a red colour from crushed carmine beetles to paint their lips. One important distinction of ancient Egypt’s cosmetics habits were that unlike in other places and time periods, make-up did not determine the wearer’s social status or gender. Egyptians from all walks of life—men and women alike—wore make-up on a daily basis.

This was in stark contrast to what was happening in ancient China, where each dynasty had its own colour palette, signifying to which family they belonged. Unlike their Egyptian contemporaries, the lower classes were absolutely forbidden to wear coloured cosmetics. Both Chinese and Japanese citizens did, however, use rice powder to lighten their complexions.

Beauty kills

The lightening of one’s complexion was a staple of many civilizations throughout history, as it was believed that pale skin was a sign of wealth (lack of sun exposure meant you weren’t toiling in the fields) and vitality. Ironically, many cultures used toxic methods to achieve this “healthy” look, making people sick and sometimes killing them. The ancient Greeks used lead-based psimuthion to lighten their skin; aristocrats in Italy were fond of using ceruse (white lead) and some people even went so far as to apply leeches behind their ears to drain their faces of colour. The continuous use of lead-based products often turned skin grey and in some instances caused baldness—not exactly traits associated with beauty!

Historians have even speculated that the English Queen Elizabeth I’s death by blood poisoning was a result of her insistence on wearing toxic pigment to lighten her face whenever she was in public. While skin-lightening was generally accepted in the upper classes of most societies, adding other elements like crude versions of blush or lipstick invited ever-shifting attitudes about the people who wore them.

Only actors and prostitutes

In many societies throughout history, women who used make-up to enhance their appearance were not well regarded. To quote Lisa Eldridge in her fascinating book Face Paint, “If you explore the use of make-up through history, it soon becomes clear that the freedom and rights accorded to women during a given period are very closely related to the freedom with which they painted their faces. Generally speaking, it’s during times when women were most oppressed that make-up was most reviled and seen as unacceptable.” During the crusades, for example, average women who wore make-up were seen as being an affront to Christianity, because it was vain to alter the appearance that God gave you. During specific periods in Ancient Greece all the way to the Renaissance, extensive cosmetics use was considered vulgar and deceptive. The only circumstances where it was generally accepted were on the stage or for those who made their living as courtesans and prostitutes. When blush fell out of favour in Victorian England, women resorted to pinching their cheeks and biting their lips to achieve a rosy glow. It wasn’t until her successor Edward VII’s fashionable wife Queen Alexandra of Denmark gave make-up the royal stamp of approval that women once again felt comfortable wearing powder and blush in public. In 1912, the wearing of bright red lipstick in the United States became a political statement, as it meant you were a supporter of voting rights for women.

The silver screen, mass production and innovation

What we think of as modern cosmetics (beginning in the 20th century) owes much to Hollywood. The term “make-up” came into existence as a shortening of “making up, ” a phrase used on film sets. In the 1930’s, women bought magazines that included “beauty tips of the stars,” tutorials on how to achieve Bette Davis’ eyes or Jean Harlow’s lips. The evolution of these products from things that were applied by artists in a studio chair to items used by women in their own homes was a direct result of the advent of mass production and innovation. History credits British company Rimmel with the first modern version of mascara, but this was just coal dust and petroleum jelly mixed in a jar—a complete disaster when trying to apply neatly.

It wasn’t until 1958 when Helena Rubenstein introduced Mascara-Matic, a device that was the size of a pen and included a “brush” that was simply grooves forged into metal, that mascara could travel in handbags. Mass production also afforded the opportunity for eyeshadow palettes rather than a single matte colour, causing trends to go from the subtle 1950’s to “anything goes” 80’s colour choice to the complex shading today’s women are known for. Lipstick, once called “a woman’s prime weapon of seduction” by fashion icon Coco Chanel, didn’t appear in tube form until the 1930’s. Blush was contained in pots, bottles, paper or foil booklets until the 1920’s, when the compact was introduced.

The history of make-up is an interesting and varied subject. In this blog we’ve barely scratched the surface, but perhaps next time you’re going through your morning make-up routine, you will be thankful for the fact that your face powder is not poisonous and you don’t have to worry that society will shun you for wearing it.