Modes in Makeup

a brief history of cosmetics


A "kissproof" lipstick ad from the 1920s.








































































(c) Copyright 1990, 2004

The makeup of the past is often a mystery to us. What sort of makeup was fashionable during what periods? Did only “fast” women wear makeup before the 20th century? When did makeup become totally acceptable? Well, a whole book could be written on this topic (and several have!). But here’s a quick—and, we hope—fun run–down of makeup through the ages.


They Wouldn’t be Caught Dead Without it

Most experts agree that makeup originated in the Middle East; cosmetics are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament and other ancient documents from a wide variety of cultures.

A great deal of evidence about the use of makeup may be found in the pyramids of ancient Egypt—primarily because of their burial rituals, which included entombing people with both the necessities and luxuries of life. Because ancient Egyptian tombs are often well–sealed, archeologists have an unprecedented look at ancient makeup. For example, when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1922, cosmetics were found inside that were still fragrant and perfectly usable. Palettes are also often found in pyramids, dating as far back as 10,0000 B.C.; these were originally used for grinding and mixing face and eye powders.

Both Egyptian men and women applied makeup; rouge and lip ointments were considered essentials, as was and henna for giving a red tinge to the nails. Women traced the veins in their temples and breasts with blue paint and tipped their nipples with liquid gold. Eye shadow was important to both sexes; it was usually green and applied to both the top and the bottom lids. Eyelash and brow enhancers consisting of carbon, black oxide, and other (often toxic) substances were also applied to give wearers that dark, painted–on look so associated with the culture.


Eyebrows of Ox and a Little Imagination

Some of the earliest evidence of modern beauty equipment has been found in Babylon ruins. Tools such as tweezers, brow brushes, and toothpicks were common. Both the men and women of Babylon also curled their hair and make up their eyes with eye shadow, eyeliner, and eyelash and brow enhancers. They frequently painted their faces with white lead and used henna to color their nails.

In ancient Greece, a more “natural” effect was usually preferred, but in the 4th century B.C., Grecian women painted their faces with white lead and used crushed mulberries for rouge. The application of fake eyebrows, often made of oxen hair, was also fashionable.

In the Roman Empire, women applied pastes of narcissus, lentils, honey, wheat, and eggs to achieve pale complexions. For evening wear, chalk and white lead were applied to the skin, along with rouge. The old Egyptian trick of using blue paint to enhance prominent veins was also popular. Some people—men and women—rubbed their teeth with a pumice stone. Wealthy women had at least one slave assigned the role of cosmetician.


“I can’t; I have to be Bled Tonight”

With the rise of Christianity, the heavy use of makeup gradually diminished in many cultures. However, by the Middle Ages, women were still striving for the fashionably pale look. Staying out of the sun was one way to stay pale (if you were rich enough to have servants), but women also often painted their faces with water–soluble paints and white powder, or bled themselves on a regular basis.

Makeup being taboo, “reconstruction” gained much popularity among fashionable ladies. Such treatment included using chin straps under headdresses and plucking eyebrows to a thin line—in a kind of Marlene Dietrich (before Marlene Dietrich) fashion.


The Great Cover Up

In the 17th century, men and women used makeup to limited degree; ceruse was used as a base, and a cheek and lip reddeners were sometimes applied. From the late 1600s forward, makeup began to get heavier. First, white paint was applied, then white powder, then a brownish rouge, and red lip color.

“Beauty patches”—pieces of velvet or silk cut into the shape of stars, moons, hearts, and similar figures—were frequently applied to the face and body to cover smallpox scars, and similar marks. A “secret language” even developed through their use: A patch near the mouth meant you were flirtatious; one next to the right cheek signaled you were married; one on the left cheek announced you were engaged; one at the corner of the eye meant you were somebody’s mistress.


For Those Special Occasions, Apply Toxins to the Breast

Makeup was heavier during the 18th century. Likewise, a rise in medical complications occurred—tooth decay, adverse skin conditions, and poisonings were often caused by the use of dangerous makeup. Lead and sulfur (for enhancing the cleavage), mercury (for covering blemishes), and white lead (for whitening the complexion) were frequent hindrances of the medical world.

Men, women, and even children wore makeup to some extent in order to achieve the fashionable white face with flaming red cheeks and lips. Eyebrows were accentuated with pencils, or concealed beneath false eyebrows made of mouse fur.


You Are What You Eat

In the late 18th to mid–19th century, the ultra–pale look persisted. A “lady” didn’t need to work in the sun, and therefore should be pale...translucent, even. Some historians even speculate that consumption was so common, it became fashionable to look as though you were suffering from TB. Indeed, the white skin, flushed cheek, and luminous eye of the illness was frequently imitated with white lead and rouge To make they eyes bright, some women ate small amounts of arsenic or washed their eyes with orange and lemon juice—or, worse yet, rinsed them with belladonna, the juice of the poisonous nightshade.

In the 19th century, “natural” makeup became fashionable. Victorian propriety denounced excessive makeup as the mark of “loose” women. Naively, most men believed their ladies wore no makeup, but cosmetic vendors abounded and beauty books of the era recount how carefully Victorian women used their concoctions. Above all, lip and cheek rouge were considered scandalous; instead of their use, beauty books of the era suggested women bite their lips and pinch their cheeks vigorously before entering a room.

Some commercial makeup, mostly manufactured in France, was also becoming available; these included powders, bases, and waxes containing light, “natural” color. To help scrape off all this makeup, fashion magazines proclaimed cold cream a must for every woman’s beauty regime. Also heavily advertised were anti–aging creams and wrinkle cures. (One suggestion aging women should sleep with their face bound in strips of raw beef.)

Despite growing medical knowledge, dangerous cosmetics continued to be used. Whiteners, still quite popular, contained substances such as zinc oxide, mercury, lead, nitrate of silver, and acids; some women even ate chalk or drank iodine to achieve whiteness.


Freedom to Choose and Safer To Use

The 20th century finally brought about the use of safer cosmetics; doctors began working with cosmetic companies to ensure safer standards, and “safety” became a popular selling point in advertisements.

The turn of the century also brought about a new freedom of choice to wear “excessive” or “natural” makeup, as the wearer desired. Both were generally considered acceptable—although flappers were condemned by some for wearing heavy eyeliners and bright lip and cheek colors.

The 1920s and 30s also saw the lipsticks (including the “kiss proof” kind), the first liquid nail polish, several forms of modern base, powdery blushes, and the powder compact. Cosmetics were now a booming business, and few modern women would be without.

The 1920s also brought about another revolution: the Tan. No longer did women strive for the pale look en masse. Why the sudden shift? While the wealthy prided themselves on not working, and therefore staying indoors (resulting in a pale complexion), the wealthy of the 1920s prided themselves on not working—and going outside to play. The rich now laid about in the sun, making their skin golden. Suddenly, everyone longed for that “healthy” bronzed look.

For a look at some 19th century cosmetic recipes, click here.