JAM | Sep 1, 2022

The history of makeup: Why did we ever start wearing it?

Tamoy Ashman

Tamoy Ashman / Our Today

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Makeup (Photo: Teen Vogue)

There are several things that we use in our everyday lives that we have very little knowledge of and the many people who died trying to make them safe for human use or consumption- makeup being one of them.

As part of their daily routine, some women pick up a brush filled with powder and swipe it across their cheeks to bring a rosy colour to the plain surface.

They may then move on to draw intricate lines all across their face, patting in a mixture of colours to enhance their features- the end result a beautiful art piece presented in the form of makeup.

But where did it come from? And why did we start doing it?

Makeup can be traced as far back as 4000 BCE.

Ancient Egyptian makeup

Inside the intricately designed ancient Egyptian pyramids, there are a few containers of makeup that can be found in addition to references to makeup in art and writings from that era.

Archaeological evidence indicates that both women and men in Ancient Egypt wore makeup.

Ancient Egyptian makeup

They would use kohl sticks to blacken the eyes and copper to create rich green eyeshadows that represented the gods Horus and Re.

However, some early cosmetics were actually quite dangerous; lead and arsenic were routine ingredients when people started wearing makeup, leading to illness and sometimes deaths.

But why did they continue?

Pale skin a beauty standard

Well, pale skin became a sign of wealth in the 16th Century and women sought drastic measures to achieve that look, sometimes bleeding themselves until their skin lost its colour.

Lead was also used to lighten the face, paired with a rosy cheek as this was the standard of beauty back then.

Victorian and Elizabethan Era Makeup Style

For healthier alternatives, some women would use fruits such as cherries or strawberries to stain their lips. Red beet juice would also be rubbed into the cheeks, or the cheeks would be pinched slighty to achieve a rosy colour.

For bright eyes, a drop of lemon juice in each eye would do the trick.

The Elizabethan era in particular was a very frightening time in makeup history where more obvious makeup looks became popular as women aimed to have flawless skin.

To achieve this, heavier makeup was worn all the way down to the neck, covering all blemishes and imperfections.

Rouged cheeks and red lips were very popular and women would keep their makeup on for at least a week and when they would finally take it off with rosewater, lemon juice or a mixture of eggshells, alum, mercury and honey.

Elizabethan Era Makeup

In order to maintain a pale complexion, women wore bonnets, carried parasols, and covered all visible parts of their bodies with whiteners and blemish removers.

White skin signified a life of leisure while skin exposed to the sun indicated a life of outdoor labour.

Controversy surrounding makeup

A widespread movement against cosmetics appeared in the mid-19th Century when Britain’s Queen Victoria declared makeup to be vulgar, resulting in cosmetics going out of style.

But that did not stop the lovers of painted skin as many women would still wear makeup in secret.

Regency Makeup

Makeup can also be traced back to biblical days with mentions made in Jewish and Christian scriptures.

But, there was much disdain for cosmetics in ancient Rome as they associated its use with sex workers.

Some Romans believed that true “beauty” was associated with moral acts and decorating the body with cosmetics implied a vanity or selfishness that was undesirable.

Vibrant makeup acceptable

But, it was not until the early 1920s that visible makeup such as the bright red lip and dark under eyes regained its popularity.

1980s Makeup

The ’60’s in particular gave birth to the hippie era and with that came a more liberated and vibrant makeup look.

Heavily lined eyes also continued from the Egyptian era through the ’70’s and ’80’s with a wide range of eye shadow colours.

The history of makeup has been quite varied and colourful, but makeup today continues to be incredibly culturally diverse.

While some women still prefer a more natural look, there are others who prefer bold colours and artistic designs. In modern times, makeup is even considered an artform given the intricacy that it takes.

How do you wear your makeup?


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