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Costumes, Class, and Cosmetics: The History of Makeup

By: Molly Schwichtenberg

The famous Roman philosopher Platus once said, "A woman without paint is like food without salt." Though there is rising opposition to this mentality, it's a sentiment that manifests in our culture even today. However, the assumption that cosmetics are a woman's avocation dramatically underestimates the topic's rich history. In fact, across the centuries and in cultures all over the world, men and women alike enjoyed the artistic, cultural and stylistic value makeup and cosmetics provided.

The societal norms about makeup use, class, and gender have changed over time, but it was not until the 1800s, when Queen Victoria declared that makeup was the "devil's work," that it specifically became associated with women. Although wearing makeup is no longer considered a form of trickery in most western cultures, it has stayed analogous with women's beauty since the Victoria Era.

From distinguishing social classes to making social statements, makeup has played many roles across history:

4000 B.C.

Ancient Egypt is often considered to be the birthplace of cosmetics, and makeup was used by both genders and in all social classes. Egyptians used eye makeup called kohl, made from copper and iron ore, applied as eyeshadow and to darken the lashes.

In addition to enhancing beauty, Egyptian cosmetics had antibacterial properties. The frequent flooding of the Nile River carried waterborne parasites, and their eye makeup helped prevent the spread of infection.

3000 B.C.

In China, both men and women stained their fingernails. The color of the nails represented social class; royals and nobles applied gold and silver, black, or red. Lower-class people were forbidden from coloring their nails.

Greek women made rouge from crushed mulberries and painted their faces white with lead.

Women in India and the Middle East used henna to dye their hair and to paint elaborate designs on their skin. The designs were often represented love, loyalty, fertility, and good luck.

100s A.D.

During the Roman Empire, makeup was used by both men and woman in the upper classes. Kohl was used to darken eyelashes and eyelids, chalk was used to whiten the face, and rouge was applied to the cheeks. It was fashionable for eyebrows to meet in the middle, and this effect would be created with charcoal for those whose brows didn't meet naturally.

500s

In the European Dark Ages, peasants were often tan due to working in the sun all day. As a result, pale skin was associated with wealth and privilege. Men and women often took extreme measures such as bleeding themselves to lighten their skin.

700s

The high ranking women of Heian Era Japan sought pale complexions, and used foundations made of rice flour and lead. They also colored their lips red with benibana juice. Eyebrows were often plucked and redrawn in thick ovals, and the teeth were stained black using oxidied iron steeped in an acidic solution.

1000s

In the Middle Ages, the Church began to view face paint as sinful, and it became associated with brothels and actors, who often wore makeup as part of their costumes.

1300-1500s

Cosmetic use in Europe was a favorite past time of the aristocracy, and cosmetic use was a symbol of status. Both men and women who could afford makeup used it.

An infamous makeup product known as Venetian ceruse, a combination of lead and vinegar, was popularly used all over the skin. Queen Elizabeth I famously used this product to cover her smallpox scars and lighten her complexion. Face powder made from arsenic or lead was also applied to lighten the skin. The ingredients in these products often caused skin discoloration, hair loss, and rotting teeth.

Additionally, eyebrows were out, and high foreheads were in, requiring women to pluck their eyebrows and hairlines for the desired affect.

1600s

In Europe, blond hair was perceived to be angelic. As a result, European women attempted to lighten their hair using a variety of products, including white lead paint and honey.

1800s

During her rule, Queen Victoria declared face paint an abomination, an idea that was supported by the church. It was therefore considered vulgar, and was associated with improper or indecent women, like actresses or prostitutes.

Women who wanted to have a healthy glow or hint of color could employ homemade tricks like moistening colored wrapping paper to lightly stain their lips and cheeks.

1900s

With the popularity of the silent movie industry, actresses were seen as glamorous and the cultural perception of makeup began to change. Women of all social classes aspired to achieve the smoky eyes and pronounced lips of movie stars.

Max Factor established his cosmetic company in Los Angeles, CA, and the first commercial, non-toxic face powder was also introduced.

In 1915, Lyle Williams developed the first ever commercial mascara, naming his brand Maybelline after his sister Maybel, who inspired him.

1946

In the economic boom after World War II, the cosmetic industry in the United States exploded. Multiple cosmetics producers sold products to the masses, and in 1946, Estee Lauder was founded. Women wore makeup with confidence, and trends such as up-do hairstyles, bright red lipstick, and arched eyebrows became popular.

1970

The women's liberation movement that started in the 1960s heavily influenced makeup trends thereafter. Many women fought against being objectified and rejected the strict feminine standards of the previous decades, making natural products with earth tones more popular.

2010-Present Day

Today, the stigma of makeup being used exclusively by women is starting to change, as male makeup artists start to influence trends.

Women of all social classes also wear makeup, and styles vary from natural to glamorous. One scientific study even demonstrated that women who use makeup are perceived as more attractive.

Additionally, the increased popularity of social media paved the way for the rise in beauty bloggers. These influencers have changed the landscape of the makeup industry by increasing consumer awareness and expectations.