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A Brief History of Makeup

Now that Halloween has come and gone and the cat whiskers, freckles or skeleton make-up has been wiped clean off our faces, it’s a good time to reflect on the varied history of cosmetics. Modern times see women (and men!) donning all types of looks: thickly lined eyes and full red lips, subtle eyeshadow, blush and highlighter, or simply no makeup at all. But makeup and the everyday looks that we see in the 21st century have a history that is longer and more complicated than you think. It is theorized that humans invented the first types of deodorant and perfume in 10,000 B.C.E., so the spread of humanity brought the inevitable influence of makeup in almost every culture. Let’s travel back in time and take a look at different periods of makeup. 

1. Egypt (3000 B.C.E)

Egyptians famously lined their eyes with thick, extended lines. They used a mixture made from a combination of burnt almonds, ash, lead, ochre and copper, called "kohl”, to produce the legendary look that we now see in the hieroglyphics they left behind. Egyptian women also had their own form of eyeshadow, which was a crushed concoction of copper, lead and a vivid green mineral called malachite. The 1912 discovery of a bust depicting Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten, famously relaunched the popularity of eyeliner in the U.S. after makeup had been unpopular for decades. More than 3,000 years later, the historic lined eyes are seen everywhere  We raise our liquid eyeliner to you, Nefertiti.

2. China (3000 B.C.E - 900 C.E.) 

Chinese royalty began to color their fingernails around the same time Egyptians were lining their eyes. The colors, usually silver and gold for the most high-ranking nobles, were used to distinguish social classes. Low-ranking nobles used red and black, while the poorest classes were forbidden from having any color on their nails. And then around 600 C.E., the Tang dynasty became one of China’s most notable eras for makeup. Women applied thick foundations of white powder to not only correct discoloration, but also to distinguish themselves from the working class’s sun-darkened skin. They darkened and shaped their eyebrows (sound familiar?), darkened their cheeks with red powder, and mastered the art of lipstick, using the substance "vermillion" to paint hearts on their mouths or colored their lips to a brilliant red. The final touch: a floral applique or a flower petal that was placed on the forehead 

3. Ancient Greece (800 B.C.E) 

Greek women exalted the idea of the “all-natural” makeup look. Clear, unblemished skin was so desired that women used poisonous lead to cover up discoloration. Cheeks and lips were lightly colored with red pastes made from clay, olive oil and beeswax. The unibrow was considered beautiful and high-class fashion among women in Greece. If women did not have a natural unibrow, they would often glue animal hair or use brown powder between their brows to imitate one.

4. Mexico (1000 B.C.E. - Present Day)

The era of “sugar skull” makeup has ties to the Mexican celebration Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is said to have originated from the Aztecs. The makeup is so distinctive that its popularity has spread to other countries, where people imitate the haunting, hallowed look of La Calavera Catrina, a skeleton woman dressed in colorful dresses and flowers.

5. Elizabethan England (1558 C.E.)

Although many of this list’s looks have involved white face powder, Elizabethan beauty took the idea to the extreme. Elizabethan women constantly covered their faces in a substance called "ceruse," which is made of vinegar and poisonous lead that eventually led to permanent skin damage and sometimes death. To make the forehead larger, women sometimes shaved their eyebrows or plucked them to extremely thin, arched shapes. Cheeks and lips were colored with egg whites and ochres that sometimes had mercury in the mixture, another deadly substance, and the face was often covered in egg white to enhance shine of the skin.

6. Modern Day (2015)

Today make-up draws from the influence of millennia of makeup history. Women can go sans makeup, wear extreme make-up, use subtle make-up, or use any combination of make-up looks that history has given us. No matter what your look, remember that the trends we have today have roots in the very beginnings of human history. 

Nicole is a junior Film/TV major at Boston University. She's an Argentinean first generation student who made the leap from Miami to Boston for college. She has chosen writing as a career for reasons no one can explain, except maybe with theories of her masochistic tendencies. She dreams of being on a writing team for a sitcom and someday becoming a showrunner of her own original show.
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