Makeup is older than Christianity. Maybe it’s the oldest form of self-expression in existence, maybe it’s indicative of the the infinite existence of self-esteem issues, or maybe cave people were just heinous, and the habit stuck. Regardless of the reason for makeup’s origin, people have been smearing plants and chemicals on their faces for thousands of years. I imagine the first application of cosmetics went like this:
A young cavewoman, on her way to gather twigs for a fire over which she can brew her pterodactyl and mammoth stew, trips on a rock and faceplants into a pile of berries. Irritated, she abandons her journey in favor of finding a brook where she can wash off the sour goo. Upon seeing her reflection, she exclaims (in the language of cavepeople/Latin), “Oh my, what beautifully rouge cheeks I have! I look like I did back in the ice age!”
In actuality, however, this scenario would be more accurate if she got the berry juice stuck to her eyelids. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “The earliest cosmetics known to archaeologists were in use in Egypt in the fourth millennium B.C., as evidenced by the remains of artifacts probably used for eye makeup and for the application of scented unguents.” (FYI, “scented unguents” is like lube perfume.) Ancient Egyptian eyeliner was filled with lead, according to ScienceMag.org, to fend off eye diseases. The Egyptians usually died around age 30.
Around the time of the first Christians, during the Roman Empire’s heyday, eyeliner made of kohl increased in popularity. Kohl, a toxic, lead-based powder (FDA.gov) that includes copper, burnt almonds, and ash (Asian Journal of Pharmaceutics), was applied to brows, lashes, and lid lines, according to Britannica. Lead just really makes eyes pop, you know? To compliment darkly lined eyes, the ancient Romans, according to Britannica, powdered faces white and cheeks pink. Then people stopped wearing makeup for a few hundred years (maybe they got pretty).
The Middle Ages successfully revitalized interest in cosmetics when explorers returned to Europe with knowledge of Asian and Middle Eastern cosmetic practices. According to the Asian Journal, “In Japan, lipstick made of crushed safflower petals was used to paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes and the lips, whereas rice powder was used to color the face and back. Sometimes bird droppings were also used to compile a lighter color.” The Japanese would have access to plentiful amounts of bird droppings in the Common.
Cosmetics were prevalent in the Renaissance, according to Britannica. Renaissance culture continued to emphasize the white-lead pale-is-beautiful look (which everyone always says indicated wealth, ’cause the rich spent their days indoors playing cards, like in Marie Antoinette) that Americans today abhor so greatly. I guess we traded lead poisoning for melanoma. In the 1800s, makeup was regarded as a tool for seduction used only by prostitutes, so it wasn’t really an acceptable thing to do in England or America. But France continued to love makeup, anyway. Silly France.
In 1904, once America had decided that prostitutes weren’t the only ones who could have fun, “Max Factor started selling makeup to movie stars in 1904 that did not cake or crack” (Asian Journal) like dried lead might have. Ten years later, T.J. Williams founded Maybelline, and the United States was on the right track to removing lead from facial products. Way to go, America! Unfortunately, Coco Chanel then popularized tan skin. She did, however, pioneer the modern, sexy red lipstick look, and we thank her for that.
Since then, cosmetic companies continue to create increasingly health-conscious products that do what all makeup in the history forever has done: accentuate features. Probably the healthiest beauty decision is to let your face go nude, a fall trend. During the shows for this season, designers and stylists imitated nude skin on the runway, but at least this type of mimicry doesn’t lead to lead poisoning.
Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on October 22, 2011.