Over the centuries, wearing make-up has often been mocked as little more than frippery, on occasions applied with intent to deceive and, in more god-fearing times in history, even downright evil. The truth is cosmetics have always been important.

In today’s world, make-up is generally applied with the intention of maximising the aesthetic appeal of the face and body, in particular the female face and body. Although the fundamental purpose of wearing make-up was and is to make oneself more attractive, in the past cosmetics were just as likely to be worn as visible markers of a woman’s (and in certain periods a man’s) wealth and social status, or as an indication of religious belief, gender, health and well-being.

Egyptian cosmetic vessel in the shape of a cat, c. 1990 BC. This is the earliest known three-dimensional representation of a cat in Egyptian art. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1990, Painted Faces, Amberley Publishing)

Rouge, face creams and foundations, lipsticks, hair dyes, hair removers, teeth cleaners, eye make-up, deodorants and other cosmetic products have influenced, and been influenced by, people and by events, by increased knowledge and understanding (particularly in the fields of technology and medicine), and by trade, economics and even politics. For example, the Ancient Egyptians wore eye-make-up not only to make their eyes appear more attractive but also for health and religious reasons. While heavy make-up may well have protected their eyes from the heat and dust of the dry Egyptian desert, they also believed that those thick black lines around their eyes with which we are so familiar in the artwork and art guarded against evil. While the Romans valued elaborate make-up containers as symbols of individual wealth and status, in medieval times the church roundly condemned the use of cosmetics.

A group of stone cosmetic vessels from a tomb at Haraga, Egypt, c. 1887–1750 BC.
(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2014, Painted Faces, Amberley Publishing)

In the seventeenth century, and into the first half of the eighteenth century, ostentatious hairpieces and wigs were de rigueur for both men and women, an indication of an individual’s wealth and status rather than gender. Following the political and social upheaval of The French Revolution, less showy arrangements replaced fancy hairstyles reflecting the more sombre political and economic climate. At the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, skin care assumed greater significance as women in particular, often with the express intention of acquiring a husband, endeavoured not only to maintain their youthful looks but also to conceal any flaws that might suggest disease. In the twentieth century, mass media including cinema, television and ultimately the Internet prompted rapid and almost impulsive changes in styles. Women copied the look and style of their favourite film or television star. Make-up moved out of the privacy of the dressing room where its secrets had been well guarded for centuries. Women openly applied their own make-up on trains and buses and had it professionally applied at nail bars and brow shaping services in open areas in shopping centres and department stores. Nowadays women share their beauty secrets on YouTube too.  Make-up had literally come out of the closet.

These rouges were all created by LBCC Historical using original recipes from
various time periods thoughout history. Left to right, top: 1745 French Rouge;
1931 Cake Rouge; 1810 Turkish Rouge; 1772 A Rouge that Exactly Imitates
Nature; 1780-1958 Liquid Bloom of Roses (the longest-running rouge in history);
1922 Rouge Vegetal Rose Liquid; 1849 A Rouge To Give A Beautiful Complexion.
The bottom left are 1745 A Robust French Rouge and 1875 French Devoux Rouge. (LBCC, Painted Faces, Amberley Publishing)

Cosmetics give us an insight into what it was like to live in any given era. There is so much that one can write about the history of make-up. In my book Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics, I look at some of the more intriguing people, stories and objects associated with cosmetics as well as the ingredients and the finished products themselves. Here are just a few examples of just how fascinating, and pertinent, the history of cosmetics can be.

A Unique Find: A Roman Face Cream

Archaeologists excavating the site of a Roman temple in London stumbled across a rare find lodged in a drain. They had uncovered a small tub of anti-wrinkle cream still bearing the finger marks where the last person to use it had scooped out some of itscontents. The small container and its contents date from the second century AD. A mixture of animal fat, tin and starch, this exciting discovery bears a remarkable resemblance in appearance and composition to modern anti ageing creams.

The Londinium Cream, a canister containing cream from the Tabard Square Site, London, dated to the second century AD. (By kind permission of Pre-construct Archaeology Limited and the Museum of London, Painted Faces, Amberley Publishing)

Kill or cure: Dangerous cosmetics

Although in the past cosmetics were closely linked to medicine many were extremely detrimental to one’s health. White lead was in almost continuous use as a foundation even after it was officially recognised as a poison. Vermilion worn as rouge by eighteenth century women for example may have imparted a bright red colour to the cheeks but was far from a safe option. In the seventeenth century caustic soda mixed with the ashes of burnt frogs and goat dung, a thoroughly unappealing and corrosive combination, was used to thicken the hair. However, aside from the disgusting and the downright dangerous there are many safe cosmetics that we can purchase today that our ancestors would have used in centuries gone by: look out for almond oil, cinnamon, or essence of violet for example: they have certainly been tried and tested over many hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A reproduced cosmetic brush dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and a reproduced wooden rouge pot with an original rouge made from a 1745 recipe by Hannah Glasse. By the late seventeenth century doctors were already aware of the poisons of mercury and lead and were attempting to sway men and women away from those ingredients, primarily by publishing recipes in cookbooks that used all-natural ingredients one would obtain from the local apothecary. (LBCC, Painted Faces, Amberley Publishing)

Lash Lure: A Shockingly Modern Make-up Disaster

In the nineteen thirties, an eye lash dye named Lash Lure caused much misery to many women. This was one of the so-called eye lash beautifiers on the market at the time. It contained dangerous chemicals. Socialite Miss Norris suffered from the agonies caused by Lash Lure. The product destroyed her corneas and eventually rendered her blind. Her case was highlighted in a newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures. In 1933 The American Food and Drugs Agency highlighted the dangers of Lash Lure and other similar products again at the Chicago World Fair with graphic before and after photographs of Miss Norris: she was far from being the only person to suffer but she was one of the most severe cases. The display attracted the attention of the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and in 1938 the Federal Drugs Agency in America gained the power to act against Lash Lure and other American cosmetic manufacturers whose products had done such harm. By this time, sixteen women had lost their sight and one woman had died as a result of using this beauty product. Until 1938, despite the horrors inflicted on individuals who had used Lash Lure and other deadly products, there was no legal right to redress or to stop these being produced.

Lipstick: The Feel Good Factor

Lipstick got off to a slow start in terms of the history of cosmetics. It was largely unknown in the ancient world. However, by the fifteenth century lip colour made from ground alabaster or Plaster of Paris mixed with dyes alkanet or cochineal had become very fashionable. In the twenty first century sales of lipstick are regarded as an accurate gauge of the state of the economy. In a recession sales of red lipstick go up but when the financial situation improves nude lipstick shades are more popular. This phenomenon was given the name The Lipstick Index by Leonard Lauder, the Chairman of the cosmetics company Estee Lauder, in 2001. The theory is that red lipstick represents the defiant struggle to find optimism in time of crisis but when there is no need to stand out in this way nude shades become fashionable again.

When I wrote my PhD on the significance of make-up and perfumes in Roman times, I was astonished by the volume and range of sources I uncovered. As I suspected I found a similar wealth of material when researching Painted Faces. Past and present, make-up matters.

Susan Stewart's book Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics is available for purchase now.