A Brief History of Make-Up

Posted by: Michaela Sargeant, May 21, 2024

Recently I saw a client for colour analysis and she was accompanied by her husband, who asked the question “so where did make-up come from anyway?”  This question is one that has come up a few times so I thought I’d give you a bit of a history lesson!  Why is make-up a thing?  Why do we put these products on our faces thinking that they are going to make us look “better” and where did that whole idea come from?!

Make-up dates ALL the way back to 6000 BC - the Egyptian era.  The Egyptians created “make-up” (which I’m sure wasn’t called that at the time!) because they believed it was next to godliness and that it appealed to their gods.  Both men and women of all social classes wore it.  Make-up was also a sign of wealth, which is a continuing undercurrent even now, but it was more the applicators and storage containers that symbolised the wealth as the actual make-up was available to everyone.  Poorer people stored their make-up in clay pots and applied it with sticks, whereas richer people used delicately created boxes and applicators that were jewelled and/or made of ivory.


A Brief History of Make-Up

The Egyptians saw make-up as a source of power and believed that having make-up on their eyes protected them from the “evil eye,” to ward off evil intentions, reflect evil back onto the evil-doer and fight off illness.

The most popular make-up the Egyptians were known for was kohl - a form of lead sulphide - a black powder similar to eye shadow but used to line the eyes.  It was believed to keep the eyes cool and clean, strengthen the eyes, and protect from various diseases and damage from the sun.  Kohl is still used in make-up products today.  An equivalent to eyeshadow was also used - made of malachite, a bright green copper mineral - the green colour was thought to represent the gods Horus and Re.

There is scientific and psychological research concluding that high contrast faces are more attractive.  Adding more contrast is the job that make-up performs, and although the research evidence might not have always been there, the effect of make-up serving that purpose would have been whether its wearers knew it or not!

A Brief History of Make-Up

Fast forward to circa 4000 BC and people in ancient Greece and Rome also employed use of make-up.  They thought a more natural look was the ideal and this was the first time there was a link between make-up and the concept of beauty.  Women were encouraged to remove body hair to enhance their appearance.  Women wore light hints of colour on their cheeks and lips, mainly created by mixing plants or fruits with lead-based dyes and mercury.  They made light powder foundations sometimes but mainly made sure their skin was flawless by honey and olive oil in the products made.  The alternative to this today would be cleanser and moisturiser.  Olive oil and charcoal were used to make eyebrows bolder and to darken around the eyes, like we now also use products for.  

At this time, rouge products were seen as associated with sex workers and shamelessness.  Roman philosophers made reference to make-up “defiling” the face, a point of view which was influenced by the philosophy of Stoicism, which foregrounded moral goodness and human reason and said that “true beauty” was associated with moral acts, not physical appearance.  Adorning the face and body with cosmetics implied vanity or selfishness to Stoics and they leaned towards using skincare products to enhance the natural appearance, not to decorate it.  

A Brief History of Make-Up

From around 3000 BC Chinese royalty (men and women) used nail polish to reflect social status.  People soaked their nails in a combination of egg whites, gelatine, beeswax and dyes from flower petals.  High ranking leaders wore silver or gold, lower ranks wore black or red, and poorer classes were forbidden to wear any at all.  

Make-up is also referred to in the Bible, particularly in Jeremiah and other Old Testament books, written around 600 BC.  

Around the year 600, Chinese women began to use light foundations, again to reflect social status.  These were made from a white powder.  They also wore strong red powder on their cheeks, darkened their eyebrows and commonly painted their lips in a heart shape using vermillion (a red pigment made from mercury sulphide).  Most of the product pigments at this time were made by boiling plants, animal fats and spices.  Ancient China was one of the first to have beauty “trends” that changed over time.  A big part of this was eyebrows and a lot of eyebrow shapes and styles that we use as references today were created throughout the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

Travel forward to circa 1500 when Christian writers began to create an association between make-up and deception.  Women felt the desire to use skincare to give the appearance of natural flawless skin and often used homemade recipes.  

A Brief History of Make-Up

Everything changed during the 1550s when the Elizabethan concept of beauty suddenly gained popularity.  The Renaissance ideal of beauty was fair hair and complexion, bright eyes and red lips.  Lots of women plucked their eyebrows to give the impression of having a big forehead, whitened their skin using vinegar and white lead, and coloured their cheeks and lips with egg whites, ochres (a natural clay earth yellowish/brownish pigment) and mercury (which has now been discovered as toxic).  These beauty trends were often extreme and they caused various dangers to women’s health, playing a role in bringing life expectancy to a much younger age.

Around 1900, Queen Victoria was another member of royalty who had a heavy influence on beauty trends, although this time it was anti!  Queen Victoria believed that make-up was unladylike and vulgar and this led to a backlash against wearing make-up that can arguably still be seen in the world today.  At this time, women pinched their cheeks and bit their lips to give themselves a more rosy look.  

A Brief History of Make-Up

During the 1920s, media won the battle of influence and the looks of the typical Hollywood movie star began encouraging women to wear make-up again.  This caused the beauty industry to flourish and make-up sold in bulk to the masses.  Beauty trends continued and ultimately led to where we are today.  Now, given the commercial success of make-up, it has become the norm and is seen as pretty much a necessity.

In the modern world, our thoughts about make-up are more explorative and open than ever before.  Make-up is promoted to everyone of every race, gender and class and is accessible to everyone.  Make-up is ultimately whatever you want it to be!  People can wear no make-up at all, colourful make-up, contrast or blended, create their own make-up brands, and have entire careers centred around make-up.

A Brief History of Make-Up

I personally love the versatility of make-up, how it can completely change a look - for the worse or better, depending!  I love the creativity of it and trying new things out.  I have been on my own journey of finding the best products for my skin and the ones I get on with, and surprise surprise have landed at House of Colour to fulfil all my make-up needs!  (I go to Tropic for all my skincare needs…that’s another story!)  I’m not even saying that because I’m a Consultant - I’ve never been good at the whole sell sell thing - life is too short and precious to do things just for the sake of it, but I can honestly say that HoC products are among the best I have ever used.

The HoC make-up range is full of excellent, high quality products that stretch a long way.  They make an impact and they are kind to the skin.  They are enjoyable to wear, and they work to enhance the natural features we already have, just highlighting and adding that contrast to bring them better into focus.  Here’s the link to the Webshop if you’re interested in taking a look and if you know what season you are you can filter down to products made specifically for you…

Take me to the Webshop!