The Origins Of Makeup

Whether you apply makeup on a daily basis, for special occasions, or never, it plays a role in your life. With magazine ads, television commercials, and just a pass through your local pharmacy, cosmetics have become something we all rely on. Reach for eyeliner, concealer, perfume, or soap and deodorant, they are all beauty products.

And have you ever thought about how beauty, makeup, and products like these came into the world? Were our physical appearances always so important? What was the original use or benefits of makeup? Well, those answers might surprise you. So let’s take a journey to the past and uncover how makeup became what it is today.

The Origins Of Makeup - OPENLETR 1.jpg

credit Ancient Origins

Historians believe there have been elements of cosmetics used since the beginning of humanity. But the first civilizations that have been proven to use beauty products are the ancient Egyptians. Only these items were not at all what you see when you walk into a Sephora today. Rather beauty started with scented oils and such to promote health, reduce body odor, and even contribute to religious rituals. This was all happening more than 12 thousand years ago. And this was when women started using colors on their eyelids, to create definition and the appearance of almond shaped eyes (sound familiar?). Well, this is the look you may recognize from 1963’s Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.

The Origins Of Makeup - OPENLETR 2.jpg

credit The Makeup Blogger

But why did women decide to enhance their appearance?

Well in fact, it was all to impress the Gods — which may be why men still seem to think women only wear makeup to impress them… Just kidding, well not really.

At the time, women believed their looks like directly influenced their spirituality. Once this caught traction, the beauty industry sort of began. In China, rice powder was used to lighten the skin, and Henna took off in India. But, as Romans took power over the Egyptians, things changed. The idea of makeup was not accepted by all. Many viewed enhancing your beauty to be lavish and unnecessary. This limiting idea led the Roman Senate to outlaw public exhibition of beauty products for a limited time (imagine that!). For a time, women in China were executed for publicly wearing nail polish. These horrid behaviors could well have been due to the fact that prostitutes used cosmetics to emphasize their beauty more prominently, especially in Europe. In fact, royalty spoke out against cosmetics, and church officials even described makeup has a prop of satanists. And so makeup was only used during performances on stage.

The Origins Of Makeup - OPENLETR 3.jpeg

credit Atlas Obscura

But things finally began to shift when European soldiers came back from fighting abroad, and brought with them exotic cosmetics from the Middle East. At first, only the most elite members of society used these cosmetics, but at the start of the 19th century, there was a shift in how women were seen. They were meant to present themselves as soft and dainty, so the desire for beauty products grew.

Then as photography and film became more prominent, the 1900s enhanced the reach of the modern beauty industry. Having greater access to viewing celebrities and the launch of television commercials drew women to a love for makeup. And once the western world took a liking to cosmetics, there was no going back.  So much so, in fact, that once the US joined WWII, lipstick was seen as an essential, and its production was required to maintain Americans’ spirits during the war.

It is quite amazing to consider how many uses and beliefs were behind makeup throughout history. Even today, diverse cultures use cosmetics for varying reasons. But what is so refreshing to me is that even though for a time makeup was restricted by the government and then almost required, it is now up to women how they choose to look. Makeup was once a weapon of sexism, and sadly is still viewed as that by some today, but beauty has such a foothold in so many industries, cultures, and individuals that no matter where you’re from, beauty and makeup are something women can feel proud of.

Whether beauty is an enhancement of confidence, a means to an end, or even an art form, the origins of it, although not always positive, are one of the reasons it means so much to women today. So next time you pick up your micro enhanced technology face powder or ergonomically designed mascara, consider all that women have went through for centuries to give us the freedom and passion we can now so openly show through our beauty.



Cover photo via UrGlamour