Author: Aiga Leitholde | 5 minute read

Since the dawn of mankind decorative cosmetics have been used in different cultures for ceremonies, feasts, and daily, and this history lives on in our makeup bags today. Together with fashion design experts from Art Academy of Latvia we peek into the history of how makeup has developed to this day.

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Dreaming of eternal youth

Clays of various colours, egg-whites, charcoal, beeswax, berries and powders from ground plants – all of this could be found in the first makeup bags! Alongside you could also find various, sometimes very harmful minerals, ground insects, and animal fats. Sometimes these cosmetic recipes indeed provided eternal beauty – albeit not physically eternal, but in the form of legends passed on from one generation to the next, travelling all the way to modern times.

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From the very beginning people used decorative cosmetics to emphasize youthful features – by accentuating the lips or the eyebrows, a healthier and sexually more attractive image was created.

By applying darker eye makeup, the overall skin tone becomes lighter – this way a more youthful image is created, while the more emphasized features garner respect. The ancient Egyptians loved to adorn themselves – they obtained makeup from natural minerals, all while observing personal hygiene, protecting the skin from UV rays, premature ageing, “evil eye” and other “demons”. Many beauty objects are found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, as it was believed that the departed needed some things to be able to take care of their looks also after death, thus leaving behind numerous finds for the modern humans. Ancient Egypt gifted the modern world two beauty icons – queen Cleopatra and wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten - Nefertiti. They have inspired divas like actress Elizabeth Taylor, singer Rihanna and many more.

Beautiful, clean and horrifying

The Norsemen also used makeup for protection and demonstration of their social standing, although this is based more on written texts about the customs of the Northern Peoples and artefacts found in archaeological dig sites, and less on visual examples that the cultures of the ancient Near East have spoiled us with. Chronicles mention that the Vikings emphasized their facial features with charcoal, darkening their eyes and making them seem like deep pits, thus instilling fear in their foes.

Vikings were exemplary when it came to their personal hygiene!

They used products made from animal raw materials, and as you can see on the website of the National Museum of Denmark, finds from Viking time period excavations include such items as combs and tweezers, proving the popular assumption true – back then people groomed their body hair.

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Dark eyes and long lashes

In ancient Greece makeup was used by priests and priestesses – they tinted their ears red and marked their cheeks with red dots. Cosmetics were part of a daily routine, because a beautiful body signalled that there was also a beautiful spiritual being inside. Special emphasis was put on dark eyes and thick, connected eyebrows.

Quite the paradox – in spite of enjoying the sunny climate, ancient Greeks considered fair skin a sign of wealth and excellency.

Helen of Troy embodied the standard of beauty.
“The word “cosmetologist” stems from the daily life in ancient Rome where the ladies were assisted in beautification rituals by their female slaves - cosmetologists (cosmetae). Long, thick and curled eyelashes were part of the beauty ideal in Rome. Women used charcoal and charred cork to colour their lashes black,” tells Edīte Parute, fashion historian at Art Academy of Latvia, when asked about features characteristic to ancient Rome.

“Mask of Youth”

England’s Queen Elizabeth I became a makeup fashion-trend icon in the late Renaissance. Her face covered in white lead makeup formed a stark contrast with her scarlet lips, the hair style was reminiscent of a moon goddess, the costume generously adorned with precious stones. Artist Nicholas Hilliard painted the portraits of the Queen.

Looking at the portraits, it seems as though the face of Queen Elizabeth I is wearing the “Mask of Youth” – her perfect, white facial skin creates the illusion of eternal youth. Historians at the University of Oxford believe that this image helped Elizabeth to uphold the cult of her personality, thus maintaining her position of power.

Queen’s “Mask of Youth” consisted of a mixture of white lead and vinegar that gradually poisoned her. “Back then society believed that using lipstick and makeup in general delayed death. Perhaps that is the reason the ladies of Elizabeth’s court applied her makeup also after she had already died. Later during the 18th century, the attitude in England towards using decorative cosmetics was dismissive.

In 1770 the British Parliament passed a law stating that a marriage can be annulled if it turns out that the woman has used decorative cosmetics before marriage. Only prostitutes did their makeup. At the same time in France people believed the opposite,”

states Edīte Parute.

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“Mouche” of beauty

Artificial beauty marks, or mouches date back to Ancient China, however they became widely popular in the 16th – 18th century in Western Europe, especially in the daily life of the French royal house. Each “mouche” was like a social code, allowing women and men to communicate during royal balls. For example, a beauty mark located near the eye symbolized a passionate nature, placed above the lip, it meant coquetry.

If a courtier got too carried away using beauty marks, it would signal of desperation, however if there were too few of these marks used – the person would be considered old-fashioned and dull.

Nowadays we have seen mouches being used by actresses Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe and model Cindy Crawford, and currently there are photo and video filters on social media sites allowing anyone to apply such a beauty mark on their face.

We thank you, silent film!

Born at the crossroads of the 19th and the 20th centuries, silent film resurrected the use of makeup. It had an important task to accomplish – the appearance of the actor needed to be normalized against the lighting of the film set and the emerging result of the movie intended for the audience, oftentimes turning out quite comical, but – no pain, no gain!

Early cinema was a great opportunity for experimentation, broadening the ideas of various visual images.

Alongside cinema the cosmetic industry was developing more and more rapidly. For example, the scarlet lipstick colour was created especially for the black-and-white film. In 1933 the term “mascara” was coined. 1930s cinema arrived with an exquisite style of makeup and new beauty icons, such as actress Marlene Dietrich and actor Clark Gable.

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Eccentric images and equality in subcultures

Makeup is closely tied to the subcultures of the 20th century, when very bright makeup became a part of an artistic show and defining one’s identity. Icons of rock music, such as David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and the band “Kiss”, were able to bring their ideas and stage personas to life better by applying bright makeup. A dark eyeliner pencil was a daily tool of the King of Rock’n’roll - Elvis Presley. Makeup in subcultures means self-expression and it also is a form of rebellion against all things considered normal. Subculture representatives are inspired by aesthetic historical examples – a uniquely eclectic blend can consist of both the makeup of a pagan warrior and exquisite royal makeup.

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Subculture representatives are the first to broaden the notions of what we perceive as feminine and masculine.

Nowadays various sports fans are big makeup consumers as well, showing their solidarity and lightening the mood up with the help of makeup.

During the 20th century the cosmetic industry trends change each decade. “Throughout the centuries the use of makeup and beauty care has encountered gender-related stereotypes. Currently the unisex trend is not only clearly visible in fashion (clothing), but also in the beauty care and makeup branch. One of the contemporary turning points in the unisex fashion and makeup was the Calvin Klein “CK One fragrance” created in 1994. However the global unisex trend in beauty care started in 2017, when many cosmetics brands started emphasizing in their marketing communication the message that the products they have created are intended for people, not a specific gender.

It took society a few centuries to return to the approach accepted back in 3000 B.C. It’s time to change the cultural norms in a broader sense, so beauty, self-expression and wellness would be intended for everyone,”

says Agnese Narņicka, the creator of “One Wolf” fashion brand and the lead of Faculty of Design of Art Academy of Latvia.