Men and Women have been using makeup since the beginning of civilisation, as a form of enhancement, disguise and expression. From the Ancient Egyptians, through the Middle Ages, up to today. I am going to take a look at some of the key periods of makeup’s development, starting with the 16th century (note: I am a complete history nerd, especially when it comes to the 16th century so I may go on a bit).
Lettice Knollys, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, was considered one of the most beautiful women at court during the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign (until she was banished for marrying Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s BFF). She was like a slightly improved Elizabeth, Elizabeth 2.0, with her high forehead, cream complexion and fiery hair. In this painting, her pale complexion and rosy cheeks are evident. Whether the sitter enhanced these herself, or the painter took the liberties to compliment Lettice, the standard of beauty is set.
Throughout the first half of the 1500s, Henry VIII’s reign, the standard of beauty was pale skin, fair hair, a small mouth and a fuller figure (see a young Catherine of Aragon). People who would be considered attractive today (for example Anne Boleyn with her dark eyes and hair and olive skin with a fuller mouth and slim figure) were seen as ‘ugly’. During Elizabeth’s reign the emphasis for pale skin was, if anything, even greater. Elizabeth’s red hair and high broad forehead encouraged ladies to pluck their hairline, and her clear eyebrows caused ladies to pluck their eyebrows completely. A smaller, pursed mouth was still attractive, as was a straight, narrow nose.
Due to these beauty norms, the desired effect of makeup was much different from today. Women wanted to increase their pallor as much as they could, some even taking pains to draw blue veins on their skin. This whiteness was achieved by a mixture termed ‘ceruse’ which was a combination of white lead and vinegar. Due to the effects lead had on the skin (it is poison) other techniques could be used. Mixtures of alum, tin ash, sulpher or alternatively egg whites and talc to form a base. Raw egg whites were also often used as a ‘glaze’ to hide wrinkles. This also gave the wearer an inability to move their face, in case their face should literally crack. Vermillion was a popular choice for blush and lip colour.
The effect of all this was quite unsubtle, however with the misogyny of the time, especially towards ageing women, there was a lot of pressure to keep the illusion of youth and beauty (ring any bells?)
Our beloved Elizabeth in old age. As you can see, she favoured cosmetics (especially after a bout of smallpox in 1562) and about half way through her reign took to wearing wigs.
Anne Marie Duff’s portrayal of Elizabeth I in the two part series The Virgin Queen is my favourite on screen interpretation. As you can see the makeup here is more subtle, due to 21st century advances.
A young lady modelling the hair and makeup of the Elizabethan court.
Flashing forward a few hundred years to the 1920s. This was the time of the beauty revolution. Women liberated themselves from the oppressive beauty norms of the Victorians by cutting their hair short and experimenting with androgyny. The opposite of the feminine, enhanced waist look of the 1910s. Women now embraced makeup without shame as a form of rebelling against society. With the introduction of brands such as Maybelline and Max Factor, producing brand new products such as mascaras, lipsticks and eyeshadows WITHOUT the poisonous ingredients, women were free to go as mad as they wanted with their makeup.
Strangely, after hundreds of years, the beauty norms were still pale skin and small lips, however women now drew attention to their eyes. Kohl was used and over used, and women got very creative when it came to mascara. In the early 1920s for example, women resorted to mixing vaseline with soot or coal and applying it to their lashes with a brush. The mid 20s brought with it mascara available in cake form, and eyelash curlers were used.
Blush was much easier to use now, available in creams, powders and liquids, which led to it being completely over applied. Also the desire for the perfectly shaped cupids bow led to lip tracers, to get that lip shape that to our modern eye looks harsh and unattractive.
This was all very unflattering, but that was kind of the point. It was a rejection of society’s norms and ‘the man’ and it paved the way for the beauty industry we know and enjoy today.
Glazing over the 1930s (more of the same) and into the 1940s, the era of brows and lips.
Women embraced their natural skin tone more, however foundations were still very heavy. An arched brow was all the rage, they were shaped and brushed over with a matte eyeshadow. Liquid eyeliner replaced kohl and was used to create a subtle flick on the upper eyelid, again with plenty of mascara.
Lips were red, red, red, to match their nails. Finally the thin lipped small mouth look was abandoned and women embraced a fuller mouth. Over-lining was encouraged in order to get that luscious lips look.
The next big step in makeup’s evolution was the 1960s. Eyes were the main object of focus of the 1960s ladies’ makeup routine. Styles in fashion, such as monochrome and geometric shapes, were imitated in makeup, with the introduction of the cut crease:
The cut crease of the 60s was a sharp line, often drawn with eyeliner, as opposed to the more blended look we go for today. It was all about a white shadow with a black crease. On top of this, stacks of false lashes were applied. Lashes became part of a girl’s everyday makeup routine, doubling up to two pairs for the evenings. Wearing lashes on your lower lash line also became popular, but if you couldn’t be dealing with the fuss, you could just draw them on, alla Twiggy.
Mascara was also finally available in a tube with a wand applicator but block mascaras activated with water (or spit) were still used.
Liquid and gel liners were also being used more daringly to draw an exaggerated cat eye, or just a pattern:
Due to all the attention of the eyes, the lips were kept understated and the trend for nude lips was born.
The 1970s can be summed up in one word: bronzer.
For the 1980s, people went overboard with colours. And, similar to the 1920s, people abandoned the whole ‘highlight your eyes OR your lips’ motto and went full whack for both.
The nineties saw the trend for a matte brown/nude lipstick, alla Rachel Green
Eyes were kept kind of simple with a thin penciled brow and the emphasis went to the perfect brown toned lipstick
And of course 90s star, Gwen Stefani made the bindi part of mainstream beauty:
We are to close to the noughties to really see what they brought us, it is hard to reflect on a period we are still more or less in. But makeup is always developing and always will. It will always be used to enhance, liberate and decorate. However one thing I can say about makeup nowadays, is there are fewer rules. There isn’t one exact trend, because we can use any of these trends. There is no classic standard of beauty anymore, therefore we are using makeup for fun, not to please others. And whether you wear it or not, you have to admire the power, and respect the history, of makeup.