Origins and Cultural Implications of Cosmetics
The evolution of an ancient expression of beauty.
The first historical traces of makeup on record can be found in cave paintings. They usually consist of images of Paleolithic (Stone Age) women with portions of their body colored in reddish-brown tones. These body paintings served to express different moods, sexual maturity, mourning, or social circumstances such as conflicts between groups. Beyond its apparent function to beautify the body, makeup has always represented a source of communication and expression. Beyond its apparent function to beautify the body, makeup has always represented a source of communication and expression
The use of ways and methods of body adornment began to gain importance in the old Mesopotamian cultures when the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians developed cosmetic makeup to accentuate the expressive features on their faces.
Thousands of years ago, Egyptians developed the idea of social beauty as a sign of power. It consisted of tanned skin with large eyes outlined with thick, dark lines, and lips tinted with reddish pigments. To create their cosmetics, they used different types of clay, ash, iron oxide and inks which they applied with small brushes.
On the other hand, women in ancient Greece preferred to display their natural beauty and only added subtle details — accents if you will — to accentuate their eyebrows and eyes in dark shades. The Roman canon of female beauty was a very fair skin and slightly flushed cheeks, incorporating eyeshadows in dark tones and outlining eyes and eyebrows.
In the first part of the Middle Ages, makeup was considered somehow vulgar but regained its place during the Renaissance. It became fashionable to outline the eyes and eyebrows with a fine black line, and—on a very fair skin—the cheekbones were emphasized with a dark garnet colored blush. Later, the emergence of extravagant fashions led to the use of heavy makeup, black lines outlining eyes and eyebrows, strident reds on the cheeks, blue or green eyelids and heart-shaped dark red lips outlined on a face covered with white powder. A popular practice was to incorporate a large dark mole near the mouth.
East Asian cultures brought the concept of heavy-handed and rigid makeup. In Japan, the Geisha’s makeup is especially noteworthy: a white paste-like foundation covering the entire face and upper torso — but careful not to reach the hairline, forming a sort of mask — the eyes and eyebrows strongly highlighted in black, and red heart-shaped lips. The makeup in China was very similar to the Japanese, with very pale or white faces, eye enhanced with ink, dark up-swept eyebrows and red lips while in India, women preferred a much simpler makeup, eyes highlighted in black and slightly red lips.
The 19th century favored fair skin, pink cheeks, and crimson lips. Then, in the early 1920s, we saw the birth of the cosmetics industry and the emergence of the best-known brands. More often the foundation was light colored and came in powder form, and the eyes were outlined in black. For the eyelids, there were black, red and violet shadows; pink blush on the cheeks; dark pencils for the eyebrows and abundant mascara for the eyelashes.
With its variants in different cultures and times, makeup has been used by humankind since the beginning of time. Which period is your favorite? ■
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