Whether you apply makeup daily, for special occasions, or never, it plays a role in your life. With magazine ads, television commercials, and just a pass-through of your local pharmacy, cosmetics have become something we all rely on.
Reach for eyeliner, concealer, perfume, or soap and deodorant, and those are all beauty products. But 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 benefit 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.
Historians believe there have been elements of cosmetics used since the beginning of humanity. But the first civilizations that used beauty products are the ancient Egyptians. Only these items were not at all what you see when you walk into a Sephora today. Instead, beauty started with scented oils 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 more almond-shaped eyes (sound familiar?). Well, this is the look you may recognize from 1963’s Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.
And why did women decide to enhance their appearance? Well, 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 that what they looked like directly influenced their spirituality. Once this caught traction, the beauty industry began.
In China, rice powder lightened the skin, and Henna took off in India. But, as Romans took power over the Egyptians and adopted their use of cosmetics, things changed.
All did not accept the idea of makeup. Many viewed enhancing your beauty to be lavish and unnecessary. This limiting idea led the Roman Senate to outlaw public exhibitions of beauty products for a limited time (imagine that!).
This even moved to China, where for a time, publicly wearing nail polish lead to executions. These horrid behaviors could well have been since prostitutes used cosmetics to emphasize their beauty more prominently, especially in Europe. Royalty spoke out against cosmetics, and church officials even described makeup as a prop of Satanists. And so makeup was only for use during performances on stage.
But things finally began to shift when European soldiers came back from fighting abroad and brought exotic cosmetics from the Middle East with them. At first, only the most elite members of society used these cosmetics, but there was a shift for women at the start of the 19th century. They were to present themselves as soft and dainty, so the desire for beauty products grew.
Then as photography and film were more prominent, the 1900’s enhanced the reach of the modern beauty industry. Having greater access to viewing celebrities and even the launch of television commercials drew women to love makeup. And once the western world took a liking to cosmetics, there was no going back. So much so that once the US joined WWII, lipstick was essential. During the war, the country required its production to maintain Americans’ spirits.
It is pretty amazing to consider how many uses and beliefs were behind makeup throughout history. Even today, diverse cultures use cosmetics for varying reasons. What is so refreshing is that even though the government limited makeup and then almost required for a time, 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. Still, 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, its origins, although not always positive, are one of the reasons it means so much to people today. So next time you pick up your micro-enhanced technology face powder or ergonomically designed mascara, consider all that women have gone through for centuries to give us the freedom and passion we can now so openly show through our beauty.