Makeup’s Glamorous History

How did the makeup we use today evolve

Makeup is an almost indispensable part of every woman’s life these days but did you know where makeup’s glamorous history all began? No? Okay, yes, besides being a makeup addict, I am also somewhat of a makeup nerd, so these things are important to me! So, let me show you how and where the history of makeup all began.

A long, long, looooong time ago…

The use of cosmetics spans at least 7,000 years and is present in almost every society on earth. Cosmetic body art is argued to have been the earliest form of ritual in human culture.

The evidence for this comes in the form of utilized red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa.

Cosmetics are mentioned in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 9:30 where Jezebel painted her eyelids, approximately 840 BC, and the book of Esther describes various beauty treatments as well.

Cosmetics were also used in ancient Rome, although much of Roman literature suggests that it was frowned upon. It is known that some women in ancient Rome invented makeup including lead-based formulas, to whiten the skin, and kohl was used to line the eyes.


The use of cosmetics in Ancient Egypt is well documented. Kohl has its roots in north Africa. Remedies to treat wrinkles contained ingredients such as gum of frankincense and fresh moringa.

Nefertiti Eyeliner

For scars and burns, a special ointment was made of red ochre, kohl, and sycamore juice. An alternative treatment was a poultice of carob grounds and honey or an ointment made of knotgrass and powdered root of wormwood.

To improve breath the ancient Africans chewed herbs or frankincense which is still in use today. 

Jars of what could be compared with setting lotion have been found to contain a mixture of beeswax and resin. These doubled as remedies for problems such as baldness and greying hair.

They also used these products on their mummies, because they believed that it would make them irresistible in the afterlife.


Chinese people began to stain their fingernails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg white from around 3000 BC. The colors used represented social class: Chou dynasty (first millennium BC) royals wore gold and silver; later royals wore black or red. The lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colors on their nails.

Flowers play an important decorative role in China. Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, while Princess Shouyang, daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song, was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees after wandering in the gardens, a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further.

Beijing opera makeup

The court ladies were said to be so impressed, that they started decorating their own foreheads with a small delicate plum blossom design This is also the mythical origin of the floral fashion, meihua zhuang (literally “plum blossom makeup”), that originated in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) and became popular amongst ladies in the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties.


Women of royal families painted red spots on the center of their cheeks, right under their eyes. However, it is a mystery as to why.


In Japan, geisha wore lipstick made of crushed safflower petals to paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes as well as the lips, and sticks of bintsuke wax, a softer version of the sumo wrestlers’ hair wax, were used by geisha as a makeup base.

Rice powder colors the face and back; rouge contours the eye socket and defines the nose. Ohaguro (black paint) colors the teeth for the ceremony, called Erikae, when maiko (apprentice geisha) graduate and become independent.

Maiko makeup from Japan

The geisha would also sometimes use bird droppings to compile a lighter color.

Western Asia

Cosmetics were used in Persia, modern-day Iran, from ancient periods. Kohl is a black powder that was widely used across the Persian Empire. It was used as a powder or smeared to darken the edges of the eyelids similar to eyeliner. After Persian tribes converted to Islam and conquered those areas, in some areas cosmetics were only restricted if they were to disguise the real look in order to mislead or cause uncontrolled desire.

Persian eye makeup

An early teacher in the 10th century was Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis, who wrote the 24-volume medical encyclopedia Al-Tasrif. A chapter of the 19th volume was dedicated to cosmetics.

As the treatise was translated into Latin, the cosmetic chapter was used in the West. Al-Zahrawi considered cosmetics a branch of medicine, which he called “Medicine of Beauty”. He deals with perfumes, scented aromatics, and incense.

There were perfumed sticks rolled and pressed in special molds, perhaps the earliest antecedents of present-day lipsticks and solid deodorants. He also used oily substances called Adhan for medication and beautification.


In the Roman Empire, the use of cosmetics was common amongst prostitutes and rich women. Such adornment was sometimes lamented by certain Roman writers, who thought it to be against the castitas required of women by what they considered traditional Roman values; and later by Christian writers who expressed similar sentiments in a slightly different context.

Pliny the Elder mentioned cosmetics in his Naturalis Historia, and Ovid wrote a book on the topic.

In the Middle Ages, it was thought sinful and immoral to wear makeup by Church leaders but many women still did so.

From the Renaissance up until the 20th century, the lower classes had to work outside, in agricultural jobs and the typically light-colored European’s skin was darkened by exposure to the sun. The higher a person was in status, the more leisure time he or she had to spend indoors, which kept their skin pale.

Queen Elizabeth I pale complextio

Thus, the highest class of European society were pale resulting in European men and women attempting to lighten their skin directly, or using white powder on their skin to look more aristocratic.

A variety of products were used, including white lead paint which also may have contained arsenic, which also poisoned and killed many. Queen Elizabeth I of England was one well-known user of white lead, with which she created a look known as “the Mask of Youth”. Portraits of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard from later in her reign are illustrative of her influential style.

Pale faces were a trend during the European Middle Ages. In the 16th century, women would bleed themselves to achieve pale skin. Spanish prostitutes wore pink makeup to contract pale skin. 13th-century Italian women wore red lipstick to show that they were upper class.

The Americas and Australia

Some Native American tribes painted their faces for ceremonial events or battle. Similar practices were followed by Aboriginals in Australia.

Native American with war paint

Makeup During the 19th Century

During the late 1800s, the Western cosmetics industry began to grow due to a rise in “visual self-awareness,” a shift in the perception of color cosmetics, and improvements in the safety of products.

Prior to the 19th century, limitations in lighting technology and access to reflective devices stifled people’s ability to regularly perceive their appearance. This, in turn, limited the need for a cosmetic market and resulted in individuals creating and applying their own products at home. 

1889 painting Woman at her Toilette by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Several technological advancements in the latter half of the century, including the innovation of mirrors, commercial photography, marketing, and electricity in the home and in public, increased consciousness of one’s appearance and created a demand for cosmetic products that improved one’s image.

Face powers, rogues, lipstick, and similar products made from home were found to have toxic ingredients, which deterred customers from their use.

Discoveries of non-toxic cosmetic ingredients, such as Henry Tetlow’s 1866 use of zinc oxide as a face powder, and the distribution of cosmetic products by established companies such as Rimmel, Guerlain, and Hudnut helped popularize cosmetics to the broader public. 

Tetlow's complexion face powder

Skincare, along with “face painting” products like powders, also became in-demand products of the cosmetics industry. The mass advertisements of cold cream brands such as Pond’s through billboards, magazines, and newspapers created a high demand for the product.

These advertisement and cosmetic marketing styles were soon replicated in European countries, which further increased the popularity of the advertised products in Europe.

Makeup During the 20th Century

During the early 1900s, makeup was not excessively popular. In fact, women hardly wore makeup at all. Make-up at this time was still mostly the territory of prostitutes, those in cabarets and on the black & white screen.

Can-can girls

Face enameling (applying actual paint to the face) became popular among the rich at this time in an attempt to look paler. This practice was dangerous due to the main ingredient often being arsenic.

As already mentioned, pale skin was associated with wealth because it meant that one was not out working in the sun and could afford to stay inside all day. Cosmetics were so unpopular that they could not be bought in department stores; they could only be bought at theatrical costume stores.

A woman’s “makeup routine” often only consisted of using papier poudré, a powdered paper/oil blotting sheet, to whiten the nose in the winter and shine their cheeks in the summer.

Rouge was considered provocative, so was only seen on “women of the night.” Some women used burnt matchsticks to darken eyelashes, and geranium and poppy petals to stain the lips.

Vaseline became high in demand because it was used on chapped lips, as a base for hair tonic, and soap.

Toilet waters, more commonly known as Eau de Toilette, were introduced in the early 1900s, but only lavender water or refined cologne was admissible for women to wear.

Cosmetic deodorant was invented in 1888, by an unknown inventor from Philadelphia and was trademarked under the name Mum (deodorant). Roll-on deodorant was launched in 1952, and aerosol deodorant in 1965.

Mum deodorant ad

Around 1910, makeup became fashionable in the United States of America and Europe owing to the influence of ballet and theatre stars such as Mathilde Kschessinska and Sarah Bernhardt. 

Colored makeup was introduced in Paris upon the arrival of the Russian Ballet in 1910, where ochers and crimsons were the most typical shades. 

The Daily Mirror beauty book showed that cosmetics were now acceptable for the literate classes to wear. With that said, men often saw rouge as a mark of sex and sin, and rouging was considered an admission of ugliness.

In 1915, a Kansas legislature proposed to make it a misdemeanor for women under the age of forty-four to wear cosmetics “for the purpose of creating a false impression”.

The Daily Mirror was one of the first to suggest using a pencil line (eyeliner) to elongate the eye and an eyelash curler to accentuate the lashes. Eyebrow darkener was also presented in this beauty book, created from gum Arabic, Indian ink, and rosewater.

Eye makeup ad

George Burchett developed cosmetic tattooing during this time period. He was able to tattoo on pink blushes, red lips, and dark eyebrows. He also was able to tattoo men disfigured in the First World War by inserting skin tones in damaged faces and by covering scars with colors more pleasing to the eye.

Max Factor opened up a professional makeup studio for stage and screen actors in Los Angeles in 1909. Even though his store was intended for actors, ordinary women came in to purchase theatrical eye shadow and eyebrow pencils for their home use.

In the 1920s, the film industry in Hollywood had the most influential impact on cosmetics. Stars such as Theda Bara had a substantial effect on the makeup industry. Helena Rubinstein was Bara’s makeup artist; she created mascara for the actress, relying on her experiments with kohl.

Theda Bara Makeup

Others who saw the opportunity for the mass-market of cosmetics during this time were Max Factor, Sr., and Elizabeth Arden. Many of the present-day makeup manufacturers were established during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lipsticks were one of the most popular cosmetics of this time, more so than rouge and powder, because they were colorful and cheap. In 1915, Maurice Levy invented the metal container for lipstick, which gave license to its mass production.

The Flapper style also influenced the cosmetics of the 1920s, which embraced dark eyes, red lipstick, red nail polish, and the suntan invented as a fashion statement by Coco Chanel.

1920s makeup

The eyebrow pencil became vastly popular in the 1920s, in part because it was technologically superior to what it had been, due to a new ingredient: hydrogenated cottonseed oil (also the key constituent of another wonder product of that era Crisco Oil).

The early commercial mascaras, like Maybelline, were simply pressed cakes containing soap and pigments. A woman would dip a tiny brush into hot water, rub the bristles on the cake, remove the excess by rolling the brush onto some blotting paper or a sponge, and then apply the mascara as if her eyelashes were a watercolor canvas.

First Maybelline Mascara

Eugène Schueller, founder of L’Oréal, invented modern synthetic hair dye in 1907 and he also invented sunscreen in 1936.

The first patent for nail polish was granted in 1919. Its color was a very faint pink. It’s not clear how dark this rose was, but any girl whose nails were tipped in any pink darker than a baby’s blush risked gossip about being “fast.”

Previously, only agricultural workers had sported suntans, while fashionable women kept their skins as pale as possible. In the wake of Chanel’s adoption of the suntan, dozens of new fake tan products were produced to help both men and women achieve the “sun-kissed” look.

In Asia, skin whitening continued to represent the ideal of beauty, as it does to this day.

In the time period after the First World War, there was a boom in cosmetic surgery. During the 1920s and 1930s, facial configuration and social identity dominated a plastic surgeon’s world.

Facelifts were performed as early as 1920, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when cosmetic surgery was used to reduce the signs of aging. During the twentieth century, cosmetic surgery mainly revolved around women. Men only participated in the practice if they had been disfigured by the war.

War disfigurement surgery

From 1939 to 1945, during the Second World War, cosmetics were in short supply. Petroleum and alcohol, basic ingredients of many cosmetics, were diverted into war supply. Ironically, at this time when they were restricted, lipstick, powder, and face cream were most desirable and most experimentation was carried out for the post-war period.

Cosmetic developers realized that the war would result in a phenomenal boom afterwards, so they began preparing. Yardley, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and the French manufacturing company became associated with “quality” after the war because they were the oldest established.

Pond’s had this same appeal in the lower price range. Gala Cosmetics was one of the first to give its products fantasy names, such as the lipsticks in “lantern red” and “sea coral.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, many women in the western world influenced by feminism decided to go without any cosmetics. In 1968 at the feminist Miss America protest, protestors symbolically threw a number of feminine products into a “Freedom Trash Can.”

This included cosmetics, which were among items the protestors called “instruments of female torture” and accouterments of what they perceived to be enforced femininity.

Cosmetics in the 1970s were divided into a “natural look” for the day and a more sexualized image for the evening.

Twiggy's makeup

Non-allergic makeup appeared when the bare face was in fashion as women became more interested in the chemical value of their makeup.

Modern developments in technology, such as the High-shear mixer facilitated the production of cosmetics that were more natural-looking and had greater staying power in wear than their predecessors.

The prime cosmetic of the time was eye shadow, though; women also were interested in new lipstick colors such as lilac, green, and silver.

These lipsticks were often mixed with pale pinks and whites, so women could create their own individual shades.

“Blush-ons” came into the market in this decade, with Revlon giving them wide publicity. This product was applied to the forehead, lower cheeks, and chin. Contouring and highlighting the face with white eye shadow cream also became popular.

First saleswomen

Avon introduced the lady saleswoman. In fact, the whole cosmetic industry in general opened opportunities for women in business as entrepreneurs, inventors, manufacturers, distributors, and promoters.

Makeup During th 21st Century

Beauty products are now widely available from dedicated internet-only retailers, who have more recently been joined online by established outlets, including the major department stores and traditional bricks and mortar beauty retailers.

Like most industries, cosmetic companies resist regulation by government agencies. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve or review cosmetics, although it does regulate the colors that can be used in hair dyes. Cosmetic companies are not required to report injuries resulting from the use of their products either.

Although modern makeup has been used mainly by women traditionally, gradually an increasing number of males are using cosmetics usually associated with women to enhance their own facial features.

Concealer is commonly used by cosmetic-conscious men. Cosmetics brands are releasing cosmetic products specially tailored for men, and men are using such products more commonly.

Man applying concealer

There is some controversy over this, however, as many feel that men who wear makeup are neglecting traditional gender, and do not view men wearing cosmetics in a positive light.

Others, however, view this as a sign of ongoing gender equality and feel that men also have the right to enhance their facial features with cosmetics if women could.

Makeup has come a very long way in a relatively short amount of time and the sheer number of options available to modern women is mind-boggling! It is our hope to make choosing and using various makeup products easier and less daunting as we explore the world of makeup through this platform.

So, stick with us, we’re going to have lots of fun together!

Lots of love,

Courtney Signature

Courtney Cullen

A full-time professional makeup artist and a free-spirited, unabashed makeup and lash addict blogging about all things beautiful! Makeup is art, but beauty is spirit...

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