A brief history of makeup: From ancient times to today

A collection of makeup
Photo: Stakhov Yuriy via Bigstock

Few women leave their house anymore without a touch of makeup to enhance their appearance. Have you ever wondered where it all came from?

It might seem crazy to you but the first deodorant wasn’t invented until 1888 and no-one had hairspray before 1948. All the cosmetics and makeup we use daily have an interesting history behind them. Take a look through the most important advances and styles of the time from Ancient Egypt to Youtube beauty vloggers.

Ancient Egypt

Most makeup historians chart the beginnings of painting your face back to the Ancient Egyptians. It was used as a way to impress the gods and thus worn by both men and women. The most popular choices included dark colours on your eyes to fend off evil and a mixture for the original kohl eyeliner (made from a mix of anything from lead to ash, copper or even burnt almonds). Despite their religious motivations, many Egyptians quickly noticed the power of makeup over mere mortals as well. Before long it had reached other civilisations as a way to impress the opposite sex.

Ancient Romans

When makeup became popular with the Ancient Romans they were most likely using it to enhance their appearance for other Romans. Therefore, they were much more inclined to choose a natural look with simple rouge and lip colours to provide a healthy flush. Anything too obvious – such as non-natural colours – would be frowned upon.

Medieval Times

As the power of makeup to disguise and enhance became more well-known it was relegated to the domain of untoward women. Prostitutes would frequently layer it on to hide their age and thus the Church decreed makeup to be deceptive and sinful. But this didn’t stop ladies from playing with cosmetics. They simply continued the natural trend set by the Romans.

16th Century

Queen Elizabeth I was one of the first role models for wearing makeup. She popularised a stark white face that was easily achieved with a potent powder. This marked the beginning of more chemically based makeups that proved toxic. The mixture included white lead powder, water and vinegar. Frequent use caused the skin to whither which lead to applying more and more powder. However, increased use only increased its toxicity and hair loss or teeth falling out were common side effects.

19th Century

The next Queen to make her mark on the makeup world decreed against it. In the mid 1800s, Queen Victoria labelled makeup as vulgar and yet again it was the domain of untoward women. Ladies were still keen for the beautifying effects but opted for less conventional techniques. A rosy complexion – cheeks and lips – was the goal so it was common for women to pinch their cheeks and bite their lips for a blood-red flush.

1900s

The early 1900s saw a carry on effect from the previous decades with makeup relegated to the morally questionable bracket. It was only worn by prostitutes and actresses – frequently considered the same thing. The first break in its reputation came from the Suffragettes. In their battle for equal recognition and the right to vote women donned red lipstick for a 1913 protest march. It marked the first time women had turned makeup into a symbol of empowerment and used it for their own goals.

This was also the decade that saw the creation of major brand Max Factor. Established in Los Angeles in 1904 it began as a company exclusively for film makeup.

1920s

The rise of the Hollywood film star during the roaring 20s saw makeup finally coming into its own. It was mass-produced and sold so women could replicate the looks of their favourite stars. But it was still a very secret indulgence and most women sent away for their makeup and did their best not to display it publicly. It would be a long time before we had the variety of stores and brands as we do today.

1930s

During ancient eras and throughout many decades afterwards, makeup was something that both men and women could experiment with. As mass-marketing and commercialisation of makeup took hold the 1930s defined it as a feminine past time. Pencil thin eyebrows have their heyday and Hollywood glamour reaches its peak as a trend-setting style.

1940s

Another World War couldn’t keep women away from their newfound obsession. Portable or ‘on the go’ makeup in compacts is the biggest seller of the decade as it allows women to take it to work and touch up anywhere. Bright lips, especially red tones, were officially deemed part of the war effort in the US. They believed sending lipstick kisses on letters to men at the front was a good way to keep morale high.  

1950s

Finally free from the rationing of WW2, fashion and cosmetic products are increasingly popular. Designing new products was strictly forbidden during the war as it wasted precious resources. With this ban lifted we see the creation of makeup tools still in use today like eyelash curlers and eyebrow stencils.

Pink and feminine is the only way to describe this decade. The rise of a creamy ‘mask’ trend for faces saw liquid foundation adorning every bedroom vanity. Avon also launches their door-to-door makeup sellers and the industry finds a new way to profit from beauty conscious housewives.

1960s

The most important revelation in beauty this decade was the move away from Hollywood actresses as the ultimate style symbols and towards models. The London Look was the trend on everyone’s lips and is epitomised by models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, who wore the first mini skirt to the Melbourne Cup in 1965. Makeup wise; lipstick is out and bold eye makeup is in. Turning away from previous eras it is now in vogue to wear lashes of mascara and a subtle, glossy lip.

1970s

A second wave of the feminist movement throughout the 70s complicates women’s love for makeup. An anti-makeup movement begins but it hardly spells disaster for what has become a major global industry. Bronzed skin, Punk, Hippie and Disco are the top trends. For the first time tan skin is in. Formerly the sign of a hard day’s labour, a strong tan now relates more to your holiday destination than your workplace. Makeup brands finally launch products catered to darker skin tones as well with celebrities like Aretha Franklin at the helm.

1980s

If the power suit was the main fashion symbol for the 1980s then it was ‘power makeup’ that provided the perfect pairing. Music stars such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna take the fashion world by storm. The aim of makeup was to enhance your look so you felt beautiful, powerful and in charge. Anything that was colourful and attention grabbing would do the trick.

1990s

Following the decadence of the previous trends, the 90s were all about toned-down glamour. Matte makeup and nude tones were on everyone’s face. Supermodels such as Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Naomi Campbell lead the way in what was on trend for style – from faces to fashions.

But the 90s was also the first time it was noted how only a few major brands controlled a multi-billion dollar industry. In response, a number of ‘indie’ brands started popping up, such as Stila and Urban Decay, who have since made their mark as major players in the makeup world.

2000s

The early 2000s were characterised by metallics and glitter. Most likely due to the futuristic trend but further cemented with the rise of teen pop stars such as Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.

In 2005 online video site Youtube was launched and over the decade it has revolutionised the makeup industry. Beauty vloggers mean that trends and techniques formerly reserved for celebrities or makeup artists have reached the mainstream. Contouring may have been a feature of previous decades makeup routines but it only reached global status thanks to the Internet. There’s a tutorial for everything and a vlogger for every woman.

Many small brands started in the 90s are now cult favourites, also mostly due to online shopping and the praise of Internet beauty gurus. Plus international styles are on everyone’s radar with unique products from Japan and Korea now readily available around the world.

In the short span of 100 years makeup has experienced highs and lows in its reputation, been used as a political symbol and complemented many a fashion-forward moment or regret. To think a ritual that began to impress the gods has found its way into your daily life. The only question is, where will it go next?