"A woman without paint is like food without salt," wrote the Roman philosopher Plautus. But the reasons why people wear makeup, as well as the styles in which they wear it, have changed dramatically over time.
In Greco-Roman societies, women wore white lead and chalk on their faces to attract attention. Ancient Egyptians wore foundation to lighten their skin, and the kohl eyeliner they used was only a bit heavier than the eye makeup popular in the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, Persians believed henna dyes, used to stain hair and faces, enabled them to summon the majesty of the earth.
The European Middle Ages followed the Greco-Roman trend of pale faces. Those rich enough not to work outdoors and acquire a suntan wanted to show off their affluence by being pale. Fashionable sixth-century women would achieve the look by bleeding themselves. Spanish prostitutes wore pink makeup to contrast with high-class women's pale faces, while regal 13th-century Italian women wore pink lipstick to show they could afford synthetic makeup.
During the Italian Renaissance, women wore lead paint on their faces. The damage inflicted by the lead was unintentionalbut arsenic face powder wasn't. Aqua Toffana, named for creator Signora Toffana, was a face powder designed for women from rich families. The container directed women to visit the signora for proper usage instructions. During the visit, women would be instructed never to ingest the makeup, but to apply it to their cheeks when their husbands were around. Six hundred dead husbands (and many wealthy widows) later, Toffana was executed.
In Elizabethan England, cosmetics were seen as a health threat because many thought they would block vapors and energy from circulating properly. Because men's makeup wasn't as obvious as women's (women wore egg whites over their faces to create a glazed look), it was seen as even more deceptive than women's.
By the reign of Charles II, Europe was still recovering from sweeps of illness. Many were hesitant to go outdoors, so heavy makeup supplied the color that sun-fearing people couldn't get elsewhere. During the French Restoration in the 18th century, red rouge and lipstick were the rage and implied a healthy, fun-loving spirit. This stuck in France, but eventually people in other countries became repulsed by excessive makeup use and said the painted French must be unattractive because they had something to hide.
Victorians claimed to abhor makeup, associating it with prostitutes. When makeup regained acceptance in the late 19th century, it was with natural tones so that the healthy, pink-cheeked look could be achieved without giving in to the moral decadence of full makeup, which was still seen as sinful.
The Victorian face was in fashion until mass makeup marketing hit in the 1920s. American women gained the vote, and the newly liberated woman showed how free she was by displaying her right to speak outred lipstick practically became a social necessity. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the looks of various movie stars defined vogue, from Mary Pickford's baby-doll face to Audrey Hepburn's cat-eyes eyeliner. The '60s brought a slew of makeup changes, from whited-out lips and Egyptian-style eyeliner to fantasy images like butterflies painted on faces at high-fashion outings. The heavy eyeliner look remained through the late '70s and '80s, with wide color ranges entering the wearer's palette. Makeup of today's Western world claims to be a melange of past styles with a new emphasis on the natural looka natural look that took centuries of painting faces to achieve.
Sources: Fashions in Makeup, from Ancient to Modern Times, Richard Corson, Owen, 1972 The House of Yardley, 1770-1953. Edward Thomas Wynne, Sylvan Press, 1953 The Body Decorated, Victoria Ebin, Thames and Hudson, 1979 Reader's Digest Book of Facts. Reader's Digest Association, 1985 Style for Actors, Robert Barton, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1993