Thursday, 24 November 2016




Face paint, more commonly known as makeup, goes back more than 5000 years to the time of the Egyptians. Most of the world knows about the heavily lined eyes of the Egyptians, striking white-faced geishas, and the rose bud mouth of a flapper, however there are many facts about makeup that most people don’t know about. Here are my top 5 lesser known historic facts about makeup.

Ancient Egypt

Detail from a painting inside the
 sarcophagus of Tanethereret (Musée du Louvre). (Source)
You would be hard pressed to find a single piece of ancient Egyptian art that did not feature eyes heavily hooded with a product called kohl. Made from a collection of ingredients, crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite, and chrysocolla, these were combined to create black, green or gray pigment. There is a theory that different colours would have been used for different seasons depending on need. However, this was not a fashion season. Research has shown that living and working in and around the Nile River meant there were parasites and bacteria that could be contracted in the eyes. Wearing the heavy makeup would have protected everyone from pharaohs to fishermen from any potentially harmful diseases, not to mention dust from the desserts and severe sunlight, from getting into the eyes. Whatever the reason, the tradition of painting one’s eyes with black lines has been popular for centuries and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Ancient Japan

Edo period geisha paints her teeth blackin a liquored mirror.
The colour black in ancient Japan was considered beautiful and highly valued. The ancient Japanese would paint their teeth black every morning, dating back to 206 BCE, and continuing right into 1912 ADE. It helped prevent teeth decay, and marked someone of high stature. To make the concoction, someone would dissolve ferric acetate, kanemizu, into vinegar and then mix this with tanning products such as gallnut or tea powder, turning the solution black and making it non-water soluble. Who wore this solution changed over time; those entering puberty during the Muromachi period (1336-1568), married women in Edo Japan (1603-1868) as seen in the ROM’s current Third Gender exhibit, then later only men of the aristocratic family, and now by traditional geishas as a sign of wealth and maturity. Although black teeth are considered very unappealing today, when it was expected, any unpainted teeth were referred to as “white caterpillars” in the mouth.

A geisha with painted black teeth and her maikos, geishas in training, wait for their patrons at a tea house in Japan.
The Renaissance

Catherine de' Medici was a fashion icon of her era,
and a regular user of ceruse. (Source)

Have you ever looked at a Renaissance portraits and wondered how those men and women got such stunningly white skin? Having incredibly white skin for most of human history was considered a sign of wealth by the upper class indicating that you did not work outside but spent most of your time relaxing indoors. To achieve the perfect complexion women over centuries had experimented making natural solutions to paint themselves paler, however what became the most popular, and expensive, was Venetian ceruse.

Made exclusively in Venice and then shipped all over the rest of Europe, Venetian ceruse was the best product to turn your skin porcelain white, however the ingredients would destroy the wearer’s skin, and in excessive use became lethal. Venetian ceruse was created by corroding lead in a ceramic pot, scrapping off the corrosion, collecting it, boiling it in water for a long time until the remains collected at the bottom, then mixing those remains with mercury (to fade spots and freckles) and arsenic. The issue was, as the wearer continued to paint themselves, it turned their skin yellow, green and purple, rotted the death, gave bad breath, caused hair loss (giving a hint to why women’s hair lines from that time period were so high – a sign of a receding hair line perhaps), and permanent lung cancer. Ultimately over long periods of time the wearer would look like a dying “dried, shriveled fruit”. One noted individual described the resulting complexion as something, “…. a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks.”

The Rococo Period

Using Thomas Gainsborough’s Lady in Blue (c.1790)
to illustrate the meaning in placement of mouches (Source)

Before the French Revolution, the aristocracy of France was lavishly wealthy, vain, and highly fashionable. Some of the many fashionable trends at the time included a very pale face, pink blush all over the cheeks and a mouche. A mouche was a patch of fabric, such as silk, velvet, satin and taffeta, that was purchased, and glued to a made-up face to hide imperfections such as small pox scars, or emphasize their porcelain pale skin. They came in a variety of shapes, such as circles, ovals, hearts, crescent moons, and even stars. The location of the patch meant different things, such as whether someone was available, married, engaged, a mistress, royal, or supporting opposing political parties.

The Groovy 60's

A head shot from Twiggy's first photo shoot
It has always been paramount for every great model to have flawless makeup and a distinct look. When Twiggy, born Lesley Hornby, decided she wanted to be a model in the early 1960s, everyone in her high school told her she was too skinny. Women at that time wanted the curvy hour glass figure associated with Marilyn Monroe, not the waif-like silhouette Twiggy later made the standard of runway models up until ten years ago. However, the thing that made her stand out when she walked into her first photo studio in 1966 were her eyes. 

Models at that time had to do their own makeup, and although Twiggy was rocking the mod look of the time, white lid with a dark line in the crease, a heavy dark winged lid with fake eye lashes, she had also hand painted lower lashes under her eyes. It was a lengthy process, allegedly taking an hour and a half to complete the full look. Barry Lategan, her first ever photographer, was quoted saying, “Twigged arrived with her cropped hair and lower eye lashed painted onto her face, she sat in front of the camera and she was dazzling.” She went on to become the face of 1966, and by 1967 was promoting her own fake eye lashes and makeup compact cases. Women continue to paint their lower lash lines, however this has grown into gluing individual lashes onto the lower lid, or simply applying a layer of mascara to the lower lash line.

Final Thoughts

Twiggy demonstrating how to paint her face (Source)

Whatever your personal paint style may be, makeup has always been away of communicating social meaning. The face is the first place anyone will look when meeting someone new and how people paint themselves gives the first split second communication of themselves to the world. How you paint your face expresses elements of who you are, and the culture you are a part of.

All information was sourced from Lisa Eldridge's new book Face Paint.

Eldridge, L. (2015). Face paint: The story of makeup. New York: Abrams Image.

1 comment:

  1. This is so cool. I love the narrative style, and it is such an interesting topic!