A 1940s advertisement showing a lady applying makeup.

Political to Pretty

27th January 2017

Clara Bow – the first 'It girl' – vintage postcard c.1920s

In the first of two related features (the second will be in our 25 February issue), Lisa Botwright explores how makeup has come to be such a big part of daily life – and what it means to wear it.

What is it about cosmetics that are so compelling? Personally, I love the potential. I love the fact that I can wake up, look at my bleary face and know there’s something I can do about it: some tinted moisturiser, a quick sweep of blush and suddenly I look alert and fresh-faced again. This magical ability to transform our appearance might be taken for granted today, but in the past, makeup had hugely powerful connotations. It’s been used throughout history – by both men and women – in spiritual worship, in warfare (to scare the enemy in battle), as a statement of political power and status and (only) for the last 300 years or so as a fashion accessory.

The history of makeup, astonishingly, stretches back almost as far as the history of humankind. Large quantities of red ochre, thought to be 125,000 old, have been found in excavations of South African caves. It was probably used by spiritual leaders as face and body paint, when the act of altering their appearance would have been seen as highly mystical, almost omniscient.

We know that the earliest great civilisation, the Ancient Egyptians, were huge fans of the ritual of cosmetics. The richest members of society lived and died surrounded by kohl jars, makeup boxes, perfume vials and polished metal mirrors. Makeup was worn by both sexes, and was possibly used for health reasons, as well as decoration and a show of rank. Although toxic, the lead used in their eye makeup would have had antibacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the eyes, and historians suggest that the thick paint would have reduced glare from the sun too.

The Ancient Egyptian image is so powerful that it continues to be influential thousands of years later. When the bust of Queen Nefertiti was discovered in 1912, her makeup was copied all over the world, especially on stage and screen. Even today, her high cheekbones and stunning black-kohled eyes wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of any fashion magazine.

The Egyptian influence certainly spread throughout the Greek and Roman civilisations too. Toxic lead continued to be a staple ingredient of much makeup, but high class women would have worn powder and rouge made from natural, vegetable ingredients too. The leisure, status and money required to allow an elaborate beauty routine was often the implicit point of the exercise. Emperor Nero’s wife, Poppaea, for example, rose to infamy by reputedly requiring a hundred slaves to help her carry out her toilet rituals, which included long baths in asses’ milk, face masks of moistened meal, lemon juice for her freckles, and finally a deadly daily coating of chalk and white lead to her skin.

Makeup went out of fashion for nearly two thousand years in the western world, under the influence of early Christian asceticism. ‘Women should be warned that the work of God should in no way be falsified by any cosmetic at all that spoils the natural features,’ wrote St Cyprian in the third century AD, going on to insist that it would ‘stimulate lust’ and ‘indicate an unchaste mind.’

Although the use of face whiteners continued into the Middle Ages (women were now influenced by the idealised pale luminosity of the Virgin Mary) it would take a strong woman to bring visible makeup back into fashion, albeit in very narrow court circles. Elizabeth I had a prescient approach to cultivating her image and understood the political power of maintaining her beauty. In 1570, her Secretary of State, wrote (with or without a tongue in his cheek, one might wonder), ‘Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly, until they are improved.’ Unfortunately, the Venetian Ceruse (aka Spirits of Saturn) that Elizabeth used to give her a particularly ghostly pallor was incredibly toxic and, as well as causing horrible damage, probably contributed to her death from blood poisoning at the age of 69.

Despite continued condemnation from the church, by the eighteenth century makeup was all the rage in aristocratic circles, adopted by both men and women, often to cover up poor hygiene and disease-poxed skin. The ubiquitous white lead was used to powder the face and red lead (or mercury sulphide) was the main ingredient of rouge to redden lips and cheeks. This was the time when fashion became increasingly outlandish, with women sporting precarious white wigs, often several feet tall.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, especially following the shock of the French Revolution, all this excess was seen as extremely distasteful. Queen Victoria may be considered prudish by modern eyes, but her early reign was spent trying to establish herself as a credible ruler and distancing herself from her notoriously unstable relatives. She believed that makeup was ‘indecent’ and so it became synonymous with ‘ladies of ill-repute’ (prostitutes and actresses). Nevertheless, the Victorian ideal of peaches and cream complexion, and soft cherry-red lips doesn’t come naturally to most women, as we know, and so inventive solutions to the problem were required…

Since cleanliness was next to godliness, preparations that would keep the skin soft and smooth were permitted. Household manuals suggested washing in the juice of fresh cucumbers and squeezing orange juice in their eyes to ‘make them sparkle’. Secretly, women were also rubbing strawberry juice onto their cheeks and using burnt corks, dampened with oil, to darken their eyelashes. Vaseline came along in the 1880s and made a handy hair oil and lipgloss. These discreet ‘skincare remedies’, were, at least, far safer than anything that had come before.

By the end of the century, a dusting of powder was acceptable, as was a little rose-tinted oil rubbed into the nails, then buffed to a shine with a chamois leather. As long as the effects were subtle and imperceptible to judging eyes, women could get away with it.

It was the dramatic events of the twentieth century that led to makeup as we know it today. After the First World War, women fought for emancipation and suffragettes defiantly wore red lipstick as a statement of freedom of choice. Hemlines and haircuts became shockingly short, ushering in the start of the ‘flapper’ fashion, and in 1919 Vogue declared, “No one thinks of leaving the house nowadays without powder and lipstick, purse and smoking paraphernalia.” With the American invention of the twist-up lipstick and new beautifully designed portable powder compacts, makeup became less of a guilty secret, and more of a handbag staple: increasingly something to show off.

The biggest influence on attitudes towards makeup, though, came from Hollywood. Not only was it a huge innovator – Max Factor created the first modern foundation for the screen in 1914 by adapting theatrical greasepaint to a cream in a handy tube – but it also paved the way for the very first media ‘It girls’. In fact, the phrase comes from Paramount Pictures 1927 movie It, which starred Clara Bow, an actress from a poor background who went on to embody the Roaring Twenties. A whole generation of women copied her plucked eyebrows, kohled eyes and exaggerated cupid’s bow red lips.

It wasn’t only actresses and movie-makers who became hugely influential. Two astute business women – Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden – rose to wealth and prominence by understanding the value of luxurious (read: over-priced) packaging and of clever marketing (read: appealing to female insecurity). It was Helena who famously said, ‘there are no ugly women, only lazy ones’. The pair led the way in making cosmetics both desirable – and, by cleverly employing pseudo-science, also a ‘necessity’.

Innovation slowed, of course, during the Second World War, but women were still encouraged to put ‘their best face forward’. Makeup was harder to come by, and was now presented in cardboard packaging, but in 1942 it was declared ‘necessary and vital’ to the war effort. Many women returned to the homespun, natural recipes of their grandmothers.

It was unsurprising that, after the rigours of war, women were desperate for luxury and frivolity. War time adverts, which had represented women as strong and competent, now reminded women that their role was to be sexy and feminine. By 1957, the American makeup and skincare market was worth four billion dollars per year. Powder and lipstick were no longer the only makeup staples. In 1958, Helena Rubenstein launched Mascara-Matic, with its slim metal rod applicator to replace the very messy, waxy substance that needed to be melted over a flame before it could be applied to the lashes. (Fine for the film-stars and professional makeup artists of Hollywood; not so great for ordinary women.) Coloured eye-shadow became popular and women began to match their makeup to their clothes.

By the mid ’60s, established rules became less relevant and makeup was seen as fun and creative. Newly affluent teenagers rejected the stuffy, ornate compacts used by their mothers, and bought into the bright colours of Biba and Mary Quant, sold in modern plastic packaging. Crazes included painted-on lashes (inspired by Twiggy), psychedelic body paint and very pale lips.

Makeup was now firmly entrenched in popular culture and continued to reflect the mood of the time – the hippy movement of the ’70s, the power dressing of the ’80s and the subculture styles of the ’90s and ’00s – culminating in so much choice for today’s average woman that it’s almost bewildering.

So what are the most recent developments? In such a saturated market, it’s no longer enough for companies to release products based simply on how they look. New launches must boast cutting-edge technology that makes it better than anything that’s come before: more luminous, more longer-lasting, purer and with even more exotic ingredients. Technology is borrowed from other industries, such as the synthetic pearl advances in iridescent car paint that lend a youthful, glowing sheen to highlighters, blushers and foundations. Scientific discoveries in silicon oils now mean our lipsticks can be both moisturising and long-lasting.

Some might argue that our quest for visual perfection has become oppressive. Indeed, the intimidating airbrushed images that surround us can fuel a feeling that we must be flawlessly made up at all times. Ironically, given that the wearing of makeup has been a political statement throughout history, it’s now far more controversial to reject it entirely. Singer Alicia Keys started going barefaced last summer (although she does retain a makeup artist to help her create that ‘no makeup’ look…) and generated reaction ranging from bemused to downright hostile.

Mostly, though, ‘putting our face on’ is just something that we do. And why not? As celebrity makeup artist Lisa Eldridge says, “I adore makeup. If you need to feel strong and powerful, a stripe of war paint may just give you the edge.”

Further Reading: All the images are from ‘Compacts and Cosmetics’ by Madeleine Marsh, and we are very pleased to offer the book at an exclusive rate to our readers. Optima Magazine has teamed up with the publishers, Pen and Sword Books, to give a special discount of 20% with free P&P, off the usual price of £16.99. Top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge calls the writer, historian Madeleine Marsh, ‘visionary’ and ‘inspiring’. To redeem this exclusive offer, log on to www.pen-and-sword.co.uk and use the code OPTIMA20 when checking out.

Changing images of women through the decades…

Clockwise from top left: French Vogue cover from July 1926, showing a slender, short-haired flapper, wearing lipstick and smoking; Max Factor Pan-Cake Make-up advertisement, starring Claudette Colbert, early 1940s; vintage advertisement for Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails showing classic 1980s make-up; 1960s knitting pattern showing Twiggy wearing a fashionable crochet suit with classic 1960s make-up.

Vintage Makeup

A collection of rouges open and closed, including Tangee, Princess Pat and Pompeian Bloom, dating from the 1920s/30s.

Classic designer lipsticks by YSL and Dior.

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