Today I’m going to talk about the history of make up. It’s not something I ever really consider my forte but I’ve started wearing make up again, following months of bare-faced lockdown and furlough. And you know what? I feel better with it on. I feel more “dressed”. It makes me more productive, I swear to god.
Make up is something that can be incredibly divisive, even just down to whether you wear it or not. This is not a new conversation. I’m sure you’ve seen jokes online about girls caking make up on, comments from men about preferring the “natural” look (but only if you have glowing skin, big eyelashes and visible eyebrows), that vile meme about why you should take a girl swimming on the first date. None of this is new.
They say history repeats itself, well my god, does it. Not just in events, but the same words, insults and shaming methods.
The History of Make Up: some background info
Between 1400 and 1900, pale skin was the most fashionable – smooth and unlined (i.e. youthful and nubile), white and unfreckled (i.e. rich enough not to be working) and not scarred or pocked in anyway (i.e. not diseased). It’s mostly connected to either the wealthy women, or ‘whores’ – an umbrella term that could cover a range of people from sex workers to actresses.
Elizabeth I is probably the most famous woman for wearing make-up in this period. She’s sort of pitied for it, this powerful ruler reduced to trying to cover up her ageing, in the same way that famous actresses are simultaneously scorned for looking their age or trying to look younger with surgery. Whatever Elizabeth’s reason for it – to continue the illusion of youth to preserve power, to satisfy herself when she looked in the mirror, as part of her ritual of majestic performance – she was not the only woman in Tudor England to regularly wear make up.
Wealthy women used ceruse, which was a super toxic mixture of white lead and vinegar, which was obviously terrible for their skin. Underneath their make-up, women would see their skin get greyer and more wrinkled, and so would put even more make-up on, and down the spiral we go. Alternatively, women would mix bacon grease, egg whites and powder to create that fashionable pasty look*
*which just make me think of when Ross was trying to get his leather trousers back up.
Make up was often used to cover up scars or blemishes, like those left by illnesses like smallpox which could leave skin with a pitted appearance. This was one of the reasons why Elizabeth I wore make-up: her close friend Mary Sidney nursed the queen when she was ill with smallpox and also caught it, had her looks completely ruined, and never came back to court because of it.
Later in the 17th century, patches, or ‘court plaster’ came into fashion: small bits of black fabric cut into fun shapes like stars and half moons to cover up spots or scars. Relatively speaking, this isn’t a style that lasted that long, and so moving into the 19th century, women still continued to wear make-up, or use other cosmetics to preserve their youth and beauty, or create it where they felt it was lacking.
Victorian women had a range of cosmetics at their disposal – well, if they had the money – including lotions, enamels, skin tighteners, powders, ointments, blushers, powder and hair dye. Advertising for different products soared, and magazines would include recipes for homemade products like cold creams. Pale skin was still desirable, but with rosy cheeks and well-defined but thin eyebrows, or big, sad-looking watery eyes so it looked like you had TB. Women sometimes would add drops of citrus juice, perfume or belladonna to their eyes to achieve this wistful, deathly look. It might sound bizarre now, but TB was associated with the Romantics and creativity – and who are we to judge when the 90s had heroin chic?
Opinions on make up
Reactions to make-up were often negative: in the Tudor era, Thomas Tuke argued that make-up was introduced by the Devil to make pretty women ugly, and it was also thought to be irreligious, defying God by hiding your natural face. Under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan leadership, make up was banned – apparently community leaders and soldiers would roam around the streets, grabbing women who were wearing cosmetics and scrub it off them.
Make up was also inextricably linked to sex workers. It was one of the numerous tools at a sex worker’s disposal to be attract her clients, but it also meant that if a woman also chose to wear make up, she was associating herself with harlots.
In the Victorian era, this stigma wasn’t helped by the fact that the make up industry became heavily promoted by actresses, like Lillie Langtry. Acting had been closely associated with sex work for hundreds of years and Lillie’s affair with the Prince of Wales probably didn’t do much to clear up that association.
For many men, it was part of a wider fear that the “take a girl swimming” meme taps into: what if a woman could trap a man into marriage by hiding her true appearance with paint?
Both this connection with sex work and the fear of deception were rooted in an ongoing mistrust of women and femininity: by nature, they were deceitful and lascivious, and the use of make up was a visible extension of this. It was one of the reasons why men were in charge: women were too lustful, flighty and false to bed.
In later years, a more “natural” make up style came into fashion, causing even more worrying for all those poor men. How would they be able to tell the difference between a naturally beautiful woman and a fake one? There’s stories of men waking up next to a conquest, sex worker or new wife and being appalled by her real face, once the make up has been wiped off while he slept (although, I have to add, how much of that is down to excellent make up skills and how much down to external factors like beer goggles, we’ll probably never know).
Underpinning all of this was the early modern understanding of the body – that if the outside was “bad”, it was showing your inner sin or immorality – and the visible effects of rampant sexually transmitted diseases, particularly syphilis. A sex worker could hide the symptoms of an STD with make up, which would then infect their clients.
So these interconnecting fears about women’s deceit all culminated in an atmosphere of shame and disapproval around women wearing make up. Even in the Victorian period, where cosmetics become even more visible in the public eye, there was still a stigma around using them. The ideals of beauty could also be achieved by sustaining a particular lifestyle, after all – you could get your rosy cheeks from going for a brisk walk, for instance, or get TB-eyes by getting dangerously sick.
Despite this, women still used make-up, and would find inventive ways to hide it. Some would decant their lotions or cosmetics into old prescription bottles, or there are even examples of medicine chests with hidden compartments. Even now, when women are often expected to wear make up, it’s still meant to be a hidden, private thing – the amount of time I’ve seen people tutting disapprovingly at women on the tube putting on their make up is ridiculous.
Why does this even matter?
It matters, because the roots of our experiences are in the past. Those “jokes” and memes about wearing too much make up or about “ugly” people hiding underneath face paint aren’t new, they’re old, well-worn ways to shame and belittle.
But also, because it’s so important to look at the daily concerns, rituals and products of people in the past. You can learn so much about a society, just from make up: dynamics of gender relations; ideals of femininity; the gap between expectation and reality; the gaps between the wealthy and the poor; how they spent their time.
Make-up might seem like a frivolous topic compared to “worthy” debates around politics or religion or systematic abuses, but it’s just as important to look at to understand women’s experiences in the past. Maybe she’s born with it; maybe she’s actually providing us with valuable historical sources.
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