HomeLifestyleFashion & Beauty

The evolution of: makeup

The evolution of: makeup

As long as there have been people, there has been makeup and today, cosmetics can be found in almost every society on Earth. Here's the history of humans and face paint. 

The ancient world


Many cosmetic materials still popular today—including kohl and henna—were first used in ancient Egypt.

Men and women of all classes would decorate their eyes with coloured kohl, usually in dark green, black or blue. These kohl circles were supposed to ward off the evil eye.

Scientists now believe the lead in this makeup may even have kept wearers healthier, as it killed off bacteria.

We also know that Egyptians used castor oil as a protective balm and the Romans described them using creams consisting of beeswax, olive oil, rosewater and more.

The world’s first anti-wrinkle serums were also used in ancient Egypt.



Ancient China nails
Image via Nagels Lakken

In ancient China, painting fingernails began circa 3000 BCE as a way to establish social class.

Royals wore gold or silver while the lower classes were forbidden to wear bright nail colours.

Plum blossom makeup (pictured above), which originated from a folklore tale about a princess whose beauty was enhanced when a petal fell on her face, was also popular throughout the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279AD)



Geishas are still famous for their striking makeup. They originally used lipstick made from crushed safflower petals to paint their eyebrows and lips and rice powder to colour the face.

For official ceremonies, a black paint called ohaguro was (and still is) used to colour the teeth.



Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. Image via Ancient EU

Even further back, Alexander the Great wore makeup for both aesthetic and health reasons. Eye makeup "protected the delicate skin around the eyes, kept off flies… and sheltered the eyes from the sun's glare."

As he travelled around Asia, Alexander would send plant cuttings home to a friend in Athens so that they could create a garden especially for beauty products. 

Ancient Britons were known by Romans as 'picts'—the painted ones—because of the blue woad they daubed over their faces. 


The 20th century

Image: Clara Bow and Marion Davies via Wiki 

During the 1900s, the lower classes were labourers who spent the majority of their time outdoors working the fields or selling their wares. As a result, they usually had tanned skin.

A pale complexion came to symbolise a gentrified or aristocratic person who did not have to work for their income. Makeup of the 1900s consequently sought to emulate this pale appearance.  

Making your face white was a dangerous practise in the 1900s, as the main ingredient in powders was generally arsenic.

"You are not born glamorous, glamour is created." - Max Factor

The cosmetic routine at this time involved a simple powdered face, pinching to bring colour to the cheeks, and darkening eyelashes with burnt matches. Coloured petals or wet red tissue paper were used to colour the lips.

With the movie industry boom, Hollywood began having a huge impact on popular cosmetics in the 1920s. Makeup artists of popular actresses dramatically influenced how the public used makeup, and it was at this time that big names such as Max Factor rose to prominence.

Designers followed Hollywood’s lead, and Coco Chanel popularised a now classic look: dark eyes, red lipstick and a suntan.  

The new, accessible approach to makeup hit a stumbling block during the Second World War as cosmetics were in short supply.

This didn’t stop British women staying glamorous, however—after all, the government constantly reminded them that ‘beauty is a duty’.

"Beauty is a duty"

Beetroot was a popular supplement for lip stain and proved relatively harmless compared to the use of boot polish as mascara.

Perhaps the worst trend was the foundation concocted from a blend of margarine and chalk. 

Image: Makeup posters from 1920 and 1945

The rise of mainstream feminism in the 1960s and 70s saw many women partaking in an anti-cosmetics movement. They claimed that makeup was a tool in objectification, which saw society treat women as sex objects rather than people.

Susan Brownmiller went so far as to call the unmade up face “the honourable new look of feminism”.

"The honourable new look of feminism."

Not all women felt this way however. In the 1970s Avon introduced the world to the lady saleswoman. Despite certain feminist misgivings, the general consensus was that the popularity of makeup provided opportunities for women as entrepreneurs, inventors, manufacturers and distributors.

The 1970s was a time of real boom for men wearing makeup. Inverting stereotypical gender roles was a symbol of counter-culture defiance. The Cure's frontman, Robert Smith, remembers, "I started growing my hair long and wearing makeup and stuff because I was at school and I wasn't allowed to."

The iconic makeup of rock band KISS became a staple of their stage presence in the 1970s as part of the New York 'glitter movement'.

Speaking about the inspiration behind their look to fanzine Porkchops and Applesauce, vocalist Gene Simmons said, "we knew we wanted to get outlandish—being on stage dressed like a bum wasn't my idea of respect."

Many other glam rock male performers including David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop began to wear more flamboyant makeup looks both on and off the stage. 

Bowie in particular, changed the cosmetic landscape with the cosmic Ziggy Stardust. A bisexual, gender-defying, makeup-wearing alien, Ziggy had the face that launched a thousand makeup tutorials

With access to all makeup imaginable, 1980s looks featured bright eye shadows teamed with bold lipsticks and big hair—a style mastered by singers like Boy George and Madonna. 

The 1990s brought normcore and grunge to the mainstream. Faces were either clean and natural or making a statement with heavily kohled eyes and dark lips. 

Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love and Winona Ryder all worked the grunge look alongside Billie-Joe Armstrong, Kurt Cobain and Johnny Depp. 



In the 21st century, makeup is for everyone. Men are quickly catching onto products such as concealer and eyeliner to enhance their own features.

As gender equality movements progress, the line between who ‘can and can’t’ wear makeup is becoming ever more blurred (or should that be blended?).

Now more than ever, makeup is seen as a tool of self-expression, whoever that self may be.

This video shows the evolution of makeup through the ages:

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.