Any Colour You Like – The History of Makeup

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I remember when I was little, around 4 years old or so, I started to think makeup was cool. My mom has never been into makeup though; when it was time to leave the house she would only apply some brown blush and some scented lip balm (I still recall mint and cherry-scented ones), so I can’t say I was one of those kids who used to play with their mothers’ makeup. But even if mom didn’t put bright red lipstick on, the pretty ladies on the fashion books she owned did and I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could spoil myself with all those goodies too. 

I’ve never been that good at patience, so when I was 6 I was gifted with one of those face paint kits for children. Believe me, I still have it somewhere around the house. And I remember exactly each detail of it: 6 eyeshadows in lavender purple, dark purple, fuchsia, turquoise, pale yellow and pale orange; 2 pink blushes and 5 mini lipsticks featuring an unwearable pale orange, a cold purple, three different shades of pink and then my favourite of them all: a mauve purple which I madly fell in love with. 

The tragic part of my story was that my father disapproved on makeup (he eventually gave up on me as soon as I made clear no man can tell me what to wear or not!) so I used to wait for him to go to bed before I took out my makeup kit and ask my mother to lend me her red pocket mirror. I remember each night I did this she would tell me “You know honey, all this stuff is not good for your skin and if your dad sees you he would be so mad… but this lipstick looks lovely on you”.  

When I was around 10 years old I finally got my hands on that complimentary makeup that teenage magazines used to include with their issues. This was a sort of drastic measure since my parents wouldn’t buy me anything more than a lip balm while my cousin had a whole collection of soda scented lip glosses. I think I ended up stepping up my game at 12 when my makeup bag included a black eye pencil, a three-colour eyeshadow palette in brown, three lip glosses, a silver liquid eyeliner, a purple lipstick which really wasn’t worthy of its name and my holy grail: a deep pigmented cherry red lipstick which probably was conceived as an innocent toy, but it really looked like a real deal. 

That was it for me, the moment I wore that lipstick I sold my soul to the gods of beauty and I became their loyal servant. My makeup collection is now obscenely large, but every shade of eyeshadow is a shade of my personality and every lipstick is a piece of me. Do I wear makeup because I feel uncomfortable with myself? Not at all. Actually, I believe that the people who say so experienced something wrong in the process or feel inadequate themselves. Personally, I wear makeup because I like it. Do you need to wear a tie or a watch? Do you need to have a red car instead of a white one? Do you need flavoured crisps? No, you don’t. But you wear a tie and a watch, you buy a red car and you eat flavoured crisps because you like it. Makeup, like most things in life, is about taste and I believe the true balance between right and wrong resides in our knowledge of ourselves. So if covering a dark spot on your face with a little foundation can help you feel good with yourself, do it. If a black eyeliner can make your beautiful blue eyes pop, then wear it. If a bright red lipstick makes you feel like a diva, make sure you don’t go home until everyone has seen it. 

Having made my position on this matter very clear, the next question in line is: how did people begin to use makeup? What was it like in the past? How did it change over time? Well, it might come as a surprise to some but makeup goes way back in time. You think DIY skincare and makeup is something that came along with the invention of Pinterest? You couldn’t be more wrong.

The lip gloss I envied my cousin for
My very first makeup brush set


Even if cosmetic body art made its appearance with the emergence of homo sapiens in Africa, we have very little evidence to define it as a real use of makeup. In order to find the first attempts to makeup as we know it today, we need to set our time machine to 4.000 b.C, destination: Egypt. What might surprise you the most is that makeup was invented for one of the least shallow reasons ever; in fact, Egyptian ladies didn’t wear makeup to impress a Pharoah or his pyramid construction workers, they did it in order to please the gods. They firmly believed that appearance was a direct link to their spiritual worth, so I’m sorry boys, but neither 6.000 years ago girls bothered this much just for you. The makeup they used was a mixture of copper and lead ore which was called “mesdement” and which was applied around the eyes, then green shades on the lower lid and black and grey shades on the upper eyelids and lashes. To complete the look they would draw almond shapes with a dark-coloured powder called “kohl”, very much similar to the idea of eyeliner we have nowadays. They also mixed red clay with water or animal fat to obtain a red-ish cream they would apply on cheeks and lips…just like blush and lipstick! And when it was time to remove their makeup they would use soap and oils, not very far from what we use in 2020 a.C

Ancient Egyptian Kohl Pot
Classic Egyptian Eyeliner Shape


The Romans were absolute masters at stealing pretty much everything from the peoples they invaded and they were second to no one when it was time to give a twist to what they stole. Concerning makeup, they managed to build such an allure of fashion around it that no woman left her house without makeup on. And the math was pretty simple: the richer you were, the more expensive beauty products you had. The most conservative people tried to stop this trend with the “Lex Oppia” law in 189 b.C (a law specifically made to limit and control the wealth women showed with their appearance) but they failed miserably having this law abolished only 6 years later. There is nothing you can do, Italian women have always loved their luxuries and those who couldn’t afford the good stuff could manage to get their hands on cheap knockoffs. The goal was to have pale skin and to do so women would apply face masks and whitening products which were actually very dangerous, still they prefered to look good instead of being healthy. They got to a point when there were ladies whose only task was to help their mistresses to be more beautiful: they were called “Cosmetae” and their legacy definitely lives on.


Let’s not forget the enormous boost other countries gave to makeup use during those times. Persians used to wear kohl as eyeliner just like Egyptians did, but when they went through a “change of management” and converted to Islam, the new religion did not prohibit makeup but it had to be something that wouldn’t harm the body. Abulcasis, a teacher from the 10th century, wrote a 24-volume medical encyclopedia and a chapter in volume n°19 was entirely dedicated to cosmetics. Abulcasis considered cosmetics a branch of medicine which he called “Medicine of Beauty”. 

In China, people actually stained their fingernails from around 3000 b.C. Colours represented social class: for instance, the Chou dynasty royals wore gold and silver; later royals wore black or red. The lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colours on their nails. 

In Japan, geisha wore lipstick made of crushed safflower petals to paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes as well as the lips, and sticks of bintsuke wax, a softer version of the sumo wrestlers’ hair wax, were used by geisha as a makeup base.

Different lip shapes for different Chinese royal dynasties


Everything happened during this period of time fights against the concept of beauty: poverty, illnesses and constant wars. God had a lot on his hands and eyeliner was carefully hidden under his desk. Cosmetics practically disappeared from Europe and as usual, it was all the priests’ fault.


Even if Renaissance was keen on letting cosmetics back in, their usage was still limited to a little hair colouring, eggs face masks for wrinkles, but those were perks only aristocrats could dream of. The only really popular period for makeup was during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when noble people liked to walk around with crazy white faces and brightly coloured lips. Soon after that makeup was widely rejected again and those wearing it were prostitutes or actresses. During the French restoration in the 18th century, red cheeks and lips were used to give the impression of someone healthy and fun-loving spirit, although all the other countries were convinced the “painted” French had something to hide. During the 19th century, women used belladonna to make their eyes seem more luminous and if poison wasn’t enough, they would add mercury and nitric acid in most pharmaceutical cosmetic products. I’d like to pause on this century and point out that men used to wear heavy makeup too (it was a common custom even for the Egyptian, Romans, Vikings etc.): King George IV used to spend a fortune on creams, powders, pastes, and scents; also, wearing red on cheeks and lips immediately labelled men as “dandy”, so if it was cool back then, please let’s not act so shocked when seeing a drag queen today. With the rigid reign of Queen Victoria though, things were much different and makeup was seen again as a matter for whores and actors. During those times a respectable woman would use home-made face masks with oatmeal, vinegar, honey and egg yolk. They would massage castor oil into their eyelashes, powder their noses with rice powder and buff their nails to a shine. God forbid the use of lipstick, but a clear pomade as sheen was allowed.

Victorian Medical Oils
Madam Rowley's Beauty Mask, 1875


As the 19th century was about to fade, many important steps were taken concerning cosmetics. In 1886 David McConnell founded the California Perfume Company (CPC), then located in New York. That firm is now known with the name “Avon”. Eugene Schueller, a young French chemist, invented modern synthetic hair dye called “Oréal.” In 1909, Schueller named his company Societé Française de Teintures Inoffensives pour Cheveux (Safe Hair Dye Company of France), which today has become L’Oréal. Let’s move on to 1914 Vogue featured Turkish women using henna to outline their eyes, and the movie industry immediately took interest. This technique made the eyes look bigger, and the word “vamp” became associated with these women, “vamp” being short for “vampire”. In 1915, chemist T.L. Williams created a mascara for his sister Mabel marking the birth of the Maybelline brand; during the same year, the first metal lipstick case was crafted by Maurice Levy to resemble a bullet (after Guerlain first created the stick form of lipstick in 1912). This directly impacted the application process of lipstick. Now, instead of applying lipstick with a brush from a pot, women could apply it directly from the tube.

The "Bullet" lipstick, Maurice Levy, 1915
The first stick lipstick, Guerlain, 1912
One of the first Maybelline ads, 1925


However, 1915 was also the year the most tremendous war of all times took place but did makeup disappear again? Times might have been incredibly tough, but if there was one thing women didn’t let go of was their beloved makeup. There was an uptick in makeup sales: women had to pick up men jobs but they didn’t want to sacrifice their feminity and unexpectedly, governments did support this request and turned the whole thing into slogans like “Beauty is duty” or “Beauty on duty has a duty to beauty”. Alright, my head’s spinning, you get the pattern. Those who couldn’t afford real makeup used beetroot on their lips, boot polish as mascara and the worst of all: a blend of margarine and chalk as foundation. I can’t blame you if you feel the urge to puke, but stay strong: mademoiselle Coco Chanel was about to bring some fresh air during the 20s, along with Max Factor, the invention of powder blush, powder compact, the first liquid nail polish and the first liquid lip gloss.

In 1929 a pound of face powder was sold annually for every woman in the U.S. and there were more than 1,500 face creams on the market. And then the economy collapsed, certainly not because of beauty products. But it is in difficult times that real entrepreneurs jump on stage, and this was the case of brothers Charles and Joseph Revson, along with chemist Charles Lachman, who found Revlon, after discovering a unique manufacturing process for nail enamel, using pigments instead of dyes. Then again, in 1935 Max Factor came up with their “Pan Cake Makeup”. The issue they were trying to solve involved the introduction of Technicolor which called for a new way of thinking makeup. The first commercial use of the new make-up occurred in the 1937 Technicolor Process 4 film ‘Vogues of 1938’. The new make-up was very successful and was soon embraced by the studios: it was water-repellent and it would resist perspiration like greasepaint, something that was essential under the hot lights used in Technicolor films and, being matte, it solved the light-reflection problem. 


Original Pancake makeup, Max Factor, 1935
Pan Cake makeup for Technicolor films
Pan Cake makeup ad

Things were about to turn really messy in the late 30s and with the blink of an eye we got another war. As for WWI, makeup was seen as a patriotic duty and it was used for propaganda. Women were encouraged to put their lipstick on and do their part in fighting Adolf Hitler. Apparently, Mr Stupid Moustache feared makeup more than a successful Jew: he hated women with lipstick and painted nails and he thought they were inappropriate and useless. War is really something you fight with any weapon, and sorry little Adolf, but you can’t stop a woman from being a bitch. So if on one side we had pale skinny German ladies wearing brown things, on the other frontline we found voluptuous women spoiling themselves with red clothes, red shoes and red lipstick: the so-called pinups. A woman was giving troops something to fight for. To drive that point home, one soldier even wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, “To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.” For all these reasons, while seamed stockings and many other everyday items were rationed, lipstick was considered essential to the point that some firms supplied women with their own lipstick tube in changing rooms as morale-boosters. Elizabeth Arden created a makeup kit for the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, with a red lipstick that matched their uniforms. Helena Rubinstein made the ever-popular ‘Regimental Red’ lipstick, and shades that came out during that period made sure to take on a nationalist spin, with names like Fighting Red, Commando, and Jeep Red.

Tangee ad, 1940
Ponds ad, 40s
An ambulance worker in Kennington, 1940
Victory Red lipstick ad, Besame, 1941


Soft, pastel blush was popular in the ’60s. It was the first time blush was sheer and subtle meant to create a natural glow. Then a rainfall of glitter came along with the 70s, giving a big twist to different sexual expressions and forms of art like for David Bowie, Alice Cooper, KISS and Iggy Pop, all paving the way for the 80s and the excesses of Madonna and Boy George. M.A.C. Cosmetics was born and quickly began to blossom in the early ’80s. With Toskan as the creative director and Angelo as director of marketing, they worked out of the kitchen in the back of one of Angelo’s hair salons. Joined by chemist Vic Casale, they cooked up their first lipstick, that was inspired by a bold pink Crayola crayon named Flamingo. That was the first matte lipstick ever to look the same way on the lips as it did in the tube and very soon the lipstick line expanded to include 23 other crayon-inspired shades. The 90s looked glossy and had the taste of all the mainstream soda drinks: Lip Smackers were Dr.Pepper, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Skittles flavoured. And as an authentic product of the 90s, sometimes I find myself missing that crap, but then I look at my 2020-updated cosmetic weaponry and simply feel very grateful that in my times wearing a lip pencil that’s darker than the lipstick it’s something profoundly wrong.

Lip Smackers, 90s
First MAC lipstick Shade "Flamingo", 1985

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