A Brief History of Cosmetics: Part 1

The cosmetic industry is enormous in the modern world. It is used regularly by most people. From make-up to face creams, from deodorant to lip balm cosmetics have grown from being an embellishment to a necessity. With this being such a large part of our present day lives, it is worth knowing where it came from. With that being said, here is a brief history of cosmetics!

With every step we take into the past, the concrete truth gradually grows into interpretation and hypothesis. This works both ways, because as we get closer to the present day, the information becomes more documented and proven. It has been argued that body art was one of humanities first form of ritual. This would bring cosmetics all the way back 100,000 years. This speculation comes from utilized red mineral pigments, including crayons that can be associated back to the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa.

In northern Africa, in the time of ancient Egypt, cosmetics were certainly used and documented. Wrinkle treatment remedies were recorded during the rule of Thutmosis III, using natural ingredients like fresh moringa and gum of frankincense. There were ointments for scarring, as well as balding and grey hair. There were even recipes for something that would work like a setting lotion found, being a mixture of resin and beeswax.

In the Persian Empire, cosmetics were also used. The main cosmetic in what is now called the middle-east was Kohl, a black powder that would be smeared around the eyelids like eyeliner. Once the Arab tribes converted to Islam, there were some restrictions to cosmetics. Cosmetics were prohibited if they disguised the real look in order to mislead (like a fugitive changing their appearance, for example) or if the cosmetics caused uncontrolled desire. Technically, there were no restrictions to cosmetics, but in Islam there are restrictions on the two deceptions previously mentioned which cosmetics facilitated. They also had perfumes and scented oils used as deodorants and incense.

In China, at around 3000 BC, people began to paint or stain their fingernails. The colors were indicative of social class, while the lower classes were prohibited to wear any bright colors on their nails. Floral fashion or meihua zhuang (literal translation: Plum Blossom Makeup) has a legend associated to its origin. It is said Emperor Wu of Liu Song had a beautiful daughter, Princess Shouyang. Princess Shouyang was resting under a tree one day and a plum blossom (a beautiful white flower with a red and yellow center) drifted down from the tree and fell on her forehead, leaving a floral imprint that enhanced her beauty. The impressed court ladies then imitated, creating plum blossom makeup, and the trend continued across the two following dynasties.    

While this is still a brief history, cosmetics are a global phenomenon and need more than one blog post to summarize their path to the present. In Part two, there will be the historical significance of cosmetics in Japan, Europe (through the renaissance and up to the 20th century) as well as in recent history.


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