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Toxic beauty & polished rank

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
portrait of woman wearing cosmetics via Midjourney
Clothes and accessories are usually a straightforward way to establish details about a character's preferences and social position, but at work I've noticed how much today's teenagers have upped their make-up game since I was a kid, and it got me wondering about trends in cosmetics and how I can integrate that into the fantasy world I'm building.

Quick Facts

  • Historically speaking, kohl, made from grinding down stibnite, a sulphide mineral, is the most commonly used cosmetic ever made. It was being employed for use as eyeshadow in North Africa and the Middle East over 5,000 years ago and continued to be used for millennia thereafter.
  • The Romans were fond of their cosmetics. The early imperial love poet, Ovid, even composed an entire poetic guidebook on their use entitled Medicamina Faciei Femineae, meaning Cosmetics for the Female Face.
  • Geishas first emerged as courtesans in feudal Japan in the thirteenth century. Their white powder, Oshiroi, was traditionally made with white lead and like many ancient cosmetics was poisonous.
  • The modern culture surrounding cosmetics really began to emerge in Renaissance Italy where the idea of using foundation, lipstick and blush (rouge) first began to become staples for women of the nobility.
  • Different cultures have favoured different coloured face makeup. Most have leaned towards a white complexion, but the Aztecs and Mayans preferred yellow. Sometimes rouge has become so prominent that it has bordered on red or orange face.

Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians were the first known society to use makeup extensively. Kohl was used as eyeshadow, while malachite powder, a copper ore, was used as a green eye makeup. These were used by both women and men, sometimes for religious purposes, but also for purely cosmetic reasons by upper and middle class Egyptians. Red ochre was also used as rouge or lip colour. There is evidence of makeup being applied to religious statues 4,000 years ago. In the Met Museum in New York City there is even a perfectly preserved cosmetic box which belonged to Kemeni, a cupbearer to Pharaoh Amenemhat IV dating to around 1805 BC.

The First Nail Polish

The first known nail polish dates to Ancient China around 3000 BC.  It was made from beeswax, gelatine and egg whites, dyed with a wide range of materials such as orchids, roses and vegetables dyes to give different colours. Different colours were worn by different social classes and amongst the very powerful and wealthiest in society metallic dust of silver and gold was even sprinkled on to indicate the nobility of the wearer.

Lethal Beauty

Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, wore copious amounts of makeup throughout her life, which became thicker and thicker over the years. This may well have proved lethal. The ‘Venetian ceruse’ which she used to lighten her skin contained significant amounts of lead, and the lipstick she wore used an ingredient called cinnabar, which is a mercury sulphide mineral and is highly toxic. Daily exposure to these substances over a period of decades could have created extensive health problems and probably accelerated Elizabeth’s death at 69 years of age. Her story is indicative of the risks which went along with using cosmetics centuries ago.

Social Change

For much of history cosmetics have been the preserve of the wealthy and the powerful. This began to change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries owing to two developments. The advent of a capitalist economy and a consumer culture began to make cosmetics available to a much wider range of people. That process continued down to the twentieth century. The middle classes and then the poor began to imitate the fashions which they saw emanating from the royal courts and fashion centers.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletters about tattoos, roses, and dyes.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

💄 Do you have a favorite factoid about makeup or cosmetics? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

🐦 I used the AI image generator MidJourney to create the preview image for this edition, and tweeted about how it inspired a piece of microfiction; check it out if you're curious about stuff like what prompt I used and how it relates to the research.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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