I like the summer heat, much preferring to be a bit too hot but avoiding the freezing winters. However, this summer our beautiful Coastal Georgia is hot, rainy, and humid, like a sauna on the planet Venus! One of the things that I hadn’t considered when we moved to this great part of the world was the melting effect on my makeup on these steamy summer days.
I have become quite the expert at repairing melting makeup during the course of my working day in between meetings. I often remember my old fashioned school ‘head-mistress’ (principal) back in England in the 1970s and 80s, who always told us girls that “horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow”. She had clearly never visited Coastal Georgia in August!
So, what is the history of makeup or to paraphrase my husband – ‘why do you always bother to do this, and why does it take so long’? The short answer is that I like to feel and look my best before facing the world. History shows that this is true of people through the ages, with women sometimes risking their health and wellbeing to enhance their looks by the standards of their time.
The use of cosmetics dates back to the ancient world around 10,000 BC with Egyptians using scents and creams made from natural herbs and oils to protect their skin against the hot sun and to mask body odor. There is evidence that the use of some perfumes were also related to religious rituals. Six thousand years later, Egyptian women were applying pastes to their faces and black powders around their eyes – think of Queen Cleopatra’s image. Meanwhile, ancient Chinese and Japanese people were whitening their complexions with rice powder, and more dangerously the ancient Greeks were using lead to achieve the same result. There is also evidence that ancient Indian and North African cultures started the use of henna, a tropical shrub used for color dying, to decorate their hands and feet for weddings and other special occasions.
During the Renaissance, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, aristocratic European women – including famously Queen Elizabeth The First of England, lightened their complexions with dangerous white lead and copper paint, and sometimes even arsenic powder! Meanwhile, France became a center of perfume making. By the 1800s, zinc oxide replaced more dangerous ingredients in facial powder, but during Queen Victoria’s long reign from 1837-1901, she declared the use of make up “vulgar” and only acceptable for use by actors on the stage.
Over here, Americans of the upper classes wore makeup during the 18th century but after the American Revolution, the use of what was commonly called “paint” became socially unacceptable and associated with ladies of the night. For most of the nineteenth century, women relied on home-made recipes to lighten and improve their complexions and appear naturally pretty. By the end of the nineteenth century entrepreneurs began to produce lines of “natural” looking cosmetics and this is when a New York based called “The California Perfume Company”, began an agent system for distribution, targeting housewives as their sales agents. This turned into the company Avon Products, now a $6 billion business, which allowed women to combine socializing and making their own money. As more women entered the workplace, especially during the First World War, there was a rising demand for cosmetics.
By the time the roaring 1920s came along, flapper fashion featuring dark eyes, red lipstick, and nail polish along with the suntan became popular; think Coco Chanel. Makeup became socially acceptable and aspirational. Spending on cosmetics increased dramatically when millions more women entered the workforce during the Second World War, gaining greater social and financial independence. Makeup was used to reassert femininity, and when nylon stockings became unavailable because of war-time shortages, women turned to leg make-up—paint-on hosiery! Cosmetics, especially lipstick, had become such an essential part of American femininity that the federal government retracted its wartime materials-rationing restrictions on cosmetics manufacturers in order to allow and even encourage the use of makeup. As Kathy Peiss writes in her book “Hope in a Jar,” the use of makeup had become “an assertion of American national identity.”
After the war, most women wore lipstick, and companies like Avon and Revlon capitalized on this fashion trend. By the 1950s and 1960s, teenage girls were commonly wearing makeup, and by the late 1960s, using makeup became politicized. Counter-cultural movements celebrated ideals of natural beauty, including a rejection of make-up altogether. Cosmetics companies returned to advertisements that claimed that their products provided a “natural” look. Then, by the 1980s when I started to experiment with makeup, things seem to have gone full circle as my teenage friends and I started wearing heavy layers and bright colors – just like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in their heydays.
There is more information at www.cosmeticsinfo.org , an information site sponsored by the trade group Personal Care Products Council.
I say goodbye this week with a quote attributed to the beautiful Marilyn Monroe. “A smile is the best makeup any girl can wear.”
God Bless America and stay cool out there!
– ENDS –