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Shouyang, a Chinese princess, fell asleep under a plum tree. A flower petal landed on her forehead and left a purple imprint that was thought to enhance her pale-skinned beauty. Ladies of the court were so impressed that they started decorating their own foreheads to follow the style. The application of plum blossom makeup became popular among high-ranking Chinese women 2,000 years ago and the notion of women following the dictates of fashion began. Today, nearly half of American women will not leave their homes without first applying makeup.

The prevailing opinion is that makeup was first invented by the Egyptians

The Egyptian story was strengthened by the appearance of the elaborately made up Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra. It is said that the eyeliner Egyptians used was only partially about vanity. It was also believed to be the sweat of Ra, the sun god, and so would ward off evil spirits.

Cosmetics are mentioned in the Old Testament, where Jezebel was reported to have put on makeup to lure King Jehu: “Now when Jehu had come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window.” To this very day, the word jezebel is used to describe an evil, unscrupulous, shameless, licentious, and scheming woman.

What price beauty?
  • Early makeup was made from clay, ash, fruits, nuts and insects.
  • Lipstick was made by crushing beetles and smearing the paste on the lips.
  • Later compounds were made of arsenic, copper, and lead – toxic substances that often caused facial paralysis and death.
  • A German actor invented fettschminke (greasepaint) when he stirred pigments into a bowl of pig fat and slathered the goo on his face.
  • In 1917, Maybelline made mascara by adding dust from the coal mines to jars of petroleum jelly.
  • Parasitic cochineal bugs are still used today to produce red lipsticks. More than 350,000 of them are crushed to make one pound of the chemicals used in production.

Prostitutes

The use of cosmetics almost died out during the Dark Ages in Europe due to their association with prostitutes. Ladies of the evening used heavy makeup to hide their age and distract from their real appearance, a relatively easy thing to do when it came to dealing with drunken males. When it became a staple of prostitutes who colored their eyes, lips and cheeks to seduce clients, Queen Victoria declared makeup to be vulgar and improper for ladies. Historyofcosmetics.net says church officials added to the decline by spreading the belief that cosmetics were used only by heathens and satan worshipers.

Makeup came back into fashion with face powder, used to whiten the appearance of the skin

Whiter skin was valued because it showed the wearer was not a manual laborer who had to work outdoors. Pale skin was a symbol of the wealthy and powerful for centuries until it fell out of fashion when Coco Chanel started the tanned look. Mademoiselle magazine said photos of her returning from a Mediterranean cruise with sun-darkened skin established tanned complexions as de rigueur. Where pale skin was once the indication of high social standing, now tanned skin demonstrated lofty status because wealthy women had the leisure time to ride horseback and play tennis and golf. Their active outdoor lives gave them healthy-appearing skin that needed no cosmetics.

The early days of the film industry popularized the use of cosmetics

Actresses wore heavy makeup to soften the effects of the harsh lighting required for the film cameras. The word makeup was invented by Max Factor (below), who sold his products to women who wanted to look like those movie stars. Lipstick, rouge and face powder were favorites of the budding cosmetic industry because they were colorful and cheap to make.

Heavy makeup was crucial for males who needed to cover their beard stubble to pass for females, as in the Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe.

Perfume

The English word perfume comes to us from parfum, the French word meaning “fumes from a burning substance.” Not long after, it came to mean “a substance containing agreeable essences of flowers, etc.”

Thousands of years ago the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was known as the Fertile Crescent

Some say this is where perfume was invented, while others claim it was India or China. Like so many things, it is likely that perfume evolved independently in many different cultures. 

The most expensive perfumes were frankincense and myrrh, two of the three gifts brought to Bethlehem by the Three Wise Men from the East. Frankincense is made from the resin of Boswellia trees that grow in the dry mountainous regions of the Middle East, Africa and India. It has a spicy, woodsy smell. Myrrh is also a resin, one that comes from small, thorny Commiphora trees. It is bitter and spicy and was often mixed with wine for a pleasurable experience. Both frankincense and myrrh are harvested like maple syrup and rubber.

Perfume comes to Europe

The Crusades were religious wars where armies of European Catholics went to the Holy Land to combat what they called paganism and heresy. Although they were able to capture crucial territory, they couldn’t hold on to it, and 200 years later, gave up. One of the things that happened along the way was that crusaders would bring luxury goods back to Europe from the mysterious East. They brought many exotic things, such as silks, tapestries, sugar, spices, and perfumes.

Early perfumes were mostly used to cover the sweaty and stinky smell of unwashed humans that naturally resulted from infrequent bathing

The smell doesn’t come from our sweat, but from secretions of the bacteria that live on our bodies. Early humans had no idea where the stink came from and so smothered it with pungent aromas. In the 16th Century, French nobles and wealthy, powerful elites went bonkers for perfume, using it not only on their bodies, but also their hair, clothing, and furniture. They added it to wine, drizzled it on lumps of sugar, and used it for enemas.

Even today, young men who have yet to embrace personal cleanliness as a virtue find it easier to spray aerosol scents on themselves to cover up bad odors rather than bathe. In the army, a soldier who didn’t bathe as often as he should would be given what was called a G.I. shower. He would be pulled from his bed in the middle of the night, dragged to the bathroom, and stripped naked. Several soldiers would hold him down while others used scrub brushes, steel wool and harsh cleansers to scrub his skin raw. Lesson taught, lesson learned.

What do whales have to do with perfume?

Ambergris is a solid, waxy substance. Some of it is vomited into the sea by whales and some of it gets trapped in the whale’s intestines. It stinks like fecal matter but as it dries out, takes on a musky smell. Part of the ambergris is used to make perfume’s scent last longer.

Vanity, thy name is woman

This saying is usually attributed to William Shakespeare, but his quote was about frailty, not vanity. This misquote comes about because cosmetics are a $400 billion industry that targets adult women and girls who want to look grown up.

The application of face paints has a dual purpose

Psychologists who study such things say women use makeup for one of two reasons:

  • They want to be more noticeable (seduction)
  • They want to be less noticeable (camouflage)

Studies show women who use makeup as camouflage are more anxious, defensive and emotionally unstable than the sociable, assertive and extroverted women who use it to seduce. 

How much makeup is too much?

A study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that “Women are likely wearing cosmetics to appeal to the mistaken preferences of others.” Scientists tell us women think both men and women like lots of makeup, but they are wrong. Women find themselves most attractive when they wear heavy makeup but men like women who wear less. The Atlantic says studies show that men and women both thought female models looked best when they wore half the makeup they had just applied.

Other published studies show that women who wear heavy makeup seem less human than other women, look less professional, are less likely to be seen as leaders, are seen as more promiscuous, and appear more desperate. 

As insult comedian Don Rickles liked to joke, “Why do women wear makeup and perfume? Because they’re ugly and they smell bad.” Of course, that’s a misogynist joke designed to get a laugh, but like much humor, there is enough truth to it to sting a little bit.

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