Susan Stewart researched the social, economic and even political significance of make-up under the Roman Empire for her PhD (gained in 2003). Now widely published on Roman cosmetics, she has expanded her interest to include make-up beyond the ancient world. Her new book Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics (Amberley December 2017) highlights some of the fascinating products, people and events that have shaped our history and our world. In short, from Rome to Rimmel cosmetics matter. Here are ten things to pique the readers’ interest. 

Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart

The ancient Egyptians believed that wearing eye makeup not only made them more attractive but also reduced the risk of eye infections, improved poor eyesight and even combated evil spirits.

In London in 2003, archaeologists discovered a small tub of cosmetic cream very similar to the pots of face cream we might buy at a cosmetic counter today. This one dated from Roman times and was found hidden perhaps deliberately in a drain. The mixture, made largely from animal fat and starch, still bore the finger marks of the last person to use it.

Among other methods, the Ancient Greeks singed their unwanted body hair in order to remove it.

Thomas of Aquinas, a respected medieval Italian friar and philosopher, believed the application of makeup was permissible to maintain a husband’s interest so long as this did not attract other men.

In the thirteenth century, lipstick was a key indicator of social status; pink shades for the upper classes and a more basic brown /red for the lower rungs of society.

Famous, and infamous women, from Cleopatra to Maria Antoinette, have been credited with and or the invention of specific cosmetic products.  In the Renaissance period, recipes attributed to a particular individual (often a woman of wealth and status) were compiled in books known as Books of Secrets.

Ladies magazines began to emerge in the seventeenth century. The first of these was The Ladies Mercury. Although short-lived and produced as a single sheet, this magazine included advice on make-up.

Women in particular used poisonous white lead as foundation for centuries even after it was officially declared a poison in 1634.

In the 1930s socialite Miss Norris had suffered from agonies caused by a product called Lash Lure. This eyelash and eyebrow dye destroyed her corneas and eventually rendered her blind. Paramount Pictures in support of greater control over the cosmetics industry highlighted her case in a newsreel. 

During the Second World War cosmetic companies concentrated on the war effort. The make-up company Coty, for instance, instead of making face powders, switched to foot powders and anti-gas ointment. Any cosmetics available were sold in basic packaging.