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The history of makeup

woman applying makeup

The history of makeup is a fascinating topic.

Ever since the Ancient Egyptians, the human race has
loved playing around with makeup. Here we explore various looks throughout the ages and discover how our cosmetic history still influences the fashions of today. 

The history of makeup

Ancient Egypt

Cleopatra pulled off a kohl eye to perfection and wore lipstick made from ground-up carmine beetles! But in Ancient Egypt it wasn’t just royal women who wore makeup. It was part of the daily life of men and women of all classes. They would decorate their eyes with kohl in colours of dark green, black and blue. And they also regularly used henna to dye their hair and nails. 

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, makeup was the reserve of the upper classes. Natural pigments from everyday items like wine and beetroot were used to tint the lips and cheeks. A pale complexion was highly prized whilst charcoal was used to define the eyes.  Charcoal also came in handy when creating the signature look of the day – a bold unibrow! 

Elizabethan Era

In the 16th century, Venetian ceruse (which contained lead) was used to create a very pale, white complexion. It was expensive but also highly toxic. We don’t know whether Queen Elizabeth I used ceruse or a similar lead concoction to cover her smallpox scars. But we do know that she, like many people of the era, slowly poisoned herself over time. Other popular cosmetic fashions of the day included bright red lips (created using beeswax and plant dyes) and a high hairline, which required lots of plucking. Ouch! 

18th Century France

This era was that of Madame Pompadour, Marie Antoinette and elaborate, powdered wigs. A pale complexion was the trend that just refused to die. But French high society also embraced rouge, lipstick and beauty patches, before heavy makeup became less popular towards the end of the century. 


During the Victorian era, makeup had been denounced (by Queen Victoria herself!) as vulgar and unladylike.  But in the 1920s – a time of silent movies and female liberation – makeup came to be seen as something fun and empowering. Makeup was suddenly available to the masses, popularised by big-name makeup artists like Max Factor. 

When it came to application, women took inspiration from their favourite movie stars. Dark, sooty eyes and rosebud mouths were in. And so was tanned skin! The centuries-long fashion for pale complexions was turned on its head when Coco Chanel sported a tan following a Mediterranean cruise.


During the Second World War, cosmetics were in short supply. However, wartime propaganda told women that “beauty was their duty”. Lipstick was promoted as a morale booster! Many a makeup artist and manufacturer produced bold red shades during the war years. And they had names like Jeep Red and Commando. 


In the 1960s the mod era began. And makeup was all about the eyes.  False lashes and plenty of mascara – as regularly seen on sixties icon, Twiggy – were used to create large, doll-like eyes.  This look took inspiration from the eye makeup of the 1920s and started a very 20th century trend for retro styling. 

Mid to late 20th Century

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, makeup looks changed regularly and dramatically. During the 1970s, the feminist movement came to the fore and many women adopted a pared-back, natural makeup look that felt more in keeping with the issues of the day. 

Disco and glam rock saw male music artists sporting daring makeup styles. And then David Bowie alongside his Ziggy Stardust alter ego took things to a whole new level. During the 1980s bright eyeshadows and bold lips were totally on-trend. And in the 1990s, makeup wearers tended to opt for one of two looks – natural makeup with a flawless complexion or the kohl eyes and dark lips associated with grunge.


Nowadays, a makeup artist can choose from a huge array of makeup styles – recycling makeup looks from history and picking up on completely new trends. Armed with makeup brushes and a little creative flair, we’re all freer than ever to use makeup as an everyday act of self-expression.



Inspired by these makeup looks from history? Ready to create some age-defining looks of your own? Why not brush up on your makeup artistry skills by signing up for a makeup course online? New Zealand Beauty School offers makeup courses covering a wide range of beauty therapies. Browse our courses our get in touch to find out more.

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