Style and elegance are as old as the world. The desire to please has led to great quantities of tricks and contrivances to replace the charms that Nature has forgotten, or to perpetuate them when they are prematurely disappearing.
The use of cosmetics and perfumes seems to have even preceded that of ablutions. Prehistoric men used to tattoo their skins. Good hygiene and cleanliness were praiseworthy, but decorating oneself and cultivating one’s charms could appear even more so.
In oriental Antiquity, perfumes have always held a large place. The Book of Esther initiates us into the curious noviciate undergone by the concubines of Assuerus, before being admitted to the royal bed. They were massaged with myrrhe oil for six months, and for another six months, with aromatic oils and diverse cosmetics employed by the women.
Egypt is the country of Antiquity which consumed the most makeup and pomades. At least, we can suppose it, because of the enormous quantity of little toiletry tools found in the tombs. These only concerned a social elite and courtiers. But it is very probable that the women of humbler origins also had their beauty recipes.
Antimony, but also lead sulphide, were used to blacken the eyelids. The Egyptian woman plunged a needle of ebony or ivory into a sheath containing stein-t or khol, and drew two black lines which made her eyes look bigger, while giving softness and brightness to her expression.
Then she was presented with a compartmented box, from which she took in turn, white, which corrected the brown tone of her skin, red, which put freshness into her cheeks, blue, which traced veins on her forehead, carmin, which revived the red of her lips, and henna, which gave her fingers the orangey tints of dawn. A wig completed the operation.
Assyrian women must have proceeded in a similar manner, for the vases found in the ruins contained diverse whites and reds for the face, and the stein-t of the Egyptians. This makeup will be given the name of stibium by the Romans.
Judith, the stunning widowed beauty, enumerates for us the different things which she used, before introducing herself into the presence of Holophern. She removes her cilice and her mourning clothes, plunges into a bath, decorates her hair, takes a mitre, festival clothes, sandals, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings, jewels, kneels, asking God to make her irresistible, and rises from prayer, transfigured. She is now sure of conquering.
In Antinoe, a town of Hellenic origin, toiletry accessories were found. There were handkerchiefs, mirrors in silver or plaster frames, ivory pins for fixing hair, ivory pots containing makeup and pastes, bottles still full of antimony, sheaths of collyrium, needles destined to underline the eyes…
To make their eyes brighter, the women of Antinoe drew blue lines on the edges of their eyelids. Another line horizontally joined the external angle of the eye to the temple. Thin at the beginning, it thickened slightly, as it went under the hair.
This art of painting and decorating the face came firstly from tattooing, rather than from makeup. Geometrical figures, parallel lines, circles, radiant halos, cruciformed rosaces covered the whole body absolutely symetrically. These designs probably came from Ancient Egypt.
The Greeks spent more time on physical exercises than on toiletry tricks. Athenian women however, used white and red cosmetics, and the Egyptian khol. But, unlike them, they did not use other colours, such as green, blue and yellow. On the other hand, they excelled in the art of nuancing the basic colours to obtain a whole range of beiges, pinks, oranges and browns.
An episode in the life of Phryne gives us a precious illustration of the excessive use of cosmetics. After a supper given by Praxitele, the famous sculptor, the guests started to play kings. Men and women, one after the other, gave orders which had to be executed by everyone present.
When Phryne’s turn came, she decided to have clean water brought, and ordered all the women to wash their faces. So, while Phryne’s face shone in all its glory, the other women presented a lamentable sight.
It is almost upon leaving their beds, as yet unseen by anyone, that the Greek women proceeded to their adornment. This was finished when the edifice of hair was in place, the eyes were made bigger by khol, and the cheeks illuminated by vermilion, to correct an excessive paleness of the skin.
As in romantic times, women were supposed to look pale. For the Roman ladies, on the other hand, a complexion too pale was the indication of poor health. They therefore tried to obtain a rosy glow and, as Ovid says, “the light vermilion which blood refused, is given by art”.
As well as a daily bath, considered by the Greeks as an indispensable hygienic practice, the women had the habit of anointing their whole bodies with solid or liquid perfumes, pomades or oils. Living in a deeply misogynistic society, Greek women were violently condemned, particularly by satirists, for the use of all of these cosmetics.
The men reproached them their oisivety, which gave them so much time for makeup. They also saw sacrilege in this determination to modify Nature.
Second part tomorrow.