Makeup Through the Ages

Editor's note: We may think our eyelash curlers and spray tans are unusual, but they've got nothin on the cosmetic trends of years gone by. Our resident art buff takes us through the ages to explore some famous muses and just what they did to captivate an artist's eye.

By Lauren McGinty


Nefertiti, wife to the Pharaoh Akhenaten, is still regarded as one of the most beautiful women that has ever been immortalized in a work of art. Why? It’s obvi. Just check out her regal bearing, elongated neck and perfectly proportioned features that were captured over 3,300 years ago in this limestone bust. Ever creative with their natural plants and minerals, the Egyptians were slaves to beauty and hygiene. They would anoint their bodies with oils, and slather their wigs (yes, wigs) with scented waxes. They would bathe constantly and never leave the house without the perfect kohl lined cat-eye and artfully darkened lashes. Did I mention that all of this was true of the men, as well? The male half of the Egyptian elite were no strangers to the herbs, powders, and tonics that beautified (and mummified) their female counterparts. Beauty wasn’t a fad, or a superfluous regime for the vain…it was a way of life for the Egyptians, and that life was beautiful.

Marie Antoinette:

We’ve all be regaled with stories of Marie Antoinette’s, and fellow 18th century court-dweller’s, towering hairdos. They were massive, they were powdered, and they sometimes even caught fire on the lamps. But of their makeup? Less is spoken. This may be because women of this era frequently suffered from smallpox, and hence also suffered from the pits and scars from said smallpox. So, what did they do to create the smooth alabaster skin we now glimpse in their portraits? They slathered on thick, lead-based makeup that resembled plaster and slowly poisoned them. And those charming little black ‘beauty spots’ that were so common in this era? They were also strategically used to cover pockmarks. On top of this, a rosy blush was generously applied to the apples of cheeks, and scented pomades were spread over lips for a subtle sheen that whispered of rose gardens and satin bed sheets. (Pictured: A portrait of the Queen by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty at 20 years old).

Madame X:


This portrait of Virginie Gautreau was an absolute scandal. It rocked the French upper class when it debuted at the Salon of 1884 and threw its 24-year old subject, and its painter John Singer Sargent, into the social abyss. With modern eyes we can now gaze at this comparably demure work and simply see a full-length gown and statuesque lady. On the other hand, 19th century scandal-mongers saw a whole lotta skin, a brazen pose, and a decidedly realistic approach to portraying a contemporary woman. That ghostly pallor of Mrs. Gautreau’s that seems to practically glow? That was truly how it appeared, as she was known to sip arsenic to achieve the pallid complexion considered so fashionable at the time. On top of that, she would powder herself with a violet-hued concoction, as she thought it made her auburn hair (courtesy of henna dye) pop. And do you notice how her exposed ear seems be flushed? That is because she rouged them with a carmine stain. Still not too sure on why that was though…

Vargas Girls:

With the forties came war. With war came rationing. With rationing came innovation. While they were scrimping, saving and working overtime in the factories, women of the forties did not give up on their beauty routines, they simply modified them. Money was tight and supplies were scarce, so women began making due with the few household items they could afford to exploit for their personal gains. They exfoliated with sugar and water. They used Vaseline to make their eyelids sparkle and their hands supple. And if they didn’t have blush, well, they would just use their lipsticks to tint their cheeks instead. This woman of extreme femininity and defined features is best exemplified by the infamous pin-ups known as ‘Vargas Girls.’ With her saucy red pucker, and penciled-in brows, this lady shouts that she is ready to take charge while the boys are away, and look good while doing it.

Marilyn Minter:

How do I describe modern makeup? With scientific advances, and a plethora of possibilities that far exceed any point in history, our options seem rather endless. Our eyelashes are bigger than ever before (thank you, falsies) and our lips plumper (it burns so good). We can straighten, or curl, our hair in minutes…and then deep condition it into fruity-smelling submission. We bronze, we glitter, we mattify and highlight. So lather on that gloss ladies, it supposedly lasts 12 hours now!