Before the classical era, ‘beauty norms’ did not exist therefore, for all the time before this period, we can only observe documented sources and look at how ancient populations attempted to make their physical aspects more attractive.
3500 years before Christ, the Egyptians used to import essential oils and useful minerals from the Far East for the production of ointments and perfumes. Priests used to manufacture and conserve time, oregano, myrrh, incense and lavender and sesame, olive and almond oils in vases made from alabaster. These products, whose primary function was for mummification, were also used for massaging the bodies of people (who were still alive!) after bathing and to prevent them from perspiring.
The use of these ointments was then adopted by other populations in the Mediterranean and the cosmetics also became very popular amongst men and women. Antimony was the main ingredient used to create eye make-up (kohl), and it was applied to make the eyes stand out by highlighting the eyelashes and eyebrows, and henna was used to paint the finger and toe nails. Even the ancient Mesopotamians, both men and women, used eye make-up, cosmetics and wigs, whilst the customs of the Hebrews were very moderate as they only used oils and ointments and not cosmetics.
THE CLASSICAL ERA
The concept of beauty from this period is still quite vague: in Homer’s works it was attributed that the Gods and heroes represent physical perfection: well-proportioned and powerful limbs, if they are male, or pink cheeks, blue eyes and white arms, if they are female.
It is necessary to move forward to the 5th century B.C. to see the realisation of the aesthetic theory that had been developed, as exemplified in sculptures by Myron, Phidias or Polycleitus: a body is beautiful when each part of it is in proportion to the overall size. An athlete was the preferred subject for classic sculptors and this became the model which represented the Gods too; for athletes and Gods, moral qualities, such as self-control, courage, internal equilibrium and will, combined to create the norms of perfection: common mortals had to measure themselves against superior beings.
Rose, jasmine and spikenard oils were used by men and women to grease their bodies and hair after bathing and during banquets and women of all ages glammed themselves up with a white lead based cream produced in Rhodes (the use of this ‘glamming up’ was forbidden during times of mourning and ceremonies connected to the mystery of Demeter however).
After conquering Greece (146 B.C.), the Romans learnt to look after their physical
aspects too and adopted the aesthetic norms and customs of the conquered population.
‘Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit’ that is ‘captive Greece took captive her
In the 1st century B.C. Vitruvius wrote, ‘…nature has so planned the human body that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the body…, a third part of the height of the face is from the bottom of the chin to the bottom of the nostrils; the nose from the bottom of the nostrils to the line between the brows, as much; from that line to the roots of the hair, the forehead is given as the third part…’ It is the same theory as the perfection expressed by Greek sculptors.
The refined habits of the Greeks and Eastern cultures heavily influenced the Roman customs during the times of the Roman Empire and paintings from this period show us how and what make-up women used to make themselves more attractive. In fact they even published beauty manuals (for example, ‘De medicamine faciei feminae’ that is ‘Women’s facial cosmetics’, by Ovid), in which it was recommended to use cerussite, a white lead product from Rhodes, to hide any imperfections on the skin, fucus or purpurissm to give colour to the face and lips and fuligo to darken the eyebrows and eyelashes and highlight the eyes. The Romans even used hair removal creams made from oil, resin, tar and caustic substances and dyed their hair bright red if they had dark hair.
In Rome, the use of soap was unknown and, even though a certain woman from the imperial family (see Poppaea) was famous for bathing in donkey’s milk because it made her skin white and smooth, everybody used either soda, very fine clay or even bean curd as soap and, after bathing, they massaged their bodies with olive oil to protect themselves from the cold, as Plinius reported.
With the arrival of Christianity, the new, purely spiritual values that it offered tended to stop the quest for physical beauty and Tertullian (2nd century A.D.), in his treatise ‘De cultu feminarum’, condemned the aesthetic habits of women as sinful.
THE MIDDLE AGES
The invasion of the North-Eastern populations of Europe and the overwhelming
cultural change that happened when the Roman Empire ended made everything that
was not a primary need superfluous: classic, aesthetic models no longer made sense
and the invaders proposed using butter acid to make the hair shiny. However, these
conquerors were also slowly dominated by the civilisation of the conquered population.
To find a touch of good taste again, it is necessary to move forward to the feudal period (10th century A.D.) when a polite, cultural model, which came from the provincial French castles and which bought back a certain politeness to civilisation, was taken on by the people. A new wave of values came with this model, amongst which was the appreciation of beauty (especially female beauty), enhanced by troubadours who, by travelling from court to court, increased the fame of beautiful castles with their songs and, without knowing it, contributed to creating new beauty norms, although these were almost exclusively for females. The model refers to a Nordic beauty that arose first through literature, and then through military conquests: a pale complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes (which were characteristics of Normans and Suebi) condemned the common, typically Mediterranean, dark colouring as being inferior.
"Blond was he, beautiful, and of noble aspect …" said Dante, when he introduced Manfred of Sicily.
Beauty manuals were once again written and they suggested how women could make their faces pale and smooth (with white lead, alum, borax, lemon, vinegar and egg whites), dye their hair blonde (with vegetable and mineral based dyes and lotions), paint their lips (with red lead and saffron) and bleach their teeth (with sage).
Although Christian morals condemned these customs (see Jacopone da Todi in the lauda ‘L’ornamento delle donne dannoso’), or allowing the frown of moral disgust to give way to a smile (see Boccaccio in ‘The Crow (Corbaccio)’), or following fashion trends, women prepared their cosmetics themselves if they were not able go to a ‘haberdashery’.
Admiration of beauty, thought of as perfection and harmony, bought back to society
classic beauty norms and the necessity to seek out essential remedies to perfect
that that was not considered perfect.
In 1562, G. Mariniello wrote his first treatise on cosmetology (‘Gli ornamenti delle donne’) and it is not a coincidence that it was an Italian who did this: in Italy, a life style that celebrates the beauty of the body predominated and Italians are the first producers of perfume in the world. Thanks to Venetian and Florentine merchants, precious substances from the East were immersed onto the markets to satisfy the aspirations of men and women who were eager to please and be pleased; a true fad for cosmetics and perfumes arose amongst the upper classes: vaporisation of mercury, putting raw steaks on the skin and recipes secretly prepared and reserved for a special few allowed women from aristocratic courts to obtain that look that artists such as Botticelli or Tiziano have eternalised.
When Catherine de Medici married the King of France, she took her own, personal perfumer with her to Paris and this led to the local production of cosmetics (in the second half of 1500).
This was the era of powdered faces, fake wigs, shoulder pads and cleavages.
Ladies and noblemen took a long time at the dressing table: they needed to prepare their faces with a small amount of water and perfumed alcohol. On top of this, an ointment, made from almond paste and lamb fat, was applied followed by a white lead cosmetic. The face then became a canvas on which kohl was used to redesign the eyes and eyebrows and a red liquid was painted on (in 12 shades!) to give themselves some colour. They even used a blue product to highlight their veins.
The model of beauty always came from the courts, especially French courts, and in Paris Mademoiselle Martin, a perfume producer, was the judge of female elegance.
To promptly satisfy the aesthetic needs of the courtesans, make-up bags became available, which contained white and red cosmetics, lip liners and wigs.
However, in 1770, in England, a decree was issued according to which, any woman who had won the heart of a man with fake hair, high heels, perfume or cosmetics would be condemned a witch and the marriage would be annulled.
THE CONTEMPORARY ERA
The radical changes caused by the French revolution and the arrival of the middle class bought new models and customs to society. The practical spirit of the middle class was immune from splendour and excessive needs. In fact the strong ideals of Romanticism bought out the inner feelings of men and women whose physical aspects were mirrored by tormented and worried soles:
A furrowed brow, eyes staring and sunk deep; hair tawny, cheekbones showing through, bold-faced; lips that are full and red, with gleaming teeth; head bent, a fine-set neck and a broad chest; good limbs…
Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) described himself like this; a charming example of a man from this
Real life became the subject of art and this bought to the fore the lower classes and, for the first time in history, the beauty within people plagued with tuberculosis and that of silk spinners, laundresses and seamstresses, farmers and fishermen.
A relative sobriety of the middle class customs involved the upper classes: beauty was no longer expressed with obvious ‘touch ups’ and garish garments, which became connected to prostitutes.
Industrial progress gave birth to the first cosmetic industries and in 1890 Madame Lucas opened the Maison de Beauté (House of Beauty) in Paris.
The 20th century saw dramatic scenarios: the First World War bought death and famine to Europe and there was little beauty to speak of; the same thing happened 20 years later during the Second World War. Between the two wars, the dictatorship in Italy and Germany, whilst planning the daily lives of the populations, proposed self-celebrating ideas: strong and handsome men, like the dictator, were made to be soldiers, and flourishing and prosperous woman were made to wives and mothers of soldiers. In the 1920s, however, for the first time in history, women wanted to cut their hair short, like men, and they abandoned long dresses, petticoats, corsets and bustles for dresses with soft, slinky lines and above all, hems on or above the knee. After the Second World War it was cinema, and particularly American cinema, that proposed the new beauty norms: vamp, platinum blondes, scrumptious brunettes or fiery red-heads, who were all very voluptuous, inspired fashion, different looks and the life style of women from all social classes, whilst for men the ideal was to be a strong, dark and handsome heartbreaker. The subsequent development of other types of media (television and newspapers in particular) gave way to new trends, which became more and more present, and the idea beauty norms originating from the theatre and catwalks.
Money, new discoveries in science, cosmetology, cosmetic surgery and medicine allow men and women from our era, who are in search of perfection, to fully change themselves to look like proposed models of absolute beauty, however, these models go out of fashion quite quickly…