views updated May 23 2018

make-up, or cosmetics, along with clothing fashions, jewellery, body piercing, tattooing, and hair adornment, is one of the many forms of body decoration regularly practised around the world. Like hairstyles and clothing fashions, make-up is usually a temporary form of adornment, one that can be washed off and changed at will. Make-up usually involves painting or dyeing the skin of the face, hands, feet, or other body part in normative patterns and colours, which vary across cultures and time periods. Western make-up since about the time of the Roman Empire has had two main purposes: to remedy some deficiency of nature, supposed or actual, and to keep up with contemporary fashion.

Current Western body ideals emphasize high cheekbones, bright eyes, smooth skin, and full lips. Women use foundation or concealer to diminish fine lines and hide blemishes, freckles, or other skin markings in order to make facial skin appear young, fresh, and pure. Blusher is often applied in successively darker shades beneath the cheekbone to create the appearance of high cheekbones, while eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara outline and deepen the eyes, making them appear brighter and more distinct. Lips are lined and painted to make them appear fuller and darker. All of these techniques help to accentuate what we see as women's sexual cues and increase a woman's sexual desirability — assuming, of course, a moderate application.

Although we often think of make-up as something which serves to extend natural possibilities of the body, fashion often dictates make-up trends which differ markedly from subtle enhancement. Green, white, or black lipstick, blue mascara, body glitter, and stark applications of strong shades highlight both the artificiality of make-up application and its trendiness. Make-up can thus serve to indicate membership in social subcultures, such as Goth or rave culture, or to advertise a person's identity as fashionable or hip.

Make-up has a long history, both as a fashionable marker and as a highly marketed commodity. Ancient Egyptians had a highly developed art of make-up, especially for the ruling class; different shades of eyeshadow were appropriate to different times of year, and different times of day called for different tones to complement the strong desert light. Make-up was so important, in fact, that mummies were often buried with make-up for the afterlife. While early saints condemned women for cosmetics, European noblewomen frequently painted their faces; Elizabethan court women used pastes of white lead and vinegar to create a very pale face (as well as significant health problems), and vermilion, a mercuric sulfide, to create very red cheeks and lips. Later Englishwomen followed different make-up fashions that often included very pale skin of varying shades, and bright cheeks and lips; this palette of red and white was established in the medieval period over other popular colours such as green.

While the east Asian cultures of Japan and China produced make-up traditions that were similar to those of Europe, other non-Western cultures frequently used make-up in ways that did not mimic natural bodily forms. Middle Eastern women have historically used henna to paint designs on their hands and feet, while also rimming their eyes with kohl to reduce the glare of the equatorial sun. South Pacific islanders painted their faces and bodies with ochre, while ancient Britons of both sexes stained their skin with woad (a blue dye). Hair dyeing in colours of blue, green, orange, or purple was also common in different cultures. One explanation for the dramatic face-painting of many diverse cultures was that the ‘devil masks’ scared away evil spirits who might otherwise do harm. Another was that certain patterns and colours resonated with cosmological figures who might then bestow beneficence.

Today we associate make-up primarily with women, but historically men also used cosmetics. Besides the face-painting of warriors in a wide range of cultures, Western noblemen, especially kings, practised an art of make-up that included face-painting and the blackening of eyebrows and moustaches with burnt cork. Even when fashionable, men's make-up has often been judged frivolous and demeaning; privileged young men or dandies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were called ‘Macaronis’ (hence the lyrics to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’).

Make-up's dramatic transformative properties are best on display in the work of stage and screen make-up artists, who use a variety of make-up supplies and techniques to change a given actor or actress into a particular character, altering age, ethnicity, and sexual identity at one stroke. While this allows convincing portrayals of a wide range of characters, and even monsters of various sorts, it also highlights the ways in which make-up is used as a way to present an identity to the world at large. Stage make-up is necessarily heavy, in order to be seen, and seen as natural, by the audience. Outside of a dramatic context, however, heavy make-up is usually associated with prostitution, and even light make-up was long associated with the courtesan. Jezebel, in the Old Testament of the Bible, was perhaps the first ‘painted lady’ but royal mistresses in England and France often led make-up trends, and even an Aztec father admonished his daughter, ‘Never make up your face nor paint it; never put red on your mouth to look beautiful. Make-up and paint are things that light women use — shameless creatures.’ Both make-up and prostitution are associated with a heightened sexuality; while we expect adults and even teens to wear some make-up, make-up on young girls, unless clearly in the context of make-believe and dress-up, is often seen as shocking and irresponsible. It seems natural and obvious today that make-up is used to bolster the natural attributes of a female face to make her more desirable. Make-up's long history, however, suggests that it can be, and often is, used for very different purposes.

Julie Vedder


Angeloglou, M. (1970). A history of makeup. Macmillan, New York.
Wykes-Joyce, M. (1961). Cosmetics and adornment: ancient and contemporary usage. Philosophical Library, New York.

See also body decoration; body mutilation and markings; face; fashion.


views updated May 18 2018

MakeUp ★★ 1937

A doctor turned circus clown uses his medical skills when an elephant renders a society girl unconscious. After she awakens the two become involved. The clown's daughter objects, but is soon caught up in an accusation that she murdered the lion tamer. Her father the clown tries to save the day. Predictable doctor/clown relationship. 72m/B VHS . Nils Asther, June Clyde, Judy Kelly, Kenne Duncan, John Turnbull; D: Alfred Zeisler.