The Changing Faces of Makeup: When Makeup was a Taboo
July 17, 2020
John Galliano Fall/Winter 2009
Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Let’s rewind the clock back to ancient times. Though in Egypt, makeup was not exclusive to women, it had become a signifier of femininity in Greece around 1000BC. It was here where makeup, especially lipstick, became associated with prostitution and was even met with the implementation of legal regulations, as it was seen to deceive men by seducing them into improper acts and unlawful marriages. These women could even face witchcraft charges for their use of deception through makeup—now, who knows what highlighter they were using but it must have had a very dazzling effect back then.

Following on to the Roman Empire, where makeup represented social status and was not only for women as the colour of lip paint indicated the social ranking of men. By 100 AD makeup was highly popular with the Romans, with Kohl being used to darken eyelashes, rouge used on the cheeks and even chalk to whiten the skin.


When we fast forward to England in the Middle Ages, we can see a marked change in the perspectives of makeup, and religion coming into the conversation. Until the 15th century, women could use makeup without legal restrictions, even though certain churches objected to its usage as it was seen as the workings of Satan since the process of ‘altering’ facial features was viewed as challenging the work of God.

John Galliano Fall/Winter 2009, Renaissance Inspired

From the 1500s, a link was forged between makeup and supposed magical powers, propagated even by Queen Elizabeth I, who thought lipstick in particular could repel death and save lives. She applied it when she fell ill and died with about half an inch of lipstick on. Her conviction clearly did not work.

This link between makeup and magic unsurprisingly caused uproar from the Church and the State who declared makeup usage sinful and worthy of confession. Parliament eventually made a law that if the use of makeup was responsible for deceiving men into marriage it would be declared witchcraft and liable to full punishment. The laws and regulations that were once in place in Ancient Greece rose again.


In the 17th century people from different social classes wore different shades of lipstick due to the cost of ingredients, with the richest in society wearing a bright cherry red and the lower ranks of people wearing a duller ochre red. Even at this point makeup was not linked exclusively to femininity as the gentlemen of society wore makeup too.


Going into the 18th century, the freedom to use any kind of appearance-altering product was taken away from women and women alone. Parliament made their rulings even more restrictive for women, as they would face charges if they seduced men into marriage through the use of not only makeup, but perfumes, false hair and high-heeled shoes.

Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby by Philip Alexius de Laslzo

Victorian England brought forth the desire for natural beauty, and as a result makeup was greatly looked down upon as being ill-mannered and was deemed socially unacceptable for everyone but actresses and prostitutes.

This all changed in the 1880s as makeup was deemed more socially acceptable. Women began using dangerous lead-based face powders to whiten their complexions, and due to the concern that women were being poisoned safer ingredients were used by the end of the 19th century. The introduction of films and actresses with heavy makeup popularised makeup and boosted commercial sales. In 1909, L’Oréal was founded and remains the largest cosmetics corporation globally.  

Rita Hayworth in the 1950s

Today, we still see remnants of the history of oppression of women through makeup, with beliefs still being held that women wear makeup solely for the benefit or deception of men. ‘Too much’ makeup can still lead to a woman being called a whore and a liar, with memes such as “take your girl swimming on the first date” being popularised. Makeup is still linked to sexuality and femininity and it is still unclear what makeup will be deemed socially acceptable, and what makeup will label you as looking like a prostitute. The verdict is unfortunately still out.