The pursuit of beauty is no modern phenomenon – many ancient civilizations considered beauty a gift from the gods, and as such it brought influence and power. No other people were more obsessed by appearance than the ancient Greeks, whose entire culture revolved around the worship of the ultimate human form. Men even more than women dedicated their whole lives to achieving physical perfection – even if it killed them. For while the fashionable white face paint sported by the upper classes was made of poisonous lead, those who were literally dying to remove unwanted hair used orpiment (a derivative of arsenic) to make a depilatory.
There is hardly an item of make-up or a cosmetic treatment that exists today that was not first used in ancient Egypt. As far back as 10,000 be both men and women were sprinkling themselves with deliciously scented oils, and using paint and coloured powders to enhance their features. They rouged their lips and cheeks, painted their hands and feet with henna, traced the veins
on their breasts with blue dye, and shone out at festivities with gold painted nipples. The kohl-eyed look (reinvented for the modern world by Mary Quant in the 1960s) was originally the trademark of Cleopatra.
The beauty business is as old as humanity – a proper cosmetics industry was in full swing by the time of the Pharaohs. Cosmetics makers (often priests) would obtain mined chunks of coloured pigment, then sell it in palettes that Shu Uemura would be proud of. Yellow and orange ochre was used as face paint, while green eyeshadow (made ofverdigris and resin) was a favourite eye opener. Powders and pastes were sold in tubes or jars and, just like today, women would gather around cosmetics counters eager to try out new products.
Being beautiful has never come cheap – high prices were asked for nut- and almond-oil skincare lotions, hair dye made of cow’s blood and tortoiseshell, and mirrors made of polished metals. This made cosmetics the privilege (and thus also the outward sign) of the wealthy upper classes. Only the highest echelons of society could indulge in face creams made of bullock’s bile and ostrich eggs, masks produced from crocodile excrement and wrinkle creams made from genital extracts. No wonder they were so keen that these treasures accompany them in the afterlife.
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