A brief history of cosmetics 2: Dark Ages to mid-20th century | BareFacedTruth.com

A brief history of cosmetics 2: Dark Ages to mid-20th century

We continue our multi-part series on the history of cosmetics with this view of the dark ages through the mid-20th century.

A woman without paint is like food without salt.”   

                  Plautus, Roman philosopher

Throughout recorded history (and certainly before), cosmetics and skin care products have been synonymous with women. In the developed world, women on average use 12 personal care products daily – they are an indispensable part of a woman’s life in all cultures. They are also huge business. Cosmetics sales are $170 billion a year, distributed fairly uniformly around the world – $40 billion in the Americas, $60 billion in Europe, $60 billion in Australia & Asia, and $10 billion in Africa. The Western world spends a bit more per person but India and Asia are quickly catching up.

Cosmetics Come to Medieval Europe

Although women of higher station in ancient Greece and Rome were regular users of cosmetics, the tradition was actually an adopted one from the ancient Egyptian culture.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was not until the middle ages that the use of cosmetics again became common. Unlike in Egypt, however, where cosmetic use was among all classes, cosmetics in Europe were an elite affair reserved for the “gentle classes”.  Commoners did not have access to such luxuries.

Their adoption was not without vocal opposition from certain cultural segments. In medieval times, many church leaders in the Europe thought makeup was sinful and immoral. The church was a powerful political as well as cultural influence and religious opposition to use of cosmetics was significant. Biblical references to vanity and harlotry (prostitution) frequently included descriptions of painted faces on women. Cosmetics use and loose morals became synonymous.

For a period, the church outlawed cosmetics and their use was only found in brothels. After all, the respectability of enhancing female physical allure was in stark counterpoint to the goal of spiritual elevation and forsaking of the carnal world.  Unadorned flesh was difficult enough to resist. How could it possibly be permissible to deliberately enhance one’s (sexual and otherwise) attraction? Sensible question, given the premise, but hardly a sustainable position as women enjoy looking attractive to men, and men enjoy looking at attractive women.

We know cosmetics were used to enhance female appearance during medieval times. The statue at right is dated to 1350 and shows a well-made up woman, her skin fashionably pale with plucked eyebrows, high hairline and round forehead and a rosy glow which could not be due to anything other than a generous amount of rouge.

So, what happened? Simple, the clergy made exceptions. Women afflicted with illness that made them unattractive were excused from the sin of vanity if they used cosmetics. The desire to not repel others or their husbands was deemed an acceptable reason for cosmetic enhancement.

No less than Thomas of Aquinas grudgingly conceded that a woman should make herself as attractive as possible to her husband so that he might not stray into the sin of adultery. Caution should be used, however, to not become so beautiful that she might attract other women’s husbands. Once exceptions were made, they eventually and predictably became the rule.

By the 12th century, cosmetics were in regular use in Europe. Because of the nature of their ingredients, cosmetics and many skin care preparations were dispensed by apothecaries and doctors. Clear skin was held in particular high esteem because frequent smallpox epidemics left many of the population with unattractive pockmarks.

Allure of the Paleface

For centuries, those rich enough not to work outdoors wanted to draw contrast to the suntanned skin of the field hand. Paleness indicated a woman of superior breeding and the tanned look that many associate with health today was associated with outdoor work and therefore a low birth. Thus smooth white skin was regarded in the medieval period as the most beautiful of all kinds.

Women whitened their faces with wheat flour or lead based paints, some of which contained significant amounts of arsenic.  Women died. The incidental damage inflicted by the arsenic was unintentional— but not always.

Aqua Toffana, named after its creator, Signora Toffana, was an arsenic containing face powder designed for women from rich families. The container directed women to visit the signora for proper usage instructions. During the visit, women would be instructed to be sure never to ingest the makeup, but to apply it to their cheeks when their husbands were around. After many kissed cheeks, six hundred husbands were dead leaving many wealthy widows. Slow but eventually effective detective work ultimately resulted in the execution of Signora Toffana – the original “femme fatal”.

During the Italian Renaissance, women also wore lead paint on their faces and many Italian women wore pink lipstick to show they could afford “synthetic’ makeup.  The eyebrows are made very thin and in some cases they disappear. even the forehead is depilated to leave more dimension in the face. the eyes make up with khöl and the rouge tends to gránate.

In Spain, prostitutes deliberately distinguished themselves from pale-faced high society by wearing pink makeup.

Queen Elizabeth I of England, often depicted in paintings as having a very pale complexion, was a well-known user of white lead. Her so-called “Mask of Youth” is seen in nearly all her portraits. Pale looking skin was so important to some women that they underwent “bleeding” to achieve it, often at their own hand.

During the French Restoration in the 18th century, red rouge and lipstick were the rage of the aristocracy and implied a healthy, fun-loving spirit. This stuck inFrance, but eventually people in other countries became repulsed by excessive makeup use and said the painted French must be unattractive because they obviously had something to hide. After the French Revolution, the repulsion of the masses towards the excesses of the French Royal Court made use of makeup uncommon for a period time.

When makeup regained acceptance in the late 19th century, it was with natural tones so that the healthy, pink-cheeked look could be achieved without giving in to the moral decadence of full makeup, which was still seen as sinful. At the turn of the 20th century, women continued to covet pale white skin. Some went so far as to ingest Arsenic Complexion Wafers produced by several “doctors”. The resultant anemia left the skin pale, as well as affecting every other organ with potential oxygen deprivation.

Cosmetics Go Mainstream

During the 19th century, there were profound changes in the production of cosmetics. New methods of manufacture and safer chemicals and natural ingredients were incorporated. Zinc oxide was used as a cosmetic base and the use of lead and copper was abolished. At the end of the 19th century, the first beauty salons were set up.

Use of makeup cosmetics accelerated in the late 1920’s and early 1930s after actresses and theater artists started using it in their films. Sarah Bernhardt and Jean Harlow spearheaded the so-called cosmetic movement and made the use of cosmetics fashionable. The cosmetics industry grew rapidly. Advertising expenditure on radio went from $300,000 to $3.2 million between 1927 and 1930. At first, many women’s magazines refused advertisements for cosmetics, but by the end of the ’20s, cosmetics provided one of their largest sources of advertising revenue. After World War II, there was rapid growth in the cosmetic industry as more and more women started using cosmetics. They were soon and forever after, part of every woman’s life.


Highlights in the Evolution of the Modern Cosmetics and Beauty Industry

1900: Black entrepreneur Annie Turnbo begins selling hair treatments, including non-damaging hair straighteners, hair growers, and hair conditioners door-to-door.

1904: Max Factor migrates from Lodz, Poland, to the United States, and four years later to Los Angeles, where he sells make-up to movie stars that does not cake or crack.

1909: French chemist Eugene Schueller develops the first safe commercial hair dye. In 1910, he names his company L’Oreal.

1905: Sarah McWilliams begins to sell a hair grower door-to-door. After she married Charles J. Walker, she became known as Madam C.J. Walker and incorporated her company in Indianapolis in 1911.

1909: Florence Graham and cosmetologist Elizabeth Hubbard open a salon onFifth Avenue inNew York, which Graham will rename Elizabeth Arden.

1914: T.J. Williams founds Maybelline, which specializes in mascaras.

1915: Lipstick is introduced in cylindrical metal tubes.

1922: The bobby pin is invented to manage short (bobbed) hair.

1932: Charles and Joseph Revson, nail polish distributors, and Charles Lackman, a nail polisher supplier found Revlon.

1932:Lawrence Gelb, a New York chemist, brings home fromParis a hair color product that penetrates the hair shaft, and starts a company called Clairol.

1933: A new method for permanent waving, using chemical, which doesn’t require electricity or machines, is introduced.

1935: Pan-cake makeup, originally developed to look natural on color film, was created by Max Factor.

1941: Aerosols are patented, paving the way for hair spray.

1944: A Miami Beach pharmacist, Benjamin Green, develops sunscreen to protect soldiers in the South Pacific.

1958: Mascara wands debut, eliminating the need of applying mascara with a brush.

1961: Cover Girl make-up, one of the first brands sold in grocery stores and targeted to teens, is introduced by Noxema.

1963: Revlon offers the first powdered blush-on.


Coming up next in this series: a look at beauty and cosmetic trends during the 2nd half of the 20th century. Another revolution– this time in advertising.


  1. ana says:

    Thank you for the informative article. It was a good read 🙂

    “No less than Thomas of Aquinas grudgingly conceded that a woman should make herself as attractive as possible to her husband so that he might not stray into the sin of adultery.” <- This made me smile as well.

  2. Vonnie says:

    Hi, thank you for this information. Love your site. Could you please publish your historical sources on makeup for this article? I’ll be needing proof positive for a dispensation to wear makeup before this years Medieval festival 😉

    • Drgeorge says:

      Thanks for your inquiry, Vonnie. BFT is pleased that so many readers find our efforts both educating and entertaining. If you’re planning a medieval festival countenance that is historically accurate, my suggestion is to Google the terms “medieval makeup” and many sources and references appear, including Youtube demonstrations. I am sure you will find abundant inspiration for your needs, everything from aristocratic women of the court to the most humble peasant. Whatever you choose to do, consider sending us a photo.

  3. bree says:

    Thanks this really helped with my report for Cosmetology.

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