2.1 The history of makeup

You only need to look at historic pieces of art or photos from the 1920s until now to see that makeup has come a long way in recent years. Some beauty trends will make a return whereas others stay in the past – which is a good thing! Every expert of their respective industry should have a firm understanding of where their craft originated and the progression of trends and styles through the ages.  Let’s take a closer look!

Historical makeup across the globe

Back in Ancient Egypt, both men and women wore makeup in a ritualistic way to imitate the gods, protect their skin from the sun and for hygiene reasons. The Ancient Egyptians were sophisticated chemists in their time; it wasn’t until 2010 that scientists discovered the antibacterial properties in Kohl! Some historians say that the reason everyone wore makeup in ancient Egypt, including those in the lower classes, was that they thought it helped protect them from the gods Ra and Horus. If you look back at Egyptian artworks, you will see that black eyeliner, which was made from galena (known as kohl), featured prominently on both men and women. The smoky eye look is said to have originated from Ancient Egypt, with Queen Cleopatra being an iconic symbol of beauty for this era.  

Women in Ancient Greece and Rome would whiten their skin with lead paint and chalk, and in Elizabethan times, women would actually paint on blue veins to emphasise the paleness of their skin or would apply lead paint to try and cover up pesky freckles!

The types of makeup trends differ depending on location, trends of the time and peoples standing in society. Pre-French revolution, aristocrats wore deep rouge colours on their cheeks as a symbol of status, but if you skip to Victorian times, this was seen as scandalous! The table below provides a brief overview of historical makeup trends:

Ancient Egypt (c3150 to 31 BC)If you ever pay close attention to Egyptian hieroglyphics, you will see that everyone is depicted to have almond-shaped eyes. We know from makeup applications today that perfectly placed eyeliner can help to achieve this look. In addition to kohl eyeliner and blue or green eyeshadow, the Egyptians also used red ochre to add a reddish/orange hue to their lips and cheeks.
Ancient Greece (c800 to 500 BC)Unibrows were on-trend in Ancient Greece, and some women drew on additional hairs to try and achieve this look. The Ancient Greeks tended to use subtle eye shadows and preferred natural beauty. Women would often lighten their skin because this was a symbol of being upper class. In those days, tanned skin was a result of working outside and would indicate you were of a lower class.
Elizabethan era (c1558 to 1603)In the Elizabethan era, only noblewomen could afford to wear makeup, and they were all trying to achieve pale skin and light coloured hair. They used a pale white powder, known as Venetian ceruse, which was a lead-based cosmetic (yikes!). In addition to pale skin, large foreheads were on-trend, and many women shaved their eyebrows and hairline to make their foreheads appear larger.
Pre- French revolution (c1775 to 1789)Back in the 1750’s British women opted for a more natural look, whereas French Aristocrats would apply more of a face paint with pale skin, large swashes of rouge and beauty spots. Believe it or not, they would actually add grease to their lips to make them shiny – thank goodness for lip gloss today! Mary Antionette is one of the most iconic associations with 18th Century trends. She was often seen with pale skin, rosy cheeks and a beauty spot.
Victorian era (c1837 -1901)When Queen Victoria reigned, clear skin and natural looks were on-trend. Beauty in this era was considered to be a pale face that was free from blemishes, freckles, or marks. Any colour was considered to be vulgar and morally corrupt. To achieve a subtle colour, women would often pinch their cheeks for blush or bite their lips to deepen the colour – ouch!

If you had a time machine, which period do you think you would want to revisit? If you love a bold look, perhaps Egyptian times or pre-French revolution would be suitable, or if you like a natural look, the Victorian era would be perfect!

If you would like to learn more about the history of makeup throughout the ages, you may like to access the resources linked:

Cultural makeup and body art

When we think of makeup, this can also extend to body painting. Cultural makeup has been a part of many societies since the dawn of time, and many cultures still use their traditional practices today. Here in Australia, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use body painting as a large part of their culture, ceremony and standing in the community for thousands and thousands of years. Body paintings have deep cultural and spiritual significance.

To make the paint, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples traditionally used ochre, charcoal, animal fat and pigments extracted from leaves and flowers. The designs and patterns will usually reflect community standing, ancestors and totem animals. There are very strict guidelines with regard to how the body paint is applied and who can apply the body paint. A person cannot change their body art design, and the designs are not applied by the individual. Patterns vary for different ceremonies, tribes and whether you are a man or a woman.

If you would like to learn more, watch the videos linked:

Let’s take a look at some other cultures and their use of body art and makeup:


With respect to our New Zealand neighbours, the Māori culture use tattoo art as a form of cultural significance. Tā moko – traditional Māori tattooing, was historically used to represent different tribes. The process of moko is scarring the skin to reflect the whakapapa (genealogy) of the Māori wearer. Since 1990, there has been a resurgence in the practice of tā moko for both men and women as a sign of cultural identity and a reflection of the general revival of the language and culture


In the Gupta Age in India (c 320 -550 AD), women work makeup to show power and strength. The eyes were usually lined with Kohl, and a rouge lip was on-trend. A Bindi was often worn in the middle of the forehead, which is said to be the 6th chakra or the third eye. The placement of a Bindi was usually associated with married women, and these days, they can be worn purely for decorative purpose without any religious or cultural affiliation.


A Geisha is a female entertainer and performer with origins dating back thousands of years. Geisha makeup includes painting the face white and the back of the neck white in the shape of a W. Geisha may also paint their hands and calves for certain performances.

Geisha makeup can take up to an hour to apply and will also include red lips in the shape of a budding flower and charcoal eyeliner with red accents on the lower lash line or outer corners. A Geisha’s appearance changes symbolically throughout her career, representing her training and seniority.


Africa has over 3000 tribes, and tribal makeup plays a key part in differentiating between groups, religions and is used to scare the enemy. Tribal painting has deep cultural and spiritual significance, and different symbols have different meanings. The colour black is usually a symbol of power or evil, whereas red is used for danger or urgency. The more intricate and complex the design is the higher your standing in the community.

Cultural makeup has deep significance, and you should consider whether or not it is appropriate before ever applying a cultural makeup on a client. Even if you are not intending to be disrespectful, copying designs or trying to emulate a culture can be seen as cultural appropriation.

Key phrase | Cultural appropriation: The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc., of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

As explained earlier, Aboriginal body art cannot be applied by everyone – it is a sacred practice that should not be performed by non-indigenous people. In addition to this, wearing of tā moko by a non-Māori person is considered to be cultural appropriation, and celebrities such as Robbie Williams and Ben Harper have experienced much controversy over the use of such designs. While it might be fun to try out new ideas and techniques, always be mindful of the traditional practices and respect other peoples cultures.

If you would like to learn more about cultural makeup and body art, access the resources linked below:

Timeline from the 1920’s to today

Now that we have covered historical makeup across the global and sacred cultural practices let’s fast forward to the twentieth century. In each decade of the twentieth century, as cosmetics and products developed, so did styles and trends! Earlier in the 20th century, product lines were limited to very few shades and colours, and the formulations are no way near as fit for purpose as they are today. Over each decade, formulations have continued to improve, and now there are colours and products for every skin tone and type. Let’s take a quick look at the key trends and styles for each decade in  the 20th century:

Era of the ‘flappers’
Smoky shadow
Thin brows
Bow shaped lips
Lighter makeup
Thin brows
Natural looks
Fuller lips
Arched brows
Prominent red lip
Retro pin-up was a trend
Thicker, natural brows
Pink lipsticks
Winged liner

From the 1960s onward, the use of colour and experimentation took off. Style icons of these eras included Brigitte Bardot, Twiggy, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Donna Summer and Diana Ross, to name a few!

Pale pink lips
Experimental colours and false lashes
Eye contouring
Winged liner
Fresher natural look
Natural brows
Bronzed layers
Pale pink lips
Disco makeup
Experimentation with bright colours
Pink blush
Pink lipstick
Coloured mascara

Thinner brows
Shimmer eye shadows
A few styles – natural, grunge and punk
Dark liner on lips
Sunless tanning was popular
Thin brows
Black eyeliner and shimmer shadow
Lip gloss
The introduction of 4K cameras means less product
Instagram makeup takes off
Highlighting and contouring
Overdrawn, plump lips

As you can see, there is quite a difference in the trends of each decade. Some styles come back from time to time, so it is useful as a makeup artist (MUA) to learn how to recreate these iconic looks. A good example is a winged liner. While cat-eye flicks and winged liner were a 1960’s staple, there was a resurgence with singers such as Adele, who made the iconic flick a signature look back in 2016.

If you would like to learn more about the history of makeup and the cosmetics industry, you may like to access the resources linked:

Drag makeup

We cannot learn about the history of makeup without paying homage to the drag community. Historically, Drag Queens have been men dressing as women, whereas today, the drag community includes people from all genders and sexual identities. Below are some famous Drag Queens for their time:

Julian Eltinge (May 14, 1881 – March 7, 1941), born William Julian Dalton, was an American stage and film actor and female impersonator. He was considered one of the highest-paid actors on the American stage.

Danny La Rue, OBE (born Daniel Patrick) was an Irish singer and entertainer, best known for his on-stage drag persona, which spanned four decades. In the 1960s, he was among Britain’s highest-paid entertainers.

Paul James O’Grady MBE is a former drag queen. He achieved notability in the London gay scene during the 1980s with his drag queen persona Lily Savage, with which he went mainstream in the 1990s.

RuPaul Andre Charles, known simply as RuPaul, is an American drag queen, actor, model, singer, songwriter, and television personality. RuPaul is considered the most commercially successful drag queen in the United States.

Prior to the world of Instagram and YouTube, techniques such as contouring, highlighting, cut creases and eyebrow blocking were not commonly known in the wider beauty community. However, these techniques were commonplace in the dressing rooms of drag queens and in theatre makeup. Unfortunately, due to the subculture status of the drag community in the early 20th century, there has been minimal acknowledgement with regard to the origin of these techniques.

In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired, which centred on a competition whereby Drag Queens would compete to be America’s next drag superstar. The success of this show has launched drag into pop culture, and there has been overwhelming support and admiration for the drag community. RuPaul’s Drag Race has now spanned thirteen seasons and inspired spin-off shows in over 6 other countries. RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, featuring participants from Australia and New Zealand, first aired on May 1st, 2021. The Drag Race franchise helps to showcase the wide variety of drag performances, makeup, fashion and talents.

Drag makeup is all about creating a persona and embodying whatever characteristics you choose, forming a new identity of sorts. In addition to Drag Queens, there is also a Drag King community which are mostly female performance artists who dress in masculine drag and embody male gender stereotypes. If you are interested in learning different makeup application techniques and in getting some inspiration, watch a few episodes of Drag Race and watch some YouTube tutorials and see what you think!

If you would like to learn more about the history of drag and drag culture, you may like to access the resources linked:

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