From 4000 BC to Today: The Fascinating History of Men and Makeup
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
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For the first time in centuries, men wearing makeup is not completely taboo. Thanks to social media and the emergence of male beauty influencers like Coverboy James Charles and beauty mogul Jeffree Star, makeup is in the early stages of becoming more gender-inclusive. This concept, however, is hardly new.
For generations, makeup has been seen as a "girls-only" enterprise, so we forget that it wasn't always that way. For millennia, stretching from 4000 BC through the 18th century, men traditionally used makeup in myriad ways. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that makeup was relegated to one end of the gender spectrum. At that time, the influential Queen Victoria I of Great Britain deemed cosmetics vulgar, a view corroborated by the Church of England. During the Victorian era, makeup was considered "an abomination" by both the crown and the church, creating strong, widespread associations between makeup, vanity, femininity, and "the Devil's work." As religious values continued to permeate cultures around the world, mainstream definitions of masculinity narrowed. By the 20th century, makeup was seen as a girls-only pursuit.
In 2017, the world is finally coming back around and growing to accept different gender expressions. We hope the trend continues, but society can't move forward without looking back. Scroll through the timeline below to learn about the fascinating history of men and makeup.
Eye of Horus Cosmetics
Masculinity was important in ancient Egyptian culture, and makeup actually played a role in that. As early as 4000 BC, men used black pigment to create elaborate cat-eye designs. A few millennia later, kohl eyeliner, green malachite eye shadow, and lip and cheek stains made from red ochre were also popular. The purpose was not simply to look more attractive—green eye shadow was believed to evoke the gods Horus and Ra to ward off harmful illnesses. Dramatic eyeliner was customarily worn to communicate wealth and status.
Mysterious Fayum Portraits
Fast-forward to the 1st century AD, when Roman men were known to apply red pigment to their cheeks, lighten their skin with powder, and paint their nails using a stomach turning elixir of pig fat and blood. Roman men also painted their heads to camouflage bald spots.
During the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, makeup was wildly popular among men, who valued ghost-white powdered skin. (This was also the era when face makeup was dangerously cakey and made with lead, which often caused serious health problems, including premature death.)
It's no secret that King Louis XVI partook in the extravagance of makeup and hair products. (Louis went bald at the age of 23 and subsequently forced the aristocracy of France into an obsession with wigs.) Men of the royal court also painted on beauty marks, which paired nicely with their high heels and fur muffs.
A long period of time elapsed before male vanity was spoken of again. (Thanks, Queen Victoria I.) But with the arrival of modern movie-making in the United States, hair and makeup for men reemerged. Clark Gable's polished look was perhaps the first example of "metrosexual" beauty.
1970s & 1980s
Through the later 20th century, makeup for men was hardly mainstream. Instead, it was reserved for the fringe: artists and rock 'n' rollers like Steven Tyler, David Bowie, and Prince.
As American pop culture figures began to diversify in the early to mid-2000s, we were introduced to the concept of "guyliner." (Think Pete Wentz, Jared Leto, and Adam Lambert.) This look was most popular among punk rockers and their followers.
The concept of "metrosexuality" also entered the cultural consciousness at this time, and beauty brands began to release targeted "makeup for men." Consider Yves Saint Laurent, who released the "male" version of its Touche Éclat ($42) in 2008.
Though makeup for men is by no means the standard today, social media has allowed male beauty gurus to share their artistic expression on a large scale, helping to break down centuries-old stereotypes. Major beauty companies like Covergirl and Maybelline have taken notice, and in recent months, they have announced the first male faces of their brands. Since the Victorian era, makeup has been seen as vain, frivolous, and "just for girls." Perhaps in 50 years, things will be different.