From 4000 BCE to Today: The Fascinating History of Men and Makeup

Updated 07/03/19

Leon Bennett/Contributor/Getty

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 BCE 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.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt
Eye of Horus Cosmetics

Masculinity was important in ancient Egyptian culture, and makeup actually played a role in that. As early as 4000 BCE, 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 what it is today, to look more attractive—green eye shadow was believed to evoke the gods Horus and Ra, and therefore ward off harmful illnesses. Dramatic eyeliner was customarily worn to communicate wealth and status.

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome
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. (Makes you grateful for the 5-free nail polishes of today.) Roman men also painted their heads to camouflage bald spots—although we're not sure how well that would have worked.

Elizabethan England

Elizabethan Man
Frock Flicks

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-but-not-limited-to premature death.

18th-Century France

French Man
Bigli.com

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.

1930s Hollywood

Clark Gable
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

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

Prince
Pluybuzz

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. Around this time, though, many of the most legendary male makeup artists began working in the field. The late Way Bandy began his work in 1967, followed by Kevyn Aucoin in 1982, and a plethora of male makeup artists followed suit. One such artist was Scott Barnes, whose brushes have graced about every big name in Hollywood. When asked whether he's seen a change in the men behind the scenes in makeup, Barnes responded to us with a gender-subverting revelation: "There have always been men as makeup artists. Actually, right now there are more female makeup artists than ever before."

Early 2000s

Guyliner
Kevork Djansezian/Getty

As American pop culture figures began to embrace past subcultures 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 pop-punk bands and their followers.

The concept of "metrosexuality" also re-entered the cultural consciousness at this time, and beauty brands began to release targeted "makeup for men." Consider Yves Saint Laurent, which released the "male" version of its Touche Éclat ($35) in 2008.

2010s

Jeffree Star
 Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Contributor/Getty

Though makeup for men was is no means the standard, 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 took notice and announced the first male faces of their brands. 

Today

Milk Makeup

"Makeup has evolved through the years," Barnes, who currently primarily works with J.Lo, tells us. "It used to only be used for stage and screen and now men are using bronzers and various forms of cosmetics for the purpose of clearing up imperfections, etc. They have found a way to use makeup very simply and organically, to create everyday looks for themselves without any stigmas behind it."

As the rules of gender presentation become more and more flexible, makeup continues to slowly infiltrate some men's everyday routines—not necessarily always in the larger-than-life fashion of youtube gurus, but in subtler ways. Skincare is much less stigmatized. But the acceptance extends to color cosmetics as well—a little concealer on a blemish here, a little brow gel there.

Barnes also makes a point to note that what we see in the west isn't always the case for the rest of the world: "Japanese youth culture has always worn make up as an accessory or an expression of excitement or fun, with no rules or gender behind it. Makeup doesn’t always mean femininity, not in this day and age. You also have boys with beards wearing full faces of makeup and its acceptable." Gender-neutral ad campaigns from brands like Milk Makeup help the denaturalization of makeup as a feminine endeavor. And Barnes paints an even more exciting vision for the future, as well. "The industry has changed so much – there is so much room for merchants and new brands, and social media has played a big part in that change," he says. "There’s more accessibility." Personally, we can't wait to see what comes next.

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