The History of Male Makeup

Powders and blushes for flawless complexion.

Liners and primers make my face perfection.

Glossed painted nails and smoked sultry eyes.

Those are the things that appeal to us guys.

 Makeup is often associated with femininity. For this reason, you may be forgiven for taking a second glance at a man wearing it. While it may seem unusual, the use of aesthetic enhancing cosmetics by men has a strong and well-documented place in history, whether it be for expressive or aesthetic enhancement. The aim of this article is to briefly inform you of the use of cosmetics by men throughout the ages.

Makeup is often regarded as a feminine indulgence, however existing research disproves such an accusation. In 2010 The University of Bristol found evidence suggesting Neanderthals wore makeup over 50,000 years ago. The team unearthed seashells in Spain that later revealed themselves to be makeup vessels– housing  yellow and red pigments mixed with a reflective black material. They claimed that when fresh this mixture would have created a stunning black surface, undoubtedly used for cosmetic purposes. At a time where men were the ‘hunter gatherers’ it is undeniable that the use of cosmetics did not affect their natural masculinity. If this is true, why is it that makeup is often categorized as a female adornment?

Much like the Neanderthals, Egyptian males’ masculinity was never compromised by their use of makeup. Eye makeup is said to have been used within their culture as early as 4000BC. The Ancient Egyptians are known for their regal and elaborate eye enhancement. They often favored an elongated ‘almond eye’ aesthetic in which the makeup extended past the eyelid. En vogue eye colour pallettes were black, applied using kohl, and during the Old Kingdom (2650BC to 2134BC) a green pigment created by malachite was preferential. Furthermore, It was not uncommon for red ochre lip stains to be applied, accompanied by rouged cheeks and dramatic highlights – created by sweeping mineral across the face using smoothed wood or bone.

In addition to aesthetic gain, Egyptians often used makeup for practical, medicinal and magic purposes. For example, oils that were used to protect laborers from the sun were also scented – acting much like a modern fragrance.

A further example of such would be the Egyptians use of green eye decoration. The green pigment was believed to induce or evoke the God of Sky and Sun, Horus. It was not uncommon within ancient Egyptian society for a man to beautify his eyes before leaving for work or an evening meal – the most famous example being King Tutankhamen. Additionally, the length and colour of ones nails often indicated social status within society. If a mans makeup was once an indicator of his power and status within society; what has changed during the course of history in order for it become somewhat of a taboo?


3D prediction of Tutankhamen’s face

Taking inspiration from The Ancient Egyptians, Roman men also adorned themselves in self-indulgent displays of vanity. Fragrant oils once used by The Egyptians were adopted by Roman culture in hedonistic sexual exploits. The piece de resistance of roman cosmetology came in the form of mud baths filled with crocodile excrement. Interestingly, men’s skin care has its roots in the word ‘cosmetae’, a word used to describe slaves who would bathe men in perfume.

Midway through the 1st century AD, Men using makeup was commonplace within Roman society. Roman men were renowned for their cosmetic use – powder was used for lightening the complexion, rouge was applied to cheeks, and nails were painted using a blend of pig fat and blood…a look that would be referred to as ‘gender bending’ within contemporary society.

Whilst these deeply historical examples illustrate the use of makeup by males, it still leaves my question unanswered, why did men stop wearing makeup in our culture, and in our history?

During the reign of Elizabeth I, men’s grooming was very popular. Makeup included. Men partook in an abundance of beauty treatments including the use of egg and honey masks to smooth away wrinkles. As eye makeup was to Egyptians, pale skin was to Elizabethans. Unknowingly to them the makeup used to create the favored complexion contained lead and often resulted in premature death. In addition to a pale complexion, white hair was also desired, however the bleaching agent ‘lye’ often led to baldness. The obvious negative side effects of vanity gave birth to the powdered aesthetic we are so familiar with.


Queen Elizabeth I

Although male grooming remained popular for a time after, it faded into the background during the reign of Queen Victoria I. Whilst it is a possibility that the negative side effects of cosmetics led to a decline in their usage; it is undeniable that Royal persuasion acted as a major factor in their regression. Queen Victoria I declared that the use of cosmetics and makeup was vulgar and impolite. As a result of such, she asserted that only whores should wear makeup. Curiously male actors were also exempt from the rule and encouraged to perform in drag, as female actors were forbidden.

Additionally, during the reign of Queen Victoria I, The Church held much more power than it does within today’s society. Religious values unquestionably played a part in the decline of male cosmetic use, and may explain why men who wear makeup face ridicule – even within modern society. During the Victorian era makeup was considered an abomination and to be the work of The Devil.

Due to the stigma against men who use makeup during this period, the link between vanity and the feminine associations of homosexuality may have formed. The femininity of such may have besmirched the churches name therefore resulting in the ridicule of make-up wearing men.

From the reign of Queen Victoria I to present day, many societal factors may have influenced the use of cosmetics by men- for instance, the pressure to be masculine within a war driven and homophobic society. However, the recent proliferations of ‘metrosexual’ ideologies mean that men are taking more and more pride in their appearance. In a world where the importance of aesthetics is as prominent as it always has been, men have begun to use makeup again – reassured by a more accepting society. In addition to this, unisex androgynous models such as Andrej Pejic promote an approach to fashion that does not conform to gender stereotypes.


Andrej Pejic

In a society that is ever evolving, gender roles become blurred and our outlook upon fashion becomes increasingly liberal- makeup included. Our brief journey into the history of male cosmetics has been an interesting one, however, I believe there are areas untouched and many more developments to be made in the future that will make our make up history more exciting than it has ever been before.

Guys, grab your eyeliner and join your forefathers in the battle for equal beauty rights!

I’d love to hear back from any readers…What’s your view on men using makeup?

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