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A history of beauty, looking at the clothing, cosmetics and styles of the Ancient Egyptians
Beauty, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “the qualities that give pleasure to the senses or exalt the mind.” But what exalts my senses, something that I find beautiful, may very well be considered average or even ugly to others. Hence the constant debate throughout history about what constitutes beauty.
This is the first in a series of articles exploring “Beauty through the Ages” in which we will examine how the concept of beauty has changed over the years. The first stop in our journey will be ancient Egypt, since the Egyptians are generally credited with perfecting the use of cosmetics. What many people do not realize, however, is that the reasons for using oils, perfumes, and makeup in those early day was not strictly for aesthetic beauty. Many cosmetics provided valuable protection to the inhabitants of a very hot, arid climate beset with desert sand and harsh sun.
Early Egyptians were extremely vain and had certain beliefs that contributed to their daily beauty regimens. They considered an abundance of hair in certain areas of the body, to be a sign of impurity and uncleanness. Men, for example, rarely wore more than a thin mustache or goatee. Most, in fact, preferred their faces to be clean. The same was true of their chests and, in some instances, even their legs. Many also shaved their heads, opting to wear wigs instead, albeit primarily for ceremonial purposes.
Egyptian women such as prostitutes, dancers, and some handmaids also shaved the hair off their arms, legs and other private parts. Prostitutes and entertainers, in particular, wore such skimpy clothing at times that they preferred to be totally hairless from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes. To ensure maximum hair removal, they first applied creams to soften the skin and then used tweezers and other blunt objects or sharp tools to complete the job.
Oils and creams were also used regularly to keep the skin soft and supple and to prevent cracked, dry skin, which were unfortunately common in the desert sun. These particular cosmetics were so important to the Egyptian way of life that workers often accepted them in lieu of, or as part of, their payment of wages.
Both Egyptian men and women were concerned with their appearance. They watched their weight carefully, tending to eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat that we do today. Egyptian women were small in overall stature. They tended to be thin with well-rounded busts, tiny waists, full hips, and flat stomachs. Egyptian men, as a whole, were not overtly large either. They also tended to be relatively thin, sometimes actually quite frail-looking. Both sexes tended to hold themselves very erect and moved easily with a great deal of innate elegance.
Hygiene was critical to both men and women. Body odor was unacceptable, which likely explains the country’s expertise in the area of perfumes and fragrances. In the early days, women used a cleansing paste of natron with sodium bicarbonate. However, that eventually gave way to the use of soaps that were imported and then perfected in Egypt. Baths were a ritual, particularly for women.
The Egyptians used many different concoctions as beauty aids. They often used crocodile excrement in mud baths in the belief that it would firm and tone the skin. Milk and honey was also used regularly because it was believed to make the skin silky smooth. Facial masks, made from ant eggs and face paints, were sometimes used to unclog pores and even out the overall skin tone. Butter mixed with barley was used to treat blemishes and pimples, and mixtures of chalk and oil were used as a cleansing cream to remove their traditionally heavy makeup.
Once the skin was cleansed and all unwanted hair was removed, salves were often used as a means of reducing scars and stretch marks as well as to soften facial lines and wrinkles. Oils, made from olives, sesame, and almonds were then rubbed into the skin often in conjunction with scented fragrances like frankincense, myrrh, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, chamomile, peppermint, cedar, aloe wood, and rose.
Although Egyptian children and adults of lower station kept their own hair, those of a higher rank – both men and women – used wigs, hair extensions, and hairpieces, as thick, long hair was highly valued. Some wigs were made totally of human hair, while others were a combination of human hair, horsehair, palm leaves, straw, sheep’s wool and/or vegetable fibers.
A woman’s wig was meant to enhance her sexuality, and could be much more complex and longer than those of her male counterparts. Female wigs were often divided into three separate sections; one section hung down the woman’s back, while the other two hung on either side of her head just over each breast. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be dyed and/or scented with perfume. Colors traditionally included blondes, greens, and golds, but black or indigo blue wigs were preferred. The hairstyles were often elaborate and, required many pins to hold everything in place; hair combs and jewelry were often used to decorate the hair. Nobles often wore elaborate headgear that was made of rare minerals and jewels, while Kings and queens nearly always wore a crown of some form.
Both men and women of high rank wore makeup, although the men’s choices were generally much more subdued in nature. The Egyptians are, of course, well known for their opulent eye makeup, which was applied from the eyebrow to the base of the nose. What many do not know, however, is that the eye makeup also served a practical purpose; the ingredients of the makeup had antibacterial qualities and helped to deter flies. Additionally, the colors were applied to serve as a protection against the hot Egyptian sun.
The most popular makeup colors at the time were green, black, and indigo blue. Blacks were made from kohl, which is composed principally of a sulfide of lead called galena, and was sometimes deepened further in color by using soot. Greens were made from what is now known as the gemstone malachite, an oxide of copper, while blues were made from the gemstone called lapis lazuli. Everything was ground and then mixed with a gum or water to make a paste that was easy to apply with tools made out of wood, bronze, obsidian, or glass.
Eye makeup, however, wasn’t all the Egyptians used. Many women lightened the color of their skin or covered flaws with face powders made from chalk or white lead. They also rouged their cheeks and lips with red ochres and iron oxides. Many tinted their nails with sheep fat and blood or henna.
Tattooing, generally from henna, was considered erotic, and was heavily practiced among certain classes in Egypt; in particular, dancers, musicians, servant girls and prostitutes displayed tattoos on various parts of their body such as their breasts, thighs, arms, and torsos.
Egyptians were extremely comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. Men often wore skirts and did not consider the clothing unusual. Women wore close-fitting clothing that hugged the bust and flowed from there down to their feet. Fabrics were light and airy and most garments were relatively simple and elegant. Linen and cotton were the most commonly used fabrics, sometimes mixed with animal fur and leather. Clothing was held together with safety pins and buckles.
Over time, as trading took place with other countries, garments became more complex, colorful, and highly decorated. Pleats and fringes were added to skirts and dresses and flowing robes of sheer silks covered the simpler undergarments. It wasn’t uncommon for fabrics to be dyed and hand painted specifically for nobility. Footwear for men and women was basically the same. It consisted of sandals tied around the ankles with thin, leather strips. As with everywhere else on their body, the Egyptians often rubbed perfumed oils on all pieces of their clothing.
So we can see that despite its great age, ancient Egyptian culture contained the seeds of much of what followed, be it cosmetics, perfumes, or clothing. It is rightly looked upon as an opulent historical period, and contributed much to our modern concept of beauty.