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Evolutionary Artistry of Makeup

Geisha – Japanese Artist

Pagoga LanternFor as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with Asian and ancient Egyptian cultures. Though I’m not sure when my interest in the Egyptian way of life emerged, Asian culture appealed to me at a very young age.

I remember being especially enchanted by the geisha because to me they were, and still are, uniquely beautiful. From their hair, white makeup with bright red lip color, silk kimonos, parasols, and ornamentation, to the graceful way they moved I’ve always found them strikingly gorgeous.

Historically from a cosmetics standpoint, geisha makeup application was a very time-consuming process. For starters a waxy/oil based substance was applied to the entire face, neck, nape and chest to help the foundation paste adhere. Then the snow-white foundation made of rice powder or with lead was mixed with water to form a paste which was then applied to the skin.

Korean Pagoda Lamp
Korean Pagoda Lamp

The black eyebrows were drawn using charcoal with a touch of red; the eyes also were painted with black and a small amount of red. Their lips were reddened from the juice of the benibana, safflower then covered with crystallized sugar for luster. The final step was staining the teeth black with a mixture of oxidized iron filings steeped in an acidic solution. The overall look of the geisha was one of mysterious beauty.

Enigmatic Egypt

The art, mummies, pyramids, kings, queens, and the rich history of ancient Egypt cast a spell on me quite a while back. So much so that when the Carnegie Science Center was airing a special on the mysteries of the pyramids of Egypt in the Rangos Omnimax Theater I was beyond euphoric.

I’ll never forget that day. It was a rainy Friday evening and date night for me and my ex-hubby. Both of us were so excited. We arrived at the science center, purchased our tickets, bought some popcorn, and cold fountain drinks then entered the theatre to await the start of the show. Watching movies in the four-story dome theatre is a multi-sensory experience as you are right smack in the middle of the action which only increased our excitement.

Japenese Kimono - Blue
Japanese Kimono

The lights dim, conversations cease as trailers for upcoming films play and then the moment we’ve been waiting for – the start of the film, then without warning the screen goes black. Apparently there was an electrical problem that couldn’t be fixed so everyone was refunded the cost of their tickets and sadly I never got to see the movie.

However, a second opportunity to experience Egypt’s history presented itself on a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. On this outing my kids and I viewed an exhibition on Egyptian artifacts and among them was a replica of a pyramid. My heart started pounding in anticipation of being able to see what the inside of a pyramid looked like – exciting, right? Wrong.


When we got to the entrance of the pyramid it was an extremely small opening to what appeared to be a tunnel complete with hieroglyphs. Since people were entering and exiting it made the already tiny entrance appear that much smaller and this claustrophobic chic was having none of it so I abstained. Of course when the kids came out, I wanted to know everything they saw but their answers failed to quench my curiosity and unfortunately it wasn’t enough for me to go see for myself.

Though I was a wus at the museum and missed out on seeing the inside replica of the pyramid, the other aspects of Egyptian life that I found interesting were the women’s fashion. From their long adorned hair, accessories, clothing and makeup it’s apparent that they cared about their appearance.

Vanity Infused in Superstition

Cosmetics were worn by both men and women. Some sources indicate that they believed makeup had magical powers and perhaps this could have been due to the healing properties in some of their concoctions.

They used eyeliner, eyeshadow, lip and cheek stain, nail color, skin care products and perfumes. While I cannot pretend to understand the chemistry on cosmetic production, I admire the resourcefulness of the Egyptians in creating their beauty products. Malachite, a green mineral carbonate of copper, was used to make green eye paint and black kohl (used to line the eyes) was made from galena – a heavy mineral, lead sulfide. Henna, a reddish-orange dye derived from a plant, was used for nails and hair coloring.

Due to the hot, dry climate, Egyptians used oils and animal fats as skin moisturizers as well as for hair care. They even wore wigs, beards and eyebrows made from human hair. These folks were so dedicated in beautifying themselves they were even buried with beauty aids to take with them into the afterlife.

A. Giannelli Queen Nefertiti Sculpture
A. Giannelli Queen Nefertiti Sculpture

We’ve come a long way since 4000 B.C. when it’s believed cosmetics were first developed by the Egyptians. Even so, we can see their influence in many of the products we use today. The almond eye look is an example of this influence although in many of Egyptian pictures the eyeliner actually extends well beyond the eye.

In view of my interest in Asian and Egyptian culture I’ve collected a few things among which are several pagoda lanterns, shoji screen and a genuine kimono and Japanese tea set given to me on my son’s return from Japan. While I do not have many Egyptian pieces two of my favorites (featured in this post) are the papyrus painting of the goddess Isis and a handmade white alabaster bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Additional pictures include my blue Japanese kimono (even though I stored it in a garment bag for a few years the material has faded somewhat but I still treasure it), brass pagoda lantern, and Korean pagoda lamp.

What cultures inspire you? Please do tell.

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” ~Pearl Buck


2 thoughts on “Evolutionary Artistry of Makeup

  1. I find these cultures and many others inspiring, too. I will never forget taking World Civilzation1 and 2 a few years ago at the college in my town, and learning about the Terracotta Army that was made for the first Emperor of China. It was so fascinating. There is a documentary about it on YouTube. I also like watching documentaries about the ancient civilization of Peru.

    1. Agreed. The history of other cultures is so interesting and I can’t seem to learn enough.

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