Cosmetics: between spirituality and extravagant lifestyle

On Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Cosmetics have been used by every society on earth and for at least eight thousand years. Looking and smelling good was extremely important for the ancient Egyptians, to the extent that their appearance was linked to their spirituality. Some of the products they used were very innovative. They succeeded in getting rid of shrink wrinkles, scars, and make hair grow. As history changed, cultures merged and so did cosmetics. The Greeks adopted Egyptian cosmetic and beauty products but slightly abandoning the inherent spiritual significance. Eventually, the Romans dramatically forgot the spiritual component and enjoyed cosmetics for ‘cosmetics’ sake’.
What happened in the XX century?
After many centuries in which a white-pale face was the objective of those aiming at an upper-class style, tanned skin became the new status quo. This turn is usually identified with the emergence of the Hollywood industry in the mid-1920s. Bronze skin became exotic and tanning products were advertised for those who could not get a tan naturally.
However, the main aspect – besides tanned skins – was the emergence of beauty salon and the intensive industrialization of beauty. One of the most famous was the House of Cyclax in London, where women discretely used cosmetics as they did not want people to know that they needed help to look beautiful. Another beauty salon was Helena Rubenstein, which has a full line of cosmetics available today.
Hence, beauty salons increased in popularity, whilst the cosmetics industry became established. Moreover, women were now confident and beauty products were sold on the open market (see Selfridges, the London-based department store founded in 1909). Cosmetics became art popularized by ballets and artists. Products were now permanent and used at women’s disposal.
In the last decades, the range of cosmetics greatly increased and became the foundation of fashion. Eye makeup such as mascara, eye shadow and eye liner; facial cleansing products as cleanser, toner and moisturizer; a vast range of nail polish; the list is endless. The number of beauty companies also increased dramatically. Cosmetics industry is indeed a globalised multi-billion dollar business.
This brief article was meant to be only a summary introducing you to the fascinating history of cosmetics. There are many prominent sources about the subject. For instance ‘Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women’ a book edited by Joseph Hansen, Evelyn Reed and Mary-Alice Waters. Moreover, ‘The beauty industry: gender, culture, pleasure’ by Paula Black. Dig into it!

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