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The History Of Makeup 101 | Everything You Ever Wanted To Know, Past & Present

Table of Contents

The History of Makeup 101
Ancient Egypt
Ancient China
The Middle Ages
The Elizabethan and Victorian Era (1558 - 1837)
The 20th Century
The 2000s and 2010s
The Subtl Beauty Stack Is the Future of Makeup


The History of Makeup 101

Putting on makeup is truly one of the best self-care practices out there; after all, it lets us spend good quality time with ourselves. But, if you’re like me, you often daydream while applying makeup wondering if those before you knew the secrets to a good smokey eye or the pros and cons of certain cosmetic ingredients.

Then, a spiral of questions begins to cascade around your brain. How did they apply makeup? When did makeup even come to be? While the history of makeup is fickle, the essence of gender expression, religion, and self-expression are riddled throughout, meaning that makeup’s past goes beyond just what’s on the surface. 

So, without further ado, welcome to The History of Makeup 101 (presented by Subtl Beauty, of course) where you’ll learn the highlights, facts, stories, and stereotypes that have contoured the way we view and use makeup today. Or, if you’ve already dived into the history of makeup before, here’s a quick blush up:

Ancient Egypt 

The Egyptians were some of the first to use perfume, skincare, and cosmetics. As early as 10,000 BCE, Egyptian women and men used scented ointments and oils to soften and clean the skin. In fact, the Romans documented the use of Egyptian oils containing beeswax, olive oil, rosewater, and more, which is believed to be the world’s first anti-wrinkle serum. 

Some cosmetics that are popular today, like kohl (an eye cosmetic made by grinding stibnite), were first used in ancient Egypt. People of both genders and all classes would commonly line their eyes in green-colored kohl for sun defense and to ward off evil. Scientists now believe that the lead in their kohl may have kept them healthier as it killed bacteria.

Many ancient Egyptians also rouged their lips (and cheeks) with a red ochre blend as the color red symbolized life and was an indicator of social status. To apply cosmetics, ancient Egyptians used their fingers or small sticks made of wood, ivory, or bone. They stored all of their loose cosmetics in calcite jars or small boxes like the fish-shaped one below. 

Pictured: Ancient Egyptian fish-shaped makeup box (new makeup bag inspo coming for Subtl?!)

Ancient China

In ancient China, cosmetics were very simple and mostly plant or mineral-based. To produce a rouge, they would often mix safflower and ochre which would create a reddish pigment that was applied to the lips and cheeks. During this time, a ruddy complexion was a sign of good health. Rouge remained popular all throughout Chinese history and is still a staple in 2023.

In ancient China, paleness was the equivalent of blush in 2023; it was super popular. Having a light complexion (for both men and women) was associated with a leisurely lifestyle and – in turn – wealth. Most of the whitening products they used, though, contained large amounts of lead, which caused decreased fertility, developmental issues, miscarriage, and premature death. 

Pictured: Remains of ancient Chinese cosmetics

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were kind of a dark time for makeup (and other things - yikes!) considering the society was dominated by a strict church that viewed makeup as spiritually immoral. Applying makeup in any way during the Middle Ages was viewed as a direct defiance of church authority. Women during this time faced a dilemma as they were expected to use the right amount of makeup to attract a husband.

Due to this, they had to get creative with cosmetics in a way that wouldn’t upset the church, which made for some unique beauty tactics (kind of like the Tik Tok beauty hacks we see today). For example, they’d use roots and berries mixed with fats to create medieval lipstick. Commonly, light rose shades were accepted so long as the look remained natural and angelic. 

Pictured: Painting from the Middle Ages depicts the ideal women’s makeup look

The Elizabethan and Victorian Era

Queen Elizabeth I was basically the Kim K. of 16th century England; every woman wanted to get her famous look of ultra-pale skin and red hair. Some women during the Elizabethan Era even used a toxic mix of white lead and vinegar to attain it. Men also wore makeup recreationally during Liz’s reign – until Queen Victoria took the throne.

The Victorian Era ushered in a time reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Queen Victoria believed makeup was associated with the devil, deeming it a “horrible invention.” Soon, makeup was used by females only in secret, causing the depiction of masculinity to narrow. If makeup was worn during this era, a light blush, often made of carmine, was the preferred product. 

Pictured: Elizabethan Era makeup containers

The 20th Century

In the early 1900s, makeup counters were finally developed, meaning that makeup no longer carried the Victorian Era stigma (except for when it came to men, mostly). However, the makeup trends during the 20th century often ebbed and flowed as each decade would flip between a natural look and a dark, sultry vibe. 

To break it down: The 1910s was the bare-faced look, but in the 1920s, a smokey eye was popular. The 1940s embraced the natural look again, while winged liner dominated the 1950s. The 1970s brought back the minimalistic look, which was replaced by the punk style of the 1980s. And the 1990s gave way to the fresh-face look once again. 

Throughout most of the 20th century, cosmetics consisted of small pots of rouge for the cheeks, eyes, and lips, along with blotting papers. To achieve a pale complexion, lemon juice was often applied to the skin as a toner. Hollywood had a massive influence on makeup trends, and ultimately, caused cosmetics to become mainstream. 

Do You Remember?: Caboodles! Did you store your makeup in them? They were basically bright plastic cases filled with trays for your makeup. During the 90s, especially, there were a ton of trendy cosmetic products out there, so our Caboodles would always be overflowing, making finding what we needed a bit difficult (and it would rarely close).

. Pictured: Caboodle from the 1990s

Pictured: 1920s-1930s makeup compact

The 2000s and 2010s

In the 2000s, tan skin was trendy as it gave the impression of health while also covering up blemishes. Lip gloss and eyeshadows in metallic and/or bold colors were all the rage among makeup consumers. It was also trendy to pluck your eyebrows as thin as possible (sorry to those still facing the consequences of this in 2023).

The 2010s was a de”k”ade to remember as the Kardashian and Jenner clan reigned supreme in the beauty realm. Their look consisted of plump matte lips, full eyebrows, and – of course – a lot of contouring. This was also when female and male makeup artists began to showcase their skills on Youtube granting them celebrity status. 

Do You Remember?: Concealed lips (Paris Hilton is sporting a subtle version of it above)! It involved – you guessed it – wearing concealer instead of lipstick or gloss, resulting in a washed-out appearance. Looking back, I’m not sure why this was ever trendy, but without the need for lip products, it did make for fewer beauty products in your makeup bag or Caboodle.

Pictured: Early 2000s makeup ad

The Subtl Beauty Stack Is the Future of Makeup

Throughout history, women and men have used various makeup products to flaunt their status, find a partner, and even protect their skin, all while juggling different cosmetic concoctions. In a  time when makeup was a hopeful mix of botanicals and earthly matter, people still sought ways to keep their makeup together in one container. In ancient Egypt, they used a fish palette to store their makeup, while the Chinese used small jars. And in the 1990s, people threw their products in a Caboodle.

Today, Subtl Beauty has reimagined the way you apply and store your makeup with our revolutionary Subtl Beauty Stack. Each Stack is fully customized by you, which means that your Stack will only include products you need and none that you don’t. And, with our stackable makeup, you’ll never have to sift through your makeup products again, meaning more time to actually apply your makeup. So whether you’re a busy mom or about to board a flight, our Subtl Stack will solve the age-old issue of makeup clutter that even the ancient Egyptians dealt with. 


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  17. https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0261/6845/9338/products/IMG_9897_530x@2x.jpg?v=1663607712
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  20. https://www.etsy.com/listing/1155967134/vintage-caboodles-makeup-case-large-tier
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