Contour makeup, fierce eyeliner, and a bold lip will make you look like a star — these principles are the foundations (pun intended) of current cosmetic beauty. The people of yesteryear had their own beauty trends, and by our standards they are often more than questionable. Let’s rewind time and marvel at the lengths people will go to to reach the beauty standards of their day.
Before shaving, going au naturale was a societal norm for women. There was no shame in having underarm, leg, or facial hair until the rise of commercial cosmetics, which put an end to the appeal of any kind of follicle that wasn’t on the top of your head. Once upon a time, hair (especially facial hair) was seen as a true marker for beauty. This was especially the case for the women living in ancient Greece and Persia. They were firm believers that facial hair — especially the unibrow — was a stamp of femininity and true beauty. In fact, the chiton-wearing women went to an extreme to show just how strong their brow game was.
To have a full feathering unibrow was a symbol of purity in ancient Greece and Persia. For Greek women, to have a full brow was synonymous to being close to nature. For the women of Persia, it was a symbol of maidenhood. Once a girl was married, she plucked her unibrow to display that she is an adult, or a “complete” woman (whatever that means). For those who had the misfortune of having a smooth patch between the eyes, women would either draw in a handsome unibrow or go as far as gluing goat and mouse hair on their foreheads with tree resin.
Before Lil Wayne and A$AP Rocky were baring their diamond-studded grillz in their music videos, the Maya were the flossing OG flashy orthodontics. A little over 2,500 years ago, the ancient peoples of modern-day Mexico pulled back their lips to show their immaculate, semi-precious smile. They studded their teeth with stone; the process, of course, wasn’t pretty. Inlaid with fine stones of jade, pyrite, and hematite, the Mayans would visit “dentists” to have their teeth drilled and inlaid with stones.
You might think drilling holes in your teeth for the sake of beauty is a horrible idea — and it is. You might also think that putting notches in and filing down your teeth would be about as alluring as licking a porcupine — right again. The practice continued until well after Colombus, lasting up to the 1500s.
Kohl — Egyptian lead eyes
Many people associate ancient Egypt as the civilization that gave birth to the fierce wing liner. And that’s historically true. Elizabeth Taylor’s face with her iconic blue eye shadow and heavy black liner come to mind, but the truth of the Egyptian look is only skin deep. Not only does the image evoke a sensual image of the ancient world, but also reminds us of its practicality, as well as its dangers. Using black kohl — a mix of soot, lead salts, and animal fat — the Egyptians would mix the charcoal blend with crushed malachite and galena (semi-precious ores believed to grant them protection under the gods Ra and Horus). However, the Egyptians didn’t see one significant dilemma.
The kohl makeup was loaded with lead salts. Lead? Isn’t that stuff poisonous? Very. However, sciencemag.org suggests that ancient Egyptians might have synthesized the material for health purposes. Though debated, History.com reports that there might have been benefits to Kohl. As a result, the makeup recipe might have helped fight against eye infections, and even blocked out the intense sunlight to prevent strain and glare (in a similar way that putting black lines under their eyes helps football players avoid glare).
Though there were benefits from wearing the inky goop, there was also significant repercussions. So before you start peppering lead salts into your makeup, remember one thing: The life expectancy of ancient Egyptians averaged thirty years. Even if there weren’t immediate signs of harm, there’s no certainty what the long-term effects of wearing kohl could inflict. Plus, it’s lead. LEAD people! Again though, anything for beauty.
For some women, wearing heels can be excruciating. Hell, most can’t even stand wearing shoes they wear to work. Now imagine wearing those shoes every day for the rest of your life, but instead of heels, squeezing your foot into what looked like a doll’s shoe. It gets worse. The only to fasten them appropriately is for your feet to be broken, bound, and walked on for two years until they deform into a whole new shape. This was the “art” of foot binding, a technique that has been practiced among women since the late 12th century.
It all started with a tenth-century court dancer named Yao Niang who was reported to have “bound her feet in the shape of a new moon.” She was said to have mesmerized the emperor as she danced gracefully in what she called “lotus shoes.” They were described as gold-threaded footwear that was no more than six inches long.
Ever since the dancer showed her petite feet, many nobles scrambled to practice the same procedure. Suddenly, to have bound feet was a symbol of nobility and was practiced to assure that their daughters would marry promising suitors. The process started at the age of five or six; the young girl’s feet soaked in warm water, massaged until her pinky toes were broken and tucked under the heel of her foot. For two years the girl was expected to walk long distances in order to permanently bind her feet. Any foot larger than six inches was considered an “iron lotus’” and could damage the prospect of a good suitor.
And you thought your shoes were a pain? Thankfully, foot binding fell out of fashion in the early 1900s.
It’s hard to imagine a time when white teeth were considered “out of style.” Where would we be if every actor didn’t dazzle us with unrealistic, bleached, white teeth? We see it every day on television, social media, and in fashion; a white smile is one indicator you have your life together (orally of course) — but that wasn’t always the case.
In fact, once upon a time, having black teeth was more chic than your Coco Chanel handbag. Such was gospel truth in Asian countries such as Japan. Women used a mixture called kanemizu that consisted of iron filings, vinegar, tea, and rice wine. The stuff (as you can imagine) smelled terrible, but there were some surprising benefits to applying this sharpie-black lacquer.
The processes, called ohaguro, can be traced as far back as the Kofun period (250-538 AD) and continued to trend well until the mid to late 19th century. Though the dye was semi-permanent, the process tended to be favored by the elite. Both men and women showed off their black teeth, symbolizing their loyalty to both their military leaders and families or to hide their yellowing teeth. Though strange, ohaguro had some beneficial effects. One of them was the protection against tooth decay and cavities. Young women painted their teeth as they came of age until the Edo period (1603-1868 AD). Ohaguro was later worn by married women, prostitutes, or Geishas until it slowly fell out of fashion. Meant to cast a wide and cheerful smile, this long-lasting tradition spanned for more than a millennia.
Queen Elizabeth I rose to power at the tender age of 25 — what have you been doing with your life? Her complexion was flawless and she was regarded as a true beauty among her courtiers. But a bout of smallpox changed everything for the young royal. Left with scars, the queen quickly turned to medieval cosmetics to hide her “deformities.” Little did Queen Lizzie know, her choice of concealer was a killer. Her cosmetic choices not only affected her health, but the health and well-being of the young women in England. Entering this list for the second time, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome lead back to the stage.
Insecure about her smallpox scars, the queen turned to lead makeup to cover and lighten her face. She called the vinegar and lead combo Venetian ceruse, aka, The Spirits of Saturn. Unfortunately for the queen, her using lead-based makeup caused her more harm than good. Eye swelling, baldness, tooth decay, premature aging, and darkened skin ensued — everything she was trying to prevent.
Elizabeth being a role model to the women of England, many women followed suit, sparking a huge decline in health among the young women in the queen’s kingdom. The queen’s health was in decline, but she couldn’t let her subject know that. Every painting made in her old age was to make the queen look healthy. Her courtiers tell a different story. Many described their monarch’s face as “oblong” and “wrinkled,” and wore a false wig to hide her balding head. Not a good look.
Mercury poisoning for a milky-white complexion
Mercury was once used for a multitude of everyday purposes before it was discovered to be extremely toxic. One such use: a treatment for syphilis. The liquid metal would be poured on (cough) certain extremities, conceiving the phrase “a night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury.”
Other uses for mercury included cosmetics. Yes, mercury was one of the main ingredients included in creams to help create that soft, smooth, milky-white complexion and was said to eliminate blemishes. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The Food and Drug Administration reported that the side effects of mercury products could lead to birth defects, kidney and liver failure, fatigue, irritability, tremors, depression, a metallic taste in your mouth, and death.
The use of mercury-based cosmetics continued well passed the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which was formed to combat deadly ingredients in makeup and other consumer products. Unfortunately, the use of lead remained popular well until the end of the 1930s. In 1977 the Food and Drug Administration began requiring cosmetic companies to label the ingredients within the product. Today, the Food and Drug Administration warns makeup users to watch out for products that contain ingredients such as mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio, or mercury. If any of these ingredients are in your cosmetics, the Food and Drug Administration asks that you cease using those products immediately (so much for that trip to Sephora).
Nightshade eye drops for dilated pupils and a pale deathly glow
Mercury had somewhat of an “excuse” for its use, but with deadly nightshade (aka belladonna) you can’t hide behind ignorance. Native to parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, nightshade is a poisonous plant that, when consumed, causes spasms, convulsions, hallucinations, coma, but most importantly, death. Its poisonous properties are well known and have been since ancient times.
Legend has it that Roman Empress Agrippina the Younger hired a young woman named Locusta of Gaul, a renowned poison maker, to aid in the assassination of Emperor Claudius using nightshade. Nightshade was reportedly part of early instances of chemical warfare — Romans tipped their arrows in the berry juice produced by the plant. The question here is: If belladonna was so poisonous, why was it used for the most sensitive parts of our bodies?
Though it’s unclear when it started, belladonna — nicknamed the devil’s cherry and the devil’s herb — was used to dilate pupils and to cast a pale deathly glow to the face. Belladonna was used through the early 20th century. The berries were fatal if ingested, but when it was diluted and dropped in the eyes, the poisonous extract expanded the pupils to achieve a wide-eyed look that was seen as attractive. Women dropped the poisonous weed into their eyes daily, not knowing about the health implications.
Lard as hair gel
Every hair routine varies depending on the length and style. For some, products like mousse, gel, and hairspray are part of their daily regimen. You got to keep fresh. In the past, they didn’t have useful aerosol commodities to make their hair stay in place. Instead, they had other methods to achieve a perfect coiffe: lard. Yes, lard — the oink, oink, moo kind of lard. Wigs and coiffures were a popular fashion statement. A symbol of nobility and power, it took a lot of elbow grease to tame those powdered towers. To keep them in shape, wig makers smear on streaks of animal fat to create the desired shape for their clients. As you can imagine, the cons outweighed the pros.
Because these beautiful, hairy, towers were styled by all-organic animal fat, they eventually began to decompose. A palace for lice and vermin alike, many aristocratic ladies reportedly locked up their wigs in cages to prevent rats from eating or nesting in their hair. Can you imagine the smell? Of course, there was only one way to guard against the stench: perfume. If the rotting smell of bacon doesn’t get you, the nauseating florals of Marie Antoinette’s perfume will.
Victorian eyelash extensions
“An ordinary fine needle is threaded with a long hair, generally taken from the head of the person to be operated upon. The lower border of the eyelid is then thoroughly cleaned, and in order that the process may be as painless as possible rubbed with a solution of cocaine. The operator then by a few skilful touches runs his needle through the extreme edges of the eyelid between the epidermis and the lower border of the cartilage of the tragus. The needle passes in and out along the edge of the lid leaving its hair thread in loops of carefully graduated length.
When this has been done another length of hair is sewed through the lid until finally there are a dozen or more loops projecting. By this time the effect of the cocaine has been lost, and the operator is obliged to desist, and put off further “sewing of hair” for another sitting.
The next step in the process is cutting off and trimming the ends of the loops, and the result is a fine, thick, long set of eyelashes. It is the finishing touch, that is to come, that makes them look like nature’s own. When they are at first cut they stick out in the most singular fashion, giving the person operated upon the most uncanny look. The operator’s next step is to take curling tongs, made of silver, and no larger than knitting needles, and to give them the curve which is essential to perfect beauty. Then the eyes are carefully bandaged, and kept so until the following day.”
Want longer lashes? You have three options: one involves an eye-lash growing serum, the second is glue-on extensions, and the third (if you’re a Victorian woman in the late 1800s) required stitches. You read right. An article published by The Dundee Courier in 1899 advertised to its female readers that they could achieve beautiful butterfly lashes. All it took was a little bit of hair, a needle, and some cocaine. Try not to flinch when you find out how they achieved such a feat.
The procedure was simple. She takes a thread of her hair, rubs a little cocaine on her eyelids (you know, to cut the pain) and threads the hair through a needle before stitching the lid. Easy as mending a pair of pantyhose or a patchwork quilt. Once the deed is done, snip at the ends and trim them to perfection and viola. Red-eyed and teary, the model Victorian gives us a championed smile knowing that beauty was truly achieved through pain. Thank the gods of cosmetics that the only painful thing we have to endure today is financial. Only true 1890s kids will remember this beauty trend.
An astonishing new force for radioactive betterment
When radiation was discovered, cosmetic companies jumped at the chance before understanding the potential adverse effects. Companies like Radior and Tho-Radia offered beauty products that promised to make you glow with beauty from this astonishing new force.
Medieval hair plucking
We pluck our eyebrows and our upper lip — why not our hairline? One of the biggest trends of medieval times was eliminating facial hair and a fashioning a receding hairline. Put these two together and you get bald faces and large foreheads.
Though there was no harm in removing hair from their faces, the church was bitterly against the fashion trend. Priests believed that the vanity around one’s appearance was taking away the “purity” of a woman and thought the trend to be sinful (what a surprise). However, thanks to a certain monarch, their warnings landed on deaf ears.
We can thank the beautifully robust forehead of Queen Elizabeth I for this trend. Making her second appearance on this list, Queen Elizabeth is back to usher in yet another bizarre historical beauty trend. Fair-skinned, Queen Elizabeth didn’t have a lot of facial hair. In fact, her brows were practically non-existent.
On top of that, thanks to her regular use of aforementioned lead-based makeup, the queen was balding; the queen’s receding hairline came to represent upper-class nobility prompting other women to follow suit. Women idolized the mother of the nation, and to honor her, many saw hair loss as not just a symbol of their loyalty, but as a sign of femininity and sensuality.