History in Your Handbag
FOLK REMEDIES TO GLOBAL BRANDS
Makeup bag essentials mascara, lipstick, blusher, nail polish are so ubiquitous today that it is hard to imagine a time without them. But many of the things we take for granted as we dig into our bags every morning were only developed in the past century, as makeup came into the mainstream Before then, as we have seen, handcrafted pigments and homemade pastes jostled with some slightly dubious (if not downright dangerous) cures and charms. Over the past hundred and fifty years, these homespun remedies transformed into the evocative names that we are so familiar with today, from Rouge de Chanel lipstick to Bourjois blush pots and Maybelline mascara. The rise of these global brands meant that, by the mid-twentieth century, cosmetics for the privileged few had become makeup for the masses. But how did the beauty industry become the ever-growing and innovating powerhouse that it is today?
The business of commercial and factory-made cosmetics began in earnest in the eighteenth century in fashion-forward France. In many ways makeup was the most democratic of all luxury goods, as it was possible to produce and sell a pot of simply packaged rouge or powder cheaply (unlike, say, a silk dress), making it available to women beyond just the middle and upper classes. As Morag Martin points out in her secret Selling Beauty, this accessibility meant that cosmetics took on a new legitimacy, and by the middle of the century, doctors were organizing clinical trials, writing hefty tomes on safe ingredients, and seeking patents for new skin-preserving as opposed to skin-destroying paints. Following the French Revolution, face painting was very much associated with the old order and obvious makeup was banished from public use.
Maybelline’s Lash-Brow-Ine and Rimmel’s Water Cosmetique solid pigment cakes were the first mass-produced mascaras of the spit and brush type (1917).
But despite the social and political ramifications of wearing obvious makeup, the desire for selfimprovement did not disappear, so a new subtler style was called for something different from what had come before. The language of science became key in making this distinction: Products were described as healthy, natural, and hygienic, and capable of transforming any woman into a respectable beauty. This wasn’t the only change post-Revolution. Previously, upper-class men and women had worn powder and rouge equally, but afterward makeup for men never regained that level of acceptance or popularity. This meant that sellers of cosmetics had a smaller, more targeted market as they started to focus on female consumers exclusively. By the early nineteenth century, cosmetics in the United States and the rest of Europe were still homemade or hidden from view, but as the increasingly savvy and financially stable middle- and working-class Parisian consumer was embracing the commercialization of face paint, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the developed world to catch up.
The momentum leading to mass production was as much about social change as technological advances. The Industrial Revolution changed the way that men and women lived and worked beyond all recognition, with people’s material needs suddenly being met on a massive scale. Urban and then suburban living and developments in education and mass literacy and the birth of mass media, as we have explored all significantly impacted the way people lived. The two world wars were also hugely important in altering society, eroding the restrictions of gender and class through necessity changes that could not be undone once they’d happened (much as some people wished they could). For women in particular, this combination of events afforded them more financial, political, and sexual autonomy than ever before, along with two great milestones of the twentieth century: the right to vote, and the introduction of the contraceptive pill (in 1960 in the United States and 1961 in the United Kingdom). It’s all connected: At the same time as these crucial developments were taking place, they were being reflected in the rise of a sophisticated, glamorous, and global beauty industry.
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