Today, whether we favour a natural look or a more sophisticated style for an evening or party wear, it’s a matter of personal preference and the emphasis is on purity and safety, but it wasn’t always like that. The use of cosmetics is recorded from the time of the Ancient Egyptians 4000 years ago when pale make-up was fashionable, and this trend followed through to the Roman and Greek periods. A healthy bloom indicated you belonged to the poorer classes and so whitewash or chalk was used to make the skin lighter. The Ancient Egyptian equivalent for kohl and mascara was a black sulphide called antimony that was painted onto eyelids and eyelashes.
A fashionable Renaissance beauty
In the seventeenth century, powder mixed with egg white was densely pasted onto the skin by fashionable beauties – a forerunner, maybe, of the thick pancake make-up some of us wore in the sixties. During the Renaissance, there was a horrifying trend when arsenic became a key ingredient in the skin-bleaching process. White lead was also used to lighten the skin, but it wasn’t just the skin that needed to be light. Although henna was sometimes used in Roman times, blonde hair was especially favoured. Ladies lightened their hair using a mixture of goat’s milk and beech tree ashes, which they applied with a sponge to remove their colour.
In the eighteenth century, slices of mouseskin were pasted on to improve the eyebrows and pads of pitch balls slipped inside the cheeks to plump the face.
Queen Victoria says cosmetics are improper and vulgar
As the Victorian era loomed, women began to use suncream, sunhats and sunshades to preserve the whiteness of their skin, and they might use a little beet juice as blush – but not too much because that would be considered indecent! Queen Victoria vehemently opposed the use of cosmetics. She said it was ‘improper, vulgar and acceptable only for use by actors.’
During the twentieth century, women’s cosmetics began to evolve commercially and manufactured loose powder, pressed powder, lipstick and eye pencil graced every fashionable young woman’s dressing table. Hair continued to be elaborately styled. In the 1940s many women teased their hair into gravity-defying piles of waves at the front. This was achieved by using special steel combs that worked on a spring, so that two sets of rather vicious-looking teeth gripped wet hair and it would dry to a tight, wavy effect. Probably, it wasn’t good for the hair, but the effect was stunning. Longer hair was popularly teased into a page-boy, with a soft, graduated cut that framed the face.
Some men also styled their hair into tiny, wavy ridges, parallel to the forehead and back over the top of the head. People called them ‘spivs’, a derogatory term of the period when real men weren’t expected to take too much interest in their appearance.
‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ – A 1950s guessing game.
In the fifties, many of us were having Toni Home Perms, no doubt influenced by the famous newspaper advertisements, ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ The twins in the illustration had each had a perm, but one would be a professional wave from an expensive hairdresser costing about £10, while the other would sport a Toni Home Perm at a fraction of the price – but identical. The reader was invited to identify the Toni home permanent from the professional perm. Once you’d bought the first pack which contained the curlers, you could then buy Toni refills even cheaper, a boon for busy young mums who wanted to look smart. Even some children were allowed to have a ‘Toni’.
The application of the perm was a day-long process. You had to wind the curlers tightly around end-papers, which were little squares of strong tissue, which got sopping wet when you soaked your hair in the perm solution, dabbed on gently with cotton wool to avoid dislodging the curlers. In spite of the prolonged rinsing, once your perm had ‘taken’, its smell permeated the house for ages. When the man of the house came home from work, he knew immediately what the women had been up to. For women it was fun, a time to chat and drink tea and not worry about the housework or ironing for a few hours.
In complete contrast, around the sixties, the beehive made an appearance, in response to the fashion for big hair. Back-combed and lacquered into a tall helmet on top of the head, it was fixed with a great number of hairgrips into a long pleat at the back. It gained popularity when gorgeous Audrey Hepburn wore the style in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Girls suddenly became statuesque, often wearing high stiletto heels as well as the additional height on top. Husbands and boyfriends complained if their partners were taller than themselves.
Carmen Rollers and Cilla Black
If your hair wasn’t long enough for a beehive, then a bouffant style was the next best thing, achieved by the use of large rollers blasted with heat to set the style in place, before being sprayed liberally with hair lacquer. Many women’s Christmas lists had a set of Carmen Heated Rollers at the top. The young Cilla Black’s hair was an example of the perfect bouffant. Since those days, there have been many notable hair fashions, including the glorious Afro that had to be poked out into a huge halo with a special wide-toothed comb. Mostly hair was high maintenance, requiring time and money to meet the fashion requirements of the period.
Probably the most maligned hairstyle ever was the mullet – short and spiky on top and long, untidy layers over the collar, popular in the ’70s and ’80s. Today, with expert hairdressing techniques, a good cut and a pair of straightening irons, hair is mostly hassle-free. We don’t need to worry about the wind flattening our hairdo anymore, or about sleeping awkwardly with pins of wiry curlers sticking into our scalps. Its wonderful to have good hair without sacrificing our sleep for our looks.