The ancient Egyptians became synonymous with makeup, and their influence is still felt today. Why did the Egyptians wear cosmetics?
Ancient Egyptians wore makeup and other cosmetic items for aesthetic, practical, and religious reasons. Many of the items worn by Egyptians, such as oils and creams, were beneficial to the skin. Eye-paint was considered so important that a person should be wearing it when meeting the gods in the afterlife.
For more on the ancient Egyptians, their love of makeup, and practical reasons for wearing it, read on.
While there were undoubtedly aesthetic reasons for the ancient Egyptians wearing makeup, there were also practical reasons for applying it.
Kohl, which the Egyptians wore around their eyes, was a toxic substance but was believed to have had anti-bacterial effects when worn on the face. Wearing kohl around the eyes might also have helped reduce the glare from the sun, similar to how football and baseball players wear eye black today.
Similar logic applied to the various oils and creams used by the ancient Egyptians, which helped soften the effects of Egypt’s intense heat and harsh sunlight. Creams were also used to moisturize the skin and slow the appearance of wrinkles.
Egyptians used cosmetics throughout the history of ancient Egypt, from the Predynastic Period of circa 6000 BCE to the Muslim conquest of Roman Egypt in 646 CE.
Cosmetics were not restricted to the upper classes and men and women both wore cosmetic items. The most highly respected professionals applied their craft in creating cosmetic items for the wealthier members of Egyptian society, selling them in marketplaces. For those who couldn’t afford such luxuries, it was possible to make lower quality items at home.
Makeup was worn throughout the day but both the makeup and wig were removed when a person returned home in the evening. People bathed before their evening meals, meaning they were at their most natural while eating their final meal of the day.
The importance that was placed on personal appearance and hygiene in ancient Egypt extended into the religious. The Book of the Dead stipulated that a person must be well presented when entering the afterlife, including wearing eye makeup. Cosmetic items were frequently placed in tombs to accompany people on their journey into the afterlife.
As a result, creating cosmetics was a highly respected profession in ancient Egyptian society. Professionals were held in high regard but those who created sub-par cosmetics would not only suffer damage to their reputation, they feared judgment in the eyes of the gods.
Ancient Egypt had a clearly defined vision of the afterlife and strict rules about how a person needed to prepare for their journey, both before and after their death. Makeup was worn as a sign of status and for aesthetic reasons but it was also considered highly important that a person should be at their most presentable when making their journey to the afterlife.
As death could come at any time, people were expected to look at their finest whenever possible. After dying, the appearance of their physical body was no longer in their hands, but we see from the process of mummification that the treatment of a person’s remains was considered extremely important in Egyptian society. As in life, however, mummification was a luxury that few could afford.
Wigs and Tattoos
Like makeup, there were practical reasons for wearing wigs in ancient Egypt. Headlice were a common problem. This led to many people keeping their hair short or completely shaved and wearing a wig instead.
This is a common thread through ancient Egyptian style and trends; many choices made for stylistic reasons also served a double purpose for health or religious reasons.
Just as people might style their hair differently depending on the occasion, those who could afford multiple wigs would use them for different purposes. For the most important or exclusive events, a person might wear a wig braided with gems or other jewelry.
The lower classes, on the other hand, made do with wigs made from plants or just shaved their heads entirely and shaded their head with a cover.
Tattoos were decorative in ancient Egypt but they also had religious significance. Historical evidence suggests that, during the New Kingdom era, dancers and prostitutes would be tattooed with an image of Bes, the deity who protected against evil. This tattoo, it was hoped, would reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.