“Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair,” Karl Lagerfeld famously said. History proved him right: across time, standards and ideals of beauty have changed dramatically. It so happens that the ideal look of the moment tells us a lot about a society’s levels of progress and morality.
Was the first fashion icon prehistoric? Many similar-looking statuettes, probably shaped by the hand of man some 25,000 years ago, depict femininity with unusual characteristics: large hips, oversized body and bust, but small arms and head. Those features underline fertility and health, as well as sexuality – during an era when reproducing one’s species was a top priority. Perhaps they were subjects of worship or the earliest forms of erotic art; we don’t know for sure. Yet, those classic figures of ‘mother goddesses’ carry an ideal of beauty that is maternal, plump and healthy.
Then, throughout Antiquity, a wide range of artisanal cosmetics was introduced: to that extent, Ancient Egyptians certainly pioneered beauty treatments. Scented baths, balms made out of Nile silt, kohl-blushed eyes, henna-varnished fingernails… The northern half of the Mediterranean would soon adopt those techniques, too. Ancient Greeks did not so much favor make-up, though – sometimes considered a way to conceal oneself. But they believed physical beauty was associated to a certain degree of morality, and the other way around: hence the famous expression kalos kagathos, ‘what is beautiful is good’. This is probably the reason why ancient societies were suspicious of malformed children (who sometimes got buried with heavy stones to prevent resurrection into vampires).
As Christianism washed over Western Europe, a new face of beauty emerged – one that was pious, dignified and somewhat austere – modelled on the traits of the Virgin Mary. Philosopher Thomas Aquinas understood beauty as the sum of three distinct qualities: integritas (wholeness), consonantia (proportionality) and claritas (radiance). The Book of Henoch (VIII, 1) went even further, considering make-up a devilish art:
“And Azâzêl taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures.”
Azazel was the leader of the Fallen Angels who, according to the Bible, descended upon Earth and corrupted humanity; God then punished them with the Great Flood – the world’s first large-scale make-up remover.
Despite the many stereotypes it is associated with, medieval hygiene underwent dramatic (and positive) changes – latrines got more and more widespread, sewers were dug as soon as the 13th century, one would systematically wash one’s hands before eating, and bathing was very common (especially in public baths, one of the most lasting legacies of the Roman Empire). People went as far as chewing raw cardamom for fresh breath!
Although Church authorities denounced cosmetics-enhanced beauty, it also banned public bathing on grounds of promiscuity and immorality. (It was also said bathhouses were home to deadly epidemics… and prostitutes, too.) Meanwhile, medieval battles opened the Western world to Eastern beauty treatments, such as when the Crusaders brought back the essentials of Muslim toiletry: various oils, labdanum, myrrh or lead sulphide. The first medical tracts also covered the issue: one of its earliest-known specimens, the Kitab al-Tasrif encyclopedia written by Abulcasis in the 10th century, notably offered advice on how to prevent hair loss, or included recipes of homemade lipstick. (Ancient Egyptians used crushed insects to shade their lips red, while Chinese communities used beeswax.)
As the Renaissance era slowly but surely knocked at the doors of Europe, canons of beauty evolved again, featuring bodies with idealized proportions – such as the one immortalized by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Beauty became synonymous with geometrical, mathematical harmony. Portraits were not anymore the aristocrats’ prerogative, as it democratized and gave birth to ‘femmes fatales’ such as Mona Lisa or Botticelli’s Venus. Symbols of artificial, ‘falsified’ beauty were burnt at the stake during so-called ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. The most famous of these events, organized by Savonarola in 1497 on the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, saw the destruction of thousands of cosmetics, jewels, dresses, mirrors, as well as numerous books and portraits of Cleopatra and Lucretia. Ancient beauty was set alight.
Nevertheless, as gaps between social classes widened, standards of beauty became the favored tool to distinguish oneself from so-called ‘inferior’ classes. Throughout the 17th century, nobles and aristocrats made sure to show their “blue blood” (from the Spanish sangre azul, from which the term was first coined) thanks to a pale and thin skin through which one could see the veins. At the time, being tan was not synonymous with beauty – the rough, thick and tanned skin was that of peasants and outside workers. Some women from upper classes used Venetian ceruse to whiten their traits… Maria Coventry, a notorious 18th-century beauty, bore the cost of such a treatment made of white lead, when she died of blood poisoning at the age of 27.
When the French Revolution broke out, people witnessed a comeback to ‘natural’ beauty: long and loose hair, less refinement in dresses or jewelry… (Women notably asked for freedom of movement, a rallying cry initiated, ironically, by Marie-Antoinette.) Artificial beauty had become an exterior sign of enslavement. Laurels replaced flowers: beauty had turned egalitarian, and undoubtedly democratic. In 1793, Joséphine Fontanier, who was still a teenager at the time, expressed that spirit of ‘free beauty’ when she stirred up the revolutionary crowd in these terms:
“Ah, citizens, how can you aspire to the name of republicans, if you still think that beauty is the chief quality of a woman? […] Let us view with scorn, or rather with compassion, these frivolous women, these ephemeral beings who only know and only wish to dazzle. […] No more frivolous ideas for us; indifferent henceforth to the color of a ribbon, to the fineness of a gauze, to the shape or the price of our earrings, our virtues will be all our finery and our children will be our jewels.”
Can we still describe our current societies’ ideal of beauty as ‘democratic’? The two centuries that followed the French Revolution brought innovations that popularized representations of beauty: cinema, T.V., advertising employed fashion muses to promote themselves. Decades later, we have inherited a poster-like vision of beauty, glamorous and sexy, feeding a growing cosmetics industry worth billions of dollars.
In the process, we may have forgotten the various and changing traits the term ‘beautiful’ was once associated with: both natural and artificial, discreet and flashy, obliged and unbridled, thin and chubby. Every version of beauty – including, obviously, your own – was once recognized for its originality and uniqueness. Let’s hope, then, that our modern conception of beauty – standard, aseptic, photoshopped with nothing left to hide – is to welcome, too, this wonderful diversity.
- Dominique Paquet, Miroir, mon beau miroir : une histoire de la beauté (1997), Gallimard Découvertes.
- Umberto Eco (dir.), Histoire de la beauté (2004), Flammarion.
- Dominique Godineau, The Women of Paris and their French Revolution (1998), University of California Press.
- Dr. Luisa María Arvide Cambra, “Medieval Recipes for Treatment of Hair Contained in ihe Kitab Al-Tasrif”, Saudi Journal of Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
- Francis Ames-Lewis, Mary Rogers, Concepts of Beauty in Renaissance Art (2012), Routledge.
- Laure Verdon, Idées reçues sur le Moyen-Âge (2014), Le Cavalier Bleu Editions.